Appetite for Books
Confessions of a
French Baker

Breadmaking Secrets, Tips,
and Recipes


By Peter Mayle and Gerard Auzet
Knopf, 2005
$16.95



Charm flows from Peter Mayle's pen like water from a spring. Of course, taking as your topic French village life and food, helps keep the flow steady and sweet.

His latest book is collaboration with Gerard Auzet, the best baker in Cavaillon, the man and town made famous in Mayle's book, A Year in Provence. The tourist pilgrims who have since besieged the boulangerie want more than an ephemeral baguette; they want the secrets.

In this tiny gospel, Mayle conveys some of those secrets, though they may not translate readily to your home kitchen. Start with four generations of family - all bakers, waking every day in the dark of the morning, and develop enough talent to sculpt a bread dough Eiffel Tower and earn the honor of Meilleur Ouvrier de France.

Other directions translate more directly and Mayle conveys the kind of expert knowledge that comes from generations of repetition. While Mayle does translate flour, suggesting a mix of half all-purpose and half bread flour, he oddly does not translate Celsius into more common (in America) Fahrenheit temperature for a nifty little formula based on 56 degrees Celsius. Ensure that the temperatures of your water, flour, and kitchen combine to no more or less than 56 degrees and your bread will be made in an optimum environment. Try 133 degrees F and see if it makes a difference.

He also recommends the best ingredients, used generously. No mean slivers of olive, but big toothsome chunks, along with Roquefort, walnuts, bacon or onions to flavor various loaves. And while you're taking the time and trouble, don't reach for just any bottle of wine, consult his list of recommended vintages. Even sweet bread deserves coffee spiked with Armagnac.

Recipes are sensibly grouped by the liquids that distinguish them, creating different flavors and texture with wine, water, olive oil or butter. He begins with the basics of baguettes, boules and batards, and takes a brisk walk through the steps of mixing and proofing the dough and forming the loaves. It all seems so simple, there's no reason not to try it.

Much of the secret lies in the shaping loaves and it is notoriously difficult to describe in words the quick and sure movements of a practiced hand. Mayle sensibly provides sketches of the cuts and folds that form fougasse, epi, or boules, lending even more authenticity.

The recipe for Fougasse, a filled and folded bread, cut into ladder-like slices on top, can be adapted to sweet or savory fillings. The standard ingredients of flour, water, yeast, and salt are here enriched by a bit of butter and powdered milk, but the result is still chewy, more bread than cake.

The real revelation for me came from following his directions to the letter. I kneaded (well, let the machine knead) the dough for the full twenty minutes recommended and tested for the windowpane, a stretchy, translucent window that indicates maximum gluten development. The result was a truly velvety dough that baked into a texture that was at once tender and chewy.

Despite good results, I remain skeptical of my ability to reproduce Auzet's bread. Blame it on the water, the oven, or even on my own boulanger-deficient bloodline. But my own bread is certainly a bit better, thanks to Auzet's secrets.

© 2005 Claudia Kousoulas
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