The dough was glued to my hands, and to the workbench. I couldn’t shape it correctly. I thought I had learned something from the previous bake shift. On the workbench were laid forty kilograms of a highly hydrated dough, made from wheat that was milled the day before, fermented with a natural levain, and kneaded only a few minutes in an old, French-style oblique mixer.
My mentor, Thierry Hermeline, told me: “Shaping the dough is not something you impose from the outside, the dough knows its shape. You just have to let it happen with just a few, quick but gentle moves.” I then watched my mentor pick up a piece of dough, stretch it gently but firmly, fold it once or twice, then shape it into a bâtard loaf that he’d put either in linen-covered bannetons (wicker baskets), or straight onto a folded linen canvas. Pressing against one of these shaped loaves with a finger, I could feel the softness of the dough as well as its strength and springiness. It seemed simple to do, but it was not easy.
I had to keep up my efforts. Here I was, a traveler-baker who had the privilege of apprenticing with a master farmer-miller-baker in Normandy, France. I was invited to learn everything Thierry and Cécile Hermeline could teach me about old-fashioned, organic, naturally leavened bread made with freshly-milled flour that was baked in a wood-fired oven. I wanted to be a dedicated learner, and my goal was to repay my debt towards my mentors by offering as much help as I could.
Halfway through my apprenticeship, I had to come to terms with my inability to shape acceptable loaves. I had to learn again the basics that I had taken for granted. I knew they would be needing me a few weeks later during the Arts Festival at La Perrière, during which they would bake bread continuously for 48 hours. I was ready to re-learn how to feel the dough “from the inside out,” and to start again at each moment, notwithstanding my mistakes. I felt an urge to prove to myself, and to my mentors, that they had not taken me as an apprentice in vain.
In the early summer of 2014, my wife, our two children and I arrived in Paris, our first stop on a one-year journey in Europe and Asia. Our plan was to discover and experience the world as a family, and to figure out a sustainable lifestyle for ourselves. As a university academic, I needed to breathe some fresh air. We had to take advantage of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and becoming nomads for a year was an experiment in sustainability.
I had been a home bread baker for several years, and had worked as a baker in a craft bakery in Savoie, France, fifteen years ago. Bread was, and still is, one of the mediums that connects me the most with the elements, people, and myself. I was eager to pursue what I had called the “Bread Trail.”
To begin our European tour (which would eventually lead us to Sweden and Wales in the UK), we bought a camper van in Paris. In late June, we were happy to hit the road, and drove in our 1981 Bedford to the Perche Regional Park, in Normandy, where we connected again with friends. They told us that we could find good bread at La Grande Suardière, Thierry and Cécile Hermeline’s farm, close to the nearby village of La Perrière.
The Perche country was the home of pioneers and early settlers who left France and colonized New France in the 17th century. Strolling in the Réno-Valdieu national forest, we took refuge under its 350-year old oaks, and payed our respects to the Notre-Dame de Montligeon Sanctuary. The bucolic atmosphere, the heart-warming patrimonial houses and farms, and our slow progression aboard the Bedford through the meanderings of the narrow roads echoed my thoughts that we had indeed traveled to a special place. A pilgrimage, as it were.
The sign on the side of the road read: “La Grande Suardière: old-fashioned bread baked in a wood-fired oven.” An apricot tree provided shade to the main entrance of the boutique shop, where clients lined up to be served by Cécile Hermeline. In the bake shop behind, Thierry Hermeline was unloading loaves from a wood-fired oven, filling panières (large wicker baskets) with country style, bâtard-shaped hearth loaves, multigrain round miches, sunflower, poppy and sesame seed baguettes, pan-baked spelt loaves, as well as many other specialty breads. Pizzas and fougasses cooled on racks, alongside brioche breads. On one of these racks layed a majestic, four-kilogram country style hearth loaf. To be sure, this was a loaf that honored an ancient craft.
The fully developed loaves filled the air with diverse and complex aromas. A combination of roast, cereal, soil, and vegetation-like fragrances emanated from the bread display. I remember thinking to myself: “There is something going on here which I do not understand.” My intuition was telling me that this bread, and more importantly the way it was made, possessed something that I wanted to learn.
Thierry joined us for lunch aboard the Bedford, where we discussed my plan to visit craft bakeries and meet its artisans. He told us he was a baker who became a farmer and a miller. I assumed that his conversion to farming and milling explained some of the secrets behind his bread.