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What is it about bread? Why am I, here in the middle of my life, so enamoured of French loaves? Two images kept cropping up: two French people sitting in a cafe for a long afternoon of eating thick hunks of bread and drinking cups of coffee, and a Frenchman on a bicycle with a loaf slung across his handlebars. These visions seemed to depict lives soaked in leisure, where there was time for the good things…Then this thought ambled forth: It’s the dailiness of bread, like a reliable friend…My plan starts to billow forth. My project, as I imagine it, will be a natural history, an ecology of bread. The story of a loaf.
Overcome by a passion for French bread, Sara Mansfield Taber travels to Brittany in search of a loaf that, like the lifestyle that must surely accompany it, is perfect in its simplicity. After months of seeking, she tears off a hunk of pain trois rivieres, made by Gold Medal Baker Monsieur Jean-Claude Choquet of Blain, Loire-Atlantique. It “smelled like heaven and tasted a mile deep.” It tasted honest. Here was her loaf.
“In prose as voluptuously delicious as pain trois rivieres itself, Sara Mansfield Taber delves into the heart of France and finds the world, shimmering in its complexity. Once again, Taber has written a book that is both wise and very beautiful.”
-C.M. Mayo, author of Miraculous Air: Journey of a Thousand Miles Through Baja California, the Other Mexico
MY AFFAIR BEGAN AT FORTY WHEN MY HUSBAND, PETER,
found his dream job in Washington, D.C., and I left behind a position as an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota. Eight months after our arrival, I gave birth to our second child, Forrest. In my small, suburban cottage, temporarily job-less, and new to the area, I felt like a cave woman abandoned by her clan in a still, earthen den. All the women in our neighborhood seemed to work full-time. The hectic Washington pace was unconducive to forging easy friendships, and I found myself passing my weeks with little adult companionship. The interesting people I did meet seemed to lead runaway lives, constantly busy if never quite getting to that one thing they wanted to do most. Time seemed a crucial and scarce commodity.
On my walks through the neighborhood, there were questions, half-noticed but ever-present, that ambled with me. Why does work seem to gobble up bigger and bigger hunks of us every day? Where has community gone? Why is there no free time anymore? Life seemed to narrow, and I needed, badly, to prove fantasies were still out there for the taking. I yearned for something deeper, more satisfying, more pleasurable, tastier.
How to find delight again—that became the urgency of my long, little-varying Washington days. I chose the basic, sturdy, age-old woman’s route: through the belly. I took to driving long distances for a bakery anyone mentioned. I loved the round, European-style loaves with hard crusts—loaves with names like pain de campagne, or pain rustique—the ones that looked like erupting mushrooms or chubby wands. Pain au levain especially captivated me. I loved the notion of bread made of soured dough that carried with it some sort of magical essence from one batch of bread to the next. Of course, I had been slowly seduced over the years by a youth spent in part in Europe; by Millet’s luminous paintings of peasants peacefully working in pink-lit dawn fields; and by the crusty French bread formed into sunflowers that my dear friend Juliette, back from trips home, conjured up out of suitcases. So it was really no surprise that Forrest and I drove all over Washington to new bakeries, each bread-buying trip like a small celebration. Inexorably, subtly, French loaves came to seem like crown jewels. No, not jewels. Something more essential and wonderful, like air.
For a time I took to baking as a way to bring French bread and Europe that much nearer. Four times, I attempted to make pain au levain, a five-day process that requires the baker to grow a starter by adding flour and water on a daily basis to a steadily souring lump of dough. The first attempt resulted in an utterly flat loaf with a nice smell, but a disappointing, dense texture, and sticky goo spread all over the kitchen. The second time around, my dough did rise but the loaf had a crust of cannonball hardness and a crumb with huge tunnels that would have made great naked mole rat habitat. The third time, I forgot about my souring dough and it went moldy, and the final time, one of my children knocked the bowl of starter on the floor and it broke. I took this as a clear sign that I should leave bread-baking to the professionals and make more frequent trips to bakeries.
One day as Forrest and my daughter, Maud, played in the background, I asked myself, What is it about bread? Why am I, here in the middle of my life, so enamored of French loaves? Two images kept cropping up: two French people sitting in a cafe for a long afternoon of eating thick hunks of bread and drinking cups of coffee, and a Frenchman on a bicycle with a loaf slung across his handlebars. These visions seemed to depict lives soaked in leisure, where there was time for the good things.
Then these thoughts presented themselves:
~ Bread is pure and unalloyed.
~ A loaf of bread is simple beauty, lovely texture, honest shape.
~ While chewing bread, a person can steal a little rest. Look out a window. Gaze. Let her mind float. One specification: it must be hard bread that takes time to chew.
~ To break into a loaf is to cultivate a sense of communion with the soil, with our fellows, with the divine, as Christians share bread in churches.
~ Bread can be taken for granted in the secure, reassuring sense of something good always there.
Then this thought ambled forth: It’s the dailiness of bread, like a reliable friend. “Why not Lindt chocolate’?” someone might ask. Though I love chocolate, its fleeting pleasures, like those romances of younger days, store little deep or lasting pleasure for me. I am after the trusty basics now: daisies, spring water, garden tomatoes, bread.
One day in Washington, I watch Forrest take apart a slice of good sourdough from a local European-style bakery. He sits on the floor and carefully and deliberately pulls the bread apart. He works away, fiber by fiber, until he is surrounded by shreds of bread the perfect size for ducks.
It is while watching this spectacle that it occurs to me that what I want, more than anything else, is to examine a good French loaf the way Forrest is examining his. My heart races when I realize that what I desire, with a strange ardor, is to understand bread in a deep way. beyond even the capacity of my tongue.
I decide I will find a wonderful French loaf—a product of a French village—follow it backward, track down its history, back into the oven, back through the kneading trough, and on into the beyonds of the country roads, to the fields of wheat, to the salt producers, to the yeast cultivators, and to the waters that contribute their bounty. I will talk to the farmers and all those whose toil goes into the bread, and hear about their lives. My project, as I imagine it, will be a natural history, an ecology of bread. The story of a loaf.
As I dreamed of France, I was certain about what I would find there. While I felt disconnected in my American city, the French would be nourished by community as well as good bread. The French, in contrast to my compatriots, would have balanced lives infused with a slowed-down sense of time that left many hours for family, friends, and contemplation. Whereas American food was a mash of carcinogenic chemicals and ingredients flown in from all over the world, my French loaf would be made of pure, local ingredients, by local rural people. While American bread was squishy and tasteless, the baguette, and all French bread, would be delicious and of the highest quality, due to the bakers’ adherence to tried and true, age-old traditions. The country of the baguette would be the opposite of my country, which was responsible for the annihilation of well-made, quirky, and unique local products, and for the McDonaldization of the world. France, to my mind, would be the repository of quality. The grass would be quintessentially greener there.
As I set off on this lark, I suspected I might be seeing rural life, and Europe, and maybe even bread, through rose-colored glasses, but, as in any new love, I just couldn’t give it up. I wanted to chase after my dream. I wanted that confirmation of something more.
And I found it.