On a blustery Tuesday last week, I awoke at 4:30 a.m. to start my first internship at Lou Cigalou Boulangerie in Bédoin.
When I arrived in town, the streets were dark and deserted. The bakery provided one of the only lights, and the first thing I noticed upon stepping inside was the aroma of freshly baked bread.
Moments later, I was greeted by the baker himself, Monsieur Nicolas Versino. Short, stout, and with a smile that makes one feel immediately at ease, Nicolas is your typical French village baker. He and his wife, Celine, have been running Lou Cigalou for over a decade, and before that Nicolas was the head pastry chef at a bakery in the Alpine town of Chamonix.
After grabbing my notebook, camera, and an apron, I followed the scent of baking bread to a room in the back where Nicolas was prepping the day’s pain ordinaire, or ordinary French bread. The room, which was toasty and warm, featured a commercial oven, walk-in refrigerators, a dough mixer, scales, a loaf shaper, linen cloths, bags of flour, plastic bins, sifters, and many other pieces of equipment.
I watched as Nicolas cleaned the oven using a long wooden broom and removed a cartload of leavened baguettes from the refrigerator. As he placed each loaf onto a baking sheet, Nicolas explained that the term pain ordinaire includes a wide range of French breads composed of the same basic ingredients: flour, water, yeast, salt, and natural improvers such as rye flour or ascorbic acid. From there, variations in dough consistency, shape, size, rising techniques, and baking time yield nuances in flavour, appearance, and texture. As an example, Nicolas pointed out that a baguette is distinguished by its rounded edges, crisp crust, and light crumb. A ficelle is a skinnier and longer version of a baguette, while a boule is a round loaf that stays fresh longer and is marked by two crossed slashes.
After lining each baking sheet with thirty or more loaves, Nicolas proceeded to inject steam from the oven onto the loaves. Doing so gives the bread its golden crust and helps it to rise in the oven, he told me. As each batch of bread baked, for roughly twenty minutes, Nicolas began preparation on the next batch. He moved with the quick speed and steady precision of a professional, relying not on a timer but rather on years of experience and his senses– sight, smell, and touch– to judge when the bread was ready.
A few times during his routine, Nicolas stepped back to let me try my hand at bread-making. He showed me how to place the loaves onto the baking sheet using a wooden board, to make slanted cuts in the loaves with a razor blade, and to pick up freshly baked loaves by the palms of my hands. I was surprised how difficult it was to do what Nicolas made appear like the simplest of tasks. I struggled to hold the razor blade at the correct angle, burned my fingers numerous times, and moved at a tortoise-like pace. Nicolas was sympathetic, but explained that a baker must always move rapidly to avoid burning his bread.
Like most village bakers, Nicolas makes his dough one day in advance so that it has time to leaven. For the last two hours of my internship, I mostly observed as Nicolas and his assistant, Jean-Christophe, prepared the following day’s bread. I watched as they mixed a 50 kilo batch of whole-wheat dough in a commercial mixing machine, cut it into uniform pâtons or pieces of dough, and shaped it into loaves to be used the following day. Jean-Christophe showed me how to make a boule by folding the edges of the dough into the center, flipping it over, and rounding it on the table in a circular motion. As before, I had to work much more slowly and deliberately to produce a boule as neat as the baker’s. Finally, I helped to place the shaped loaves onto linen cloths by separating each loaf by a loop of cloth.
By the end of the morning, my hands, apron, and shoes were dusted with flour. My head was spinning from all the new information, and I found myself yawning more than once. I wondered how someone could do this kind of work day after day and stay sane.
For Nicolas, though, the winter months are the easiest. They’re what he calls, “a moment of calm.” During the winter, the day’s batch is limited to modest quantities of baguettes, country-style bread, whole wheat bread, crown loaves, enriched breads such as brioche, and more. Nicolas begins working at 2 a.m. to make croissants, brioches, pain aux raisins, pain au chocolat, and other pastries. He bakes the previous day’s bread dough around 5 a.m, prepares the dough for the following day, and is more or less finished by sunrise.
Things start to pick up around April with the Easter holidays, and by summer the bakery produces hundreds of loaves of more than 25 varieties to accommodate the tourists that arrive. At the height of the season, Nicolas can work up to 70 hours per week in temperatures of 100 degrees Fahrenheit or higher.
Needless to say, being a baker is no easy task. Even with use of the commercial mixers, loaf shapers, and other modern equipment, it’s a job that requires a great deal of physical labor, skill, and patience. Not to mention, a passion for doing the same thing over and over again.