Thursday, December 13, 2012

Bread baking behind the scenes - a visit of Au Pain d'Antan with chef Alex

For this week's Thursday Food for Thought post, chef Alex Dreyer of Cook'n With Class takes us on a working visit at a local Montmartre boulangerie that has stood the test of time. Nothing fancy here, just good bread and a long day of hard work. If you've ever wondered what goes into those wonderful French breads and pastries you've stocked up on during your trips to France, you'll want to read Alex's colorful account. 

The morning started out in front of a boulangerie on the corner of a small round point in Montmartre at 2:30 am, while other folks who were a bit tipsy were making their ways slowly home. I knocked on the door and he opened up, just as about as tired as me, and welcomed me into his home for a coffee.

After a quick chat, waking up a bit, and him showing me around his house, we shook of the last bit of tired and headed downstairs to a place where bread had been made since 1843.

This amazing piece of history is the theatre of chef, Sylvain. He is the work force, HR manager, engineer, construction worker, owner, and designer. He really does everything himself. I thought I was going to learn some recipes so I brought my pen and paper, but not only did I not have time to write, there were no recipes. My French is ok, and some say good. But the only thing he said for the most part is: "you put that there, you add a bit of that, now we do this, then this, stop that, ok that's good, like this, then we take it like this, then that." In about 9 hours of straight work, these where the only words that came from him.

We started by making the pain de campagne. This is French country bread and is a staple in the bakeries throughout France. It is a mix of enriched wheat flour and a bit of whole wheat. We started by filling a huge mixer from the 1950's with a bag and a half of flour (40 kilos) then with about 4 buckets of water. We mixed in a few handfuls of salt and 3 bricks of yeast (1.5 kilos). After mixing only for a few minutes, he said something that I later found out to mean its not good, then told me to add some more flour. He adjusted it until it pleased him and then he just let it sit.

The importance of this great quality flour is that you just need to let it work, so over the process of then next few hours we didn't mix the dough that much, but it took it's shape all by itself. He then took out a few hundred each of the various pastries [he had previously assembled], such as croissants, pain au chocolate, and pain aux raisins from the fridge to let them rise. All the while on the other two smaller mixers I started the baguette dough and the pain de mie (regular white bread). Then on to the brioche, which had 2 cool shapes, one being ring shaped. When I turned my head he was spinning one in each hand, then in seconds they were in the rack and proofing away.

He said two things that I thought were very important. One was that you should always work with two hands which clearly he does very well. He says, if you work with two hands, you are working as fast as two other guys. From my own personal experience, this guy works as fast as five guys. His second point was about the pain aux raisins: If I translated it literally it was something like "you can't make fun of the clients"(on peut pas se moquer des clients), meaning you can't take advantage of the clients. We put as many raisins as you could fit in a pain aux raisins, likewise for the chocolate in the pain au chocolat.  In his opinion, a lot of people don't use enough, so he gives his clients the real deal with a lot in it. Nothing to hide. And if someone doesn't like it, he is confident in what he does and doesn't care.

We moved into shaping while starting another four doughs and he and I raced while shaping our first round of baguettes. Always working with two hands. We did about 300 in 20 mins!

After this, the rest of the morning was a blur of shaping and dough making. Rye, regular baguettes, traditional baguettes, walnut, charpentier, whole wheat, cracked wheat, Fougasse, bacon and cheese. . . . . . .

When we got to the last of the loaves, it was time to heat up the oven. The over 150 year old brick oven with a small metal portal was once heated only with wood. Now it is amazingly heated by the biggest flame thrower I've ever seen. It is a gas mechanism that is on a swinging arm. When lit, it blasts a massive 6-foot flame into the oven. 15 minutes to each side and 15 in the middle. After this the oven is closed to evenly distribute heat, then by hand with 15 feet long pizza peels, the largest loaves are put to the back and everything is piled in one at a time till the smaller loaves come very close to the front. After the small loafs are cooked, everything is judged to proper cooking time, and sent upstairs. The larger loaves take more time, but in the end all are magnificent. All this activity took place between 6 and 7 am. We repeated it again 10 am. Make sure it's understood that repeated means we did all the making and shaping again, mainly the rye bread because it takes longer to make, from start to finish. We did around 600 loaves that day.

It was a great experience to understand what work and craftsmanship goes into such a great piece of history 6 days a week.

Enjoy the bread at this historical landmark 6 days a week. And thank you Chef Alex for taking us along for the ride.

Au Pain d'Antan

2 rue Eugène Sue
Paris 75018
Tel: 01 42 64 71 78


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  1. I have put this in my Paris favourites, I do a list of new places I would like to visit , . I hardly visit museums, .. just shops :-)


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