The Art of Making French Bread

International Herald Tribune

May 12, 1970

French bread is something of a wonder to Americans, whose own standardized, industrialized, vitamin-enriched white foam has been described by James Baldwin as "blasphemy." French bread is made by hard-working artisans who sell it hot out of the oven, its crunchy crust undefiled by cellophane or plastic. Only human hands touch it – the baker's and the buyer's.

But the French are not easily satisfied. They grumble incessantly about their bread, mostly to the effect of how good it was before the war. This may seem like quibbling to Americans but the French are right. Science and industry have also taken over bread in France and only a few bakers put up any serious resistance.

The foremost is without a doubt Pierre Poilâne. His 4-pound loaves have made the celebrity rounds from the cinema studios of Boulogne to the Elysée Palace. Stone-ground flour, sour-dough leavening, wood-fire baking and Mr. Poilâne's own shrewd genius have made his bread a status symbol.

While other bakers suffer from a diminishing French appetite for bread (today, Frenchmen eat less than a quarter as much bread as they did at the turn of the century), he is baking over 15 tons a week.

Still, there are a few bakers who use today's ultra-white and ultra-tasteless flour and still manage to put out something that reminds Frenchmen of the bread they used to eat before science achieved ubiquity. One of the best of these is Jean Chanrion, a stocky young baker and pastry-maker of exceptional talent.

"In the old days they had better flour. They had better wheat to begin with. It's the same with wine. If you produce too many grapes per vineyard, you get a lot of wine but it has no taste. Modern agriculture produces too much wheat per acre for it to have any taste. Modern milling procedures also make flour so pure there's nothing left to it but starch and gluten," Mr. Chanrion said.

"It used to take five hours to get dough ready for baking. First the flour, water, salt and yeast were kneaded in a mechanical kneader for 15 minutes. Then it was allowed to ferment for three to four hours. When it was ready the baker formed the loaves and allowed them to rise for another hour before baking them.

"About ten years ago high-speed kneaders appeared and changed everything," Mr. Charion explained. "The dough was kneaded for up to 25 minutes at high speed but only allowed to rise for a quarter of an hour or so before being formed into loaves. These continued to rise for another couple of hours before baking.

"You can see why this system is popular. It takes only about half as long as the old one. But the rising is so forced that you have to add a pill of ascorbic acid (vitamin C) to keep the dough from collapsing.

"Originally, kneading was done to make dough smooth, not to make it rise," he noted. Fast kneading heats the dough and not only provokes rising but oxidizes and blanches the dough. This goes along with the mania for snow-white bread, but it also takes the taste out of it and 20 percent more salt has to be added to give it any taste at all. It also produces a bread that dries out very fast."

Mr. Chanrion's way of making bread is something of a return to ancient methods adapted to modern materials. It takes six hours but it produces a naturally tasty bread that does not dry out in half a day. His bread has no need of chemical additives.

"Slow fermentation gives taste to bread. The flour, water, yeast and salt are mixed together and ferment for three or four hours. Then it is kneaded for only 15 minutes, first at normal speed and then a high speed.

"It rises for another half-hour before the loaves are formed, and these rise for as much as two hours before going into the over."

The result, it might be added, smells and tastes like real bread, costs no more, and his success in the quartier speaks for itself.