France is known for baguettes.
I have always loved bread, clearly moving to France was a good idea given there’s a baguette at every meal.
When I was a young adult in university, I dreamed of building my own wood fire oven. I wanted to make rustic, toasty and delicious bread of my own. I like to work with my hands, to watch something come into form. My senses perk up when yeast, flour, water and salt come together in an oven. It’s perfection.
I am fortunate to have made friends with a baker. I couldn’t have imagined in university that I’d move to France and have an opportunity to make baguettes alongside a true Boulanger. He’s a quiet man, the caretaker of a secret troglodyte perched in the pre-alps formerly home to a famous philosopher. His life is simple and rich. He showers outdoors year round even in the cold of winter, though he admits this is slightly less glamorous. There is a natural pool filled by a spring for swimming on one side of the house and chickens on the other. From inside I have a beautiful view of the riviera through a wall of windows fitted to the undulating stones.
The wood fire oven is on another hill a little ways away. When I walk into the small room where the oven lives he tells me it was made with the best volcanic rock. It’s generous, as he is with his knowledge. Once a week he comes to light and stoke the fire. I’m invited to help pour the ingredients into a traditional pétrin. The pétrin, a staple for bakers in generations past, is a wooden piece of furniture which keeps the flour from spilling out in all directions as we take turns kneading it to perfection. He jokes that flour is the soap of a Boulanger, how they clean their hands of dough after the work is done.
We leave the large elastic balls of dough in the pétrin, covered lightly with the wooden lid, for a first rise. He continues to check on the fire and add wood as needed and ensuring even distribution of heat.
Once the rise is complete he goes on to form his baguettes and round loaves. Depending on the day he’ll bring other baked goods to tuck in after the bread has baked. Extra dough occasionally becomes pizza for dinner. Today he has other plans…
The loaves now formed, he shovels the coals into a wheelbarrow and rolls them outside of the old wooden door. Before I know it, he’s got a chicken wrapped in clay that he plunges deep into the coals for a special meal. He sweeps the interior of the oven of ash and soot so it’s ready for baking.
One by one he places the loaves carefully inside the oven, avoiding the walls. It’s hard to see how deep and how wide it is. He gives a quick spray of water inside and closes the cast iron door creating steam for the perfect crust. Then we wait.
I love the dance of movements all happening in the perfect sequence at the right time to bring it all together.
With the loaves baked, and evening settling, we rest. The chicken is juicy and tender after being unearthed, the baguettes are fresh and the wine is lively. I’m feeling deep gratitude for these old traditional methods that are kept alive and with people so willing to share.
My life in France is filled with baguettes, no meal is complete without them. I still don’t have my own wood-fired oven but I am grateful for the experience of using one. I think it also gave me an idea of what old community ovens might have been like and it was great to not only document the experience but to engage in it as well.