I’d rather a slice of warm sourdough made with local flour over a slice of cake any day. You see I love artisan bread. As a child from the age of eleven I spent every day of the Easter, Summer and Autumn holidays from 3am until breakfast time whiling away my time in a bakery in the South West of France by making real bread with Pascal the baker. I think the first time I lay in my bed and smelt the sweet baking wafts curling their way through the pigeonholes and into my tiny bedroom I followed the smell down the noisy wooden stairs. I still can’t believe to this day that my parents didn’t wake up as I eased open the front door, and tiptoed down the steps.
The bakery is behind our house, but to get there I had to creep down the alleyway. Well actually I didn’t have to creep, but it was dark. Actually it was black as the streetlights went out at 11pm every night. I can imagine the old mayor determining that by 11pm everyone should be in bed asleep. So I’d creep along hoping that nothing would jump out at me, hugging myself both to keep out the cold and reassure myself. I’d jump over the darkest patches avoiding the cow pats from Morris’s cows as they would short cut the same way to be milked and I’d hear them chewing and breathing as I crept past, and would smell the milky fermentation of Madame Bouquet’s cheese from her kitchen window she’d leave open. I’d run down hill for 20 yards, past the austere Madame Plat’s shop with the plastic ribbons on the door to keep out the flies from Morris’s cows and right opposite the lights of the bakery would be on. I could almost feel the warmth of the ovens before I even opened the door. I’d go in the side door, as the shop door was for customers only, and there would be Domonic. He wasn’t old. He was small and dark and strong. He’d always greet me in the say way. “Qu’est-ce que tu fait ici si tôt?” What are you doing here so early? He’d smile and carry on with his baking. Of course I’d ask him the names of everything in the room. What is this called? What is that called? I was a curious child.
Over the weeks and into the years I’d help. Looking back now I’m not so sure how much help I actually was, but I’d knead and dust, sweep and break eggs for the croissants. I’d carry hot bread through to the shop and stack them on slatted shelves and watch, as the young, the old, the rich and the poor of the village would stand together in line to buy their bread. You see bread is a great leveller. Even now as I teach people to make sourdough people laugh as I point out that even the queen herself will not be eating better bread than the loaf they’ve just taken out of the oven. I’d always return home with a warm pain de campagne. The rest of the day was spent hurtling about the village on a bike, or fishing with the other children. We’d dangle poor worms attached to a hook and tied with a nylon line to a bamboo stick into the village pond, and Morris’s cows would stop to drink loudly dashing our hopes of catching a gold fish. As the church clock chimed midday we’d run home for lunch and eat Morris’s wife’s fresh curd cheese with cracked black pepper, warm tomatoes and olive oil on the best bread in the world. The bakery is still there thirty years on. The rural French did not abandon good bread like we British did. Domonic is long gone, and Herve, who took over in 1988 is just as welcoming to my own children… and I am lucky enough still today to get that the welcoming feeling as I open the bakery door and tiptoed in from the dark in my 40’s, still hoping that I’ve not woken anyone up as I make my way in down that dark alley at 3am.