Monday, 9 September 2013

The French Bakery

The Best Bread in France
It’s taken me several attempts to start to write.  I suppose having taken the whole summer off I feel almost rusty. My fingers feel slightly out of touch with the keyboard and as I am writing about both my summer in France and my childhood experiences in a French bakery.  For some reason I am feeling oddly vulnerable sharing both my holiday and my childhood helping in a bakery in France. It feels deeply personal to be writing about a place that is a large part of who I am.

I read Paul Hollywood’s vivid account of his very first memory baking bread in this week’s Telegraph.  I am sorry to say I have no such memory.  Bread is so much part of my childhood it is as though it was always there, so I am afraid there is no such first time account.

Boulangerie Janet in Nadaillac, France
When I was very young my mother used to make soda bread. It was damp, slightly green and smelt of of sour milk and soda.  I’m not sure I appreciated it very much.  I remember pleading with a boy at school to swap the chunky wholemeal soda bread and cheese lunch my mum had lovingly made for me for his flaccid limp white marmite ones. He was not persuaded.

When my parents bought a house in the Dordogne I was just nine. It was late spring and I remember looking in delight at the yellow cowslips peeking out from the verges as we drove into the village.  We didn’t go the house as we first arrived weary and hungry after a fourteen hour drive.  We went to the hotel, where Jeano, the Frenchest of Frenchmen and his family welcomed us. The restaurant was full of locals eating delicious smelling food, drinking Pernod and red wine.  The potage, the juice from the steaks and the cheese were scooped up with crusty white sourdough bread from baskets piled high on the tables. The bread smelt slightly of woodsmoke.  I remember eating the bread thinking that the soft white interior was the best bread I'd ever had.   My brother and I fed carrots to the rabbits in cages, little realising their final destany

It got dark quickly and a slim dark boy called Bertrand showed me the tree in the square. He chatted to me in the most beautiful language.  I hadn't a clue what he was saying but we stood under a huge oak tree outside the church, which is sadly no longer there, but I was captivated by all things french from that moment to this day. 

Une Courant. 
It didn’t take long for the local children to find my brother and I and after just two or three holidays we were given the run of the village with the other children. It was the most perfect childhood. There were people everywhere. Farmers drove their tractors through the narrow streets, women tended their vegetable gardens, chickens scratched about unconcerned by the dogs, who barked at strangers and chased cats.  Morris our neighbour would wander past twice a day with his four cows and the three village shops stocked a range of never seen before sweets such a carembars, but the best bit for me was the bakery. 

I soon made friends with Noel, who has four strapping boys.  Perhaps because she had no daughter, or perhaps because I was so interested in everything she did in her kitchen she spent hours teaching me to speak French. I affectionately call her my French mum and her youngest son Eric I call my cousin. I love her wry humour, patience and affection.  (We've been scouting around al the brocontes together buying French treasure, visiting the market at Terrasson an generally laughing, gossiping and eating - it's been so good to catch up. )

The bakery is known to be 150 years old but it probably older
Bu the time I was twelve I spoke better French then my parents and would find myself translating for them. Even now I count myself incredibly lucky to have such amazing parents and smile as I remember creeping past their bedroom in the early hours, out into the night to the bakery. 

I used to think that it was the smell of the sourdough bread that woke me up, but having been woken up almost every night this summer I now know it was not the smell of baking bread that woke me at all.. it was the smell of the wood smoke as the oven was lit. The wisps of smoke wind out of the chimney over the roof tops, curl under the shutters of my bedroom whispering an invitation into my dreams and promising fresh baked bread in the morning.

Thinking back now I would have been about eleven when I first woke up and decided to crept out of bed and down to the bakery.  The baker was happy to let me help and I spent every summer until he left when I was about fifteen.

I swept the floor, brushed the croissants with egg and milk and brushed the hot loaves off as they came out of the oven, and as I got older helped knead and shape the bread. The smell was heavenly and the warmth of the bakery was enough to make me brave walking down the black unlit alleyway to get there.  The church clock would chime, just as it does now, and I’d while away from 3am until the morning when the sun would come up and I was allowed to serve the villagers their bread.

The same recipe has been used since the 1950's as Laurent passed his recipe on to Herve in 1988 
This summer Herve, who bought the bakery in 1988, welcomed me back.  The bakery shut for a year or so and the original owner trained him in his way of making bread. By the time I was in my late teens all the children I’d grown up with in the village would go night clubbing together and on the way home we’d stop and buy warm bread from Herve. We’d all sit drinking coffee and smoking our cigarettes, still slightly drunk, whilst eating warm buttery croissants and fresh crusty bread until the sun came up and then we'd all sleep until after lunch.

Thirty years on I relived waking to the smell of wood smoke.  I crept out of the house in the early hours, only this time it was my children I was trying not to wake. The same irrational fear sat in the pit of my stomach, even though cows a long gone, as I walked along the black alleyway again, and the same feeling of absolute joy was there as I walked under the orange street lights and into the warmth of the bakery. 

The alley way isn't scary during the day .. but when it's dark, trust me,  it's spooky. 
This summer my own children found me in the bakery first thing in the morning. I have no doubt that they saw glimpses of the eleven year old me, eyes shining, covered in flour and chatting to the locals as I once did. I seemed to connect with them as they fell in love with my village. I’m not sure I’ve ever been so happy as I have this summer.

Herve still uses the same sourdough recipe for his bread and bakes it in the same oven that has been used since 1950. He's an amazing baker.  Nowadays most of the business is hotels and restaurants, although some of the older residents still buy their bread early in the morning.  The hotel is now the distribution point for the bread and Herve delivers bread all over the area as he bakes over 200 large loaves a night.

I can’t thank Herve enough for having me back, sharing his sourdough method, recipe, techniques and advice.  Of course I have brought back the “chef,” starter so I’m now baking my bread with my French starter from the bakery. I will spend rest of the year making sourdough and telling my students about the bakery and return to the village again next year for the summer .. and treasure the time I spent there.

Isobel helping Jordan brush the flour off the hot loaves.  She wants to be a baker too she told me. x


  1. what a perfect summer, and such gorgeous memories you have.

    Cooking and baking is without doubt, deep in your bones and soul.

    Love this post. Thank you for sharing.

  2. What a magical place,'s easy to see why you love it so much, even from this short but delightfully evocative taster! I'm so happy you had a great relaxing makes all the difference! Thrilled to have you back, though! Much love xx

  3. How lovely to read about your past in the Dordogne and how it is now. You must have had wonderful summers and I am sure your bread making skills are even better now!

  4. What a lovely story. How delightful that your children can share your childhood memories. The bread looks marvelous.
    I think nothing beats holidays in France, my 8 year old was out in the boat helping to haul up (and bait) lobster pots. She'll always understand that to produce wonderful food is hard but rewarding work and worth the effort.

  5. Beautifully written post, Vanessa. So lovely to have you back and really great to hear all about your wonderful French summer - re-connecting and re-tracing childhood steps. It is magical when that happens, especially at a time in your life when things suddenly start to make sense and pieces of the jigsaw come together.

  6. What an enchanting way to learn to make bread - and how incredibly poignant that you are able to go back time and time again and relive such wonderful childhood memories and experiences. The village looks beautiful - so perfectly French - it reminds me of why we almost settled in France before moving to Norfolk. I was searching for just this type of rural ideal to bring up my children, but fear of it not turning out like my romantic imaginings (or as my husband says "common sense!") led me closer to home! So glad that you're back - looking forward to your beautiful posts.
    Paula x

  7. So pleased you did choose to share these memories. Beautifully written... and photographed - I was almost with you as you sneaked out of the house to the bakery early each morning.

  8. How deliciously beautiful. I can smell the tang of the sourdough and hear the chatter in the bakery. Thank you for such a beautiful word portrait. And thank you for reminding me I need to feed my starter!

  9. What a perfect way to learn to make bread and learn a new language at the same time. Sounds like heaven to me.


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