Monday, August 18, 2014

The best bread in France

Trip To Aude: Day 5 (Afternoon)
It was lunchtime. Scrambling all over Château de Quéribus had given us a rare appetite. There was really no debate as to where we were going to eat: The finest bakery in France.
Or at least, that is what he'd told us, the proprietor of Les Santolines, the B&B at village Cucugnan where we'd stayed the night. Roland Feuillas had personally presided over our princely breakfast. Bread, butter, conserve, coffee. The standard continental breakfast, you would say. We'd usually had more choice in most places we'd stayed. But choice is immaterial, when the bread is the best bread in France, hot from the oven, the butter fresh from the nearby bio farm, and the conserve hand made on mine host's farm.
M. Feuillas had handed out hunks of his bread like portions of gold bullion. No, I don't mean he was stingy about it. He gave large, generous chunks, and even pressed us to eat more. But he did it with the ceremony of a master jeweler at an up-market diamantaire. Roland Feuillas was clearly passionate about his bread.
While we ate, Roland Feuillas told us the story of his bakery.
The B&B was a side business. His first love was his bakery. He'd come to village Cucugnan several decades ago, and had noticed a 13th century windmill-driven flour mill and bakery, both in disrepair. He had the dream of restoring it to its former glory. That led to several years of research and hard work. Eventually, in 2003, it was ready. It began production in 2006. He bakes bread exactly as it was done in the 13th century. He even grows ancient strains of wheat and other cereals on his own bio farm. His breads are made exclusively from these ancient grains. The grains are hand picked, and ground on stone grinders run by a windmill, the historical Le Moulin d'Omer (Omer's Mill), that stands proudly on a hill overlooking Cucugnan. They are baked in wood-fired clay ovens, just as they were in those long gone days. And "The Best Bread in France"? Well, once he started production, accolades weren't long coming. He has received many awards. And his bakery was selected one of the five best boulangeries in France by a leading French periodical. Amongst the other five: the bakery inside Elysee Palace, where the French President lives, when he isn't sneaking out for midnight trysts with attractive journalists. (By the way, Ronald told us the name of the periodical, but it escaped my mind and I could not track it down on the internet. But anyway, it was one of the biggies, like Le Figero or Le Monde or something). So, the bread we were eating was arguably the best in France. Leading food critics have said so. And I don't dispute them. What we ate for breakfast was truly an exceptional bread.
It was now lunchtime, and we wanted more of that bread. Maybe even cart some along for dinner. We had our first look at the Omer's Mill on the way down from castle Quéribus. Here it, floating above the village... (click on the picture to enlarge. The windmill is right under that wispy cloud in the middle)

We made our way to the bakery on top of the low hill. It's called Les Maîtres des Moulins (The Owners of the Mill). Here is what it looks like, from the outside:

There wasn't too much choice. They essentially make just one bread: THE Bread. They have a couple of other things, like a chocolate cookie and a jam tart, but most of the focus, and shelf space, is on THE Bread. So Blandine bought a loaf of THE Bread. And because we wanted to make a meal of it, she also bought a couple of bottles of artisanal beer and a pot of artisanal potted meat from the region. She asked the shop girl to slice up the bread. The shop girl stuck her nose up in the air and said it wasn't her job. But then she did it anyway, with very bad grace. Blandine stormed out of the shop. I pointed out that the girl was a hired flunky. We'd met the proprietor himself over breakfast, and he had been the soul of old-world courtesy. We oughtn't hold it against the bakery.
Anyway, what with snooty shop girls, I did not have the courage to take a photo of the interiors of the shop. French shopkeepers in any case do not like Asiatic tourists taking photos of their display. They have this idée fixe that the Chinese take photos of their products and replicate everything once back home. Not sure how much of this is reality, and how much Xenophobia, but I prefer not to risk it. Not that I'm Chinese, but I have a suspicion that the French shove Indians into the same mental bracket as the Chinese (Exotic Inscrutable Asiatics).
In case you're curious, here is a photo of the interiors I found on Flickr, uploaded by 'Breadfarm'.

(Image courtesy Breadfarm)
We seated ourselves on nearby wooden benches in the shade of the windmill and attacked the bread and meat. It was ummmm- delicious. Even better than at breakfast. Possibly the potted meat set off the taste better than butter and conserve. Or possibly we were hungrier. It was smoky, crunchy, nutty, coarse and strafed the palate with an explosion of flavors. Washing it down with beer made it heaven. Yes, I can confirm it is the best bread I've ever eaten. And I've eaten some good breads in my time. Despite living in one of the bread boondocks of the world, I've managed to sample some of the best. I'm a bread freak.

Of course, it is not just the taste of their bread that makes this the best bakery in France: it's the whole package deal. Just imagine: a 13th century bakery alone on a hilltop, in the shade of an aging windmill, with a ruined castle looking down upon it from high. I mean, how romantic can you get? It's virtually a Georgette Heyer novel in carbohydrate form. And most people consider Georgette Heyer novels mostly carbohydrate anyway. If this is authentic 13th century bread, as Roland Feuillas claims, I'd say those 13th century chappies knew what they were doing. Bread making hasn't progressed since that time. Regressed, if anything.

After the meal, we took a closer look at the mill (hey, that rhymes!). Here are photos of the mill:

And here are photos Roland Feuillas at work in his bakery, taken from the bakery's website.  I doubt tourists are allowed inside. I did not even try asking for permission.

(Image courtesy Les Maîtres des Moulins)

In case you are interested, there is a very nice flash slide show about the bakery and its history on the bakerýs website: view slideshow.

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