A country loaf
We are often asked why we choose to live in France and what makes France so special. For us, we can only say it is our obsession with good and simple food. Through our cooking classes and market tours, we enjoy sharing the knowledge that we have learned over the years about the connection to food that French people seem to have. Good food in France is not about recipes as much as it is about the quality of the ingredients. You eat what is in season here and what is fresh and local. It's not a political statement or a new way of thinking, it is an everyday connection to the things that make life worth living; people you love, good food, good wine and the time to relax and enjoy it. It is as simple as that.
Although each region has its own specific cuisine that it is known for, the real draw for us is the connection that French people have to the simple act of eating. They take their time, each meal is savored and never rushed. The table is properly set, no eating in the car, and most importantly, they know how to slow down and savor the things in life that truly count. Things just taste better in France. The focus is about real food, the artisan producers and the local cooks who create it.
On a recent visit to the Savoie, we had the pleasure of meeting Monsieur Michel Grange, an artisan bread baker from Bonne Nuit. Bonne nuit, is French for "good night" and is one of a few little hamlets just outside the village of Valloire in the Rhône-Alpes region in southeastern France. We spent our days researching artisan food producers in the area and were pleased to be able to visit with Monsieur Grange on more than one occasion. After a short drive south on the curvy mountain road just outside Valloire, you will reach the boulangerie of Monsieur Grange. It's not the typical boulangerie that you might be used to seeing on a visit to France. There is no counter or display of fancy breads, no initial artfully created on the boule with flour, like those of a famous Parisian boulangerie. This is rustic bread, made by hand, from a true artisan producer.
Monsieur Grange bakes his bread in a very small, one room, stone building located at the end of a country road. There is a little sign posted over the door that reads "1892 four à Pain". This translates to "1892 bread oven". Simple and to the point. The room is dark with the exception of a stream of sunlight coming through the only window and the glowing embers when he opens the door to the wood fired oven. Through the doorway, at the rear of the tiny, dirt-floored building, you can see the old oven, a stack of wood, a table, an old-fashioned scale, a few proofing buckets and rolls of linen he uses for proofing.
Now this is artisan bread making. No whirl of a mixer or steam ovens here, Monsieur Grange makes every loaf by hand, weighing his ingredients on an old scale. There isn't even electricity in the building. He makes only one type of bread; pain d'alpage, an alpine country loaf, and only sells his bread on Wednesdays at noon. He arrives very early in the morning to build the fire in the oven and returns late morning, when the embers have cooled to the correct temperature, to bake the bread. The first morning that we met him, the bread was proofing on the table and he was preparing the bread for the oven. We arrived early so we would have a chance to visit with him and watch him work. Once the boules were proofed and ready to bake, he sliced a quick design on the top with an old paring knife, and slid them in the hot oven using a long handled bread peel aided by a family member holding a flashlight. He was kind enough to let us photograph him while he worked and suggested that we return at noon to pick up my loaf of bread. As we arrived a few minutes after noon, Monsieur Grange was waiting patiently near his car for our return and politely pointed out, it was time for lunch.
On the following Wednesday, we returned just before noon in time to watch Monsieur Grange take the bread from the oven. A small crowd was forming in anticipation. We were amazed at the number of people who arrived to this little stone building, right at noon, to pick up their loaves of freshly baked bread. All at once, Monsieur Grange quickly placed the warm loaves on the table, just outside the doorway and, within a few seconds, they were all gone. This bread was enjoyed at an impromptu picnic with local cheese and a drizzle of honey from the hives in the pasture across the lane.
We love visiting the little villages and seeking out the artisan food producers and local cooks who are best known for their preparation of a regional meal. A meal that begins with seasonal ingredients and is prepared by cooks who take pleasure in slowing down and sharing the meal with people that they love In France, they take their food very seriously. They enjoy the art of preparing a meal and the leisurely time it takes to eat it. It's not about rushing or getting back to the office in an hour flat. It's about taking time to reconnect with your family at the table. This is done through preparing and cooking lunch and dinner each and every day.
As Americans, we should take note.