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Tuesday, August 9, 2011

How a French Baker is Born: Compagnon du Devoir

Close your eyes.
Tear off a piece of your baguette or batard.
Taste it. 
Does it call to mind cream or butter? 
The fields of wheat where it began?
The oven fire where it was born? 
Can you conjure up an image of the baker who formed it?


Fassy Boulangerie, Provence


In France, the Compagnon du Devoir is the ancient guild that trains many of France’s most respected craftsman. This encompasses such varied fields as gold smiths and masons -- and of course the one specialty that piques my interest so divinely - the trade of the Boulanger, the bread bakers.

To become a Master Baker – a Maître Boulanger – takes a total of about seven years. They participate in what is known as the Tour de France.  This is a seven year program where the young apprentices travel to various boulangeries and spend time working, sweating, and crafting the various specialty breads of the department

The Compagnon thrives even today due to the careful nourishing of the rigorous program by the Master Boulangers around the country. This is very much like the care and feeding required to maintain a levain, the sourdough bread starter – it feels like a miracle and a blessing.

What was it about the subject of being a talmelier, a bread apprentice, that was so compelling? I think it was a number of things.

1. The sensual nature of the heavy intense work. The kneading, the fire, the aromas.

2. The community of bakers, living and baking together in an intimate connection. A sort of "all for one, one for all" type of commitment. 

3. In the Sixteenth century it was forbidden for a woman to pursue this field. 

4. And then a connection to my own mother who was a doctor. She started the wheels (perhaps the wheels of pastry?) turning early. She shared countless stories about her journey through medical school and of being a woman in a man's profession.  This encouraged me to go to the Culinary Institute of America. 

When doing research for my manuscript, City of Ladies, I reached out to Maître Boulanger Lionel Vatinet, of La Farm Bakery in Cary, North Carolina. He and his wife, Missy, were very open and willing to share his experiences in the Guild.  Missy shared what it was like to listen in as a woman and a wife, letting me know that there is still a lot of resistance to woman infiltrating the ranks of the Compagnon brotherhood. Then came the day when, through Lionel, I was able to offer a glance behind the boulanger's table at Eric Kayser’s in Paris to our eager Teen-Chefs.


in Paris at Eric Kaiser's, mixing

I am still enamored of bakers.  The hours they work are during most of the world's dreaming time. I love that! I suppose I sense a parallel connecting the deep history of the baking craft and the pursuit of writing.  

At least in my book! 




at Eric Kaiser's sampling

And what a simple pleasure it is to support these skilled artisans.  Eat bread! Good crusty bread! For even in France there is a danger of breads being produced by factories. Yes, it is hard to imagine that even the quintessential icon of France, French bread, is in danger.

I invite you to visit this tres fantastique video of boulangers working on their trade from the Compagnon.


An especially interesting note is that women are appearing and rumored nearly ready to be sworn in as the first Master Bakers, Maître Boulangers.

Teen-Chefs at Poilane, Paris

So please tell me. 
Would you be able to tell if a baguette was made by a man or a woman?
And how would it differ?

2 comments:

  1. I wanna go!

    Jon Lodge

    ReplyDelete
  2. Hi Jon, Thanks for commenting! By all means - climb aboard! What do you think made France such an expert on bread-baking?

    ReplyDelete

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