On Monday and Wednesday of last week, I finished my internship at Lou Cigalou Boulangerie. As on the first day, I woke up at 4:30 a.m. to watch the baker, Nicolas, bake the day’s bread and prepare the following day’s dough. Although I occasionally stepped in to lend a hand, I found that it wasn’t so easy to jump in to his established rhythm. So I mostly took notes, snapped photographs, and chatted with Nicolas about life as a baker.
We got to talking about Nicolas’ beginnings, and I learned that he decided to become a baker while helping his mother make cakes at home. He began training at a bakery around age 16, and by the end of high school had spent more hours there than at school. After passing his exams, Nicolas traveled to Florida and Guadeloupe for several months before settling down in the French Alps. When he met his wife, Céline, on a train through the Côte d’Azur, they moved to Bédoin to open Lou Cigalou and start a family.
Though Nicolas realized his dream of becoming a baker, it didn’t come without a price. The last fifteen years have been taxing on his family life. Nicolas and Céline work long hours throughout the year to earn a modest living, with Nicolas baking bread during the night and Céline running the bakery and waitressing tables during the day (Lou Cigalou is also a cafe). A large percentage of their earnings goes towards taxes, and they can only afford to hire a helper a couple hours per day. Since their income is based entirely on the amount of work they put in, they work six days out of the week and during holidays. Nicolas told me that he takes one week of vacation for every six years he works.
According to Nicolas, la fabrication du pain artisanal (artisanal bread-making) is a dying art in France. More people are buying their bread from supermarkets and franchises, where baguettes can cost as low as 45 cents. Thirty years ago, one could make a good living as a baker, Nicolas told me. But today- between the long hours, scant income, and competition from large corporations- a handful of boulangeries go out of business per week. The salary one makes as a baker barely compensates for the money, time, and energy it takes to make bread and run a bakery. Nicolas said that one of the bakeries in our town will be closing in September, and he himself plans to sell Lou Cigalou in a few years to work as a store clerk. When I asked if either of his children were interested in baking or if they might pick up the business, he shook his head and said gravely, “Je l’interdis.” “I forbid it.”
That took me by surprise. I knew being a baker was difficult, but I didn’t realize it was so demanding as to stop a baker from teaching his children to bake. I figured that since French bread is so good, it must be a booming industry. Maybe for boulangeries in the big cities that can sell bread for double the price, said Nicholas, but not for one in a small town in the countryside.
It made me sad to hear Nicolas sound so defeated and matter-of-fact about the direction his life’s work is going. As someone who has recently taken up bread baking as a hobby, the possibilities feel new and exciting. I see it as a creative outlet in which one can experiment and err and invent to arrive at breads that are uniquely one’s own. But for someone like Nicolas, who earns his living by baking breads that satisfy his customers’ tastes, it must be an exhausting and monotonous task.
We didn’t spend the entire morning dwelling on Nicolas’ gloomy future, however. At some point the conversation turned, inevitably, to the difference between America and France- or more specifically, the difference between American and French bread. Nicolas was curious to learn about bread from the perspective of an American- What does American bread taste like? Do I prefer French bread over American bread?
When I assured him that French bread is much tastier than American bread- which, save for bread made by artisanal bakeries, is packaged and bland- it seemed to cheer him up. Even if the art of artisanal bread baking is dying in France, there’s no doubt that the French are extremely proud of their bread (as well as their wine, cheese, language, traditions, etc.). They take pride in the fact that their bread is made of natural ingredients and not spoiled by sweeteners, preservatives, or GMOs. And why shouldn’t they be? They’ve worked hard to preserve the traditional methods of bread baking, and their bread is some of the best in the world, after all.
On the last day of my internship, I rose extra early to watch Nicolas bake his pastries. When I arrived at the bakery a little after 3 a.m., Nicolas had already shaped the pain aux raisins (raisin bread), brioche, chaussons aux pommes (apple turnovers), and pain aux amandes (almond croissants). The dough for the croissants and pain au chocolat (chocolate bread), he confessed, had been purchased beforehand from another bakery. Nicolas stores the dough in the freezer and bakes it fresh each morning because he can’t afford the time or help to make fresh croissants. But everything else- the baguettes, boules, cakes, brioches, tarts, pizzas, flatbreads, and more- are made by Nicolas at Lou Cigalou.
As Nicolas prepared the pastries, I took copious notes about rising times, the temperature of the oven, proportions of various ingredients, and more. Later, Nicolas was kind enough to lend me his baking book, complete with the basics of baking, chemical reactions, and his master recipes. I soon came to realize that, like his bread, many of Nicolas’ pastries are variations on the same theme. His brioche, pain aux raisins, and couronne des rois (king’s cake), for example, are all made using brioche dough. Brioche itself comes in many forms- plain, with sugar, or with sugar and chocolate. Leftover croissants are sliced in half, filled with an almond paste, and topped with sliced almonds to make a variation of the almond croissant.
I stayed at the bakery until Nicolas finished baking his pastries. As with his bread, I noticed that he used his senses and experience to judge when the pastries were done. With the emergence of each pastry from the oven came the heavenly and mouth-watering scent of sugar and butter. I wondered if being a baker for a living was really that bad if it entailed smelling freshly baked goods every morning. “It’s the best part of the job,” Nicolas told me with a grin, as if guessing my thoughts.
Before leaving the bakery, I thanked Nicolas for his time and generosity. He smiled and wished me luck on my way out, but not before handing me a bag of freshly baked croissants.