I spent part of my childhood living in a small hilltop village in Southern France. The village streets were narrow, cobbled and devoid of cars. Every morning my brother and I set off to collect baguettes and croissants for breakfast. The tantalizing aroma of freshly baked bread floated through the narrow alleyways tickling our olfactory senses and would bring us running. We would scamper through the twists and turns, up and down centuries-old worn steps until we arrived, panting, at the back door of the boulangerie. I don’t know that we ever went into the shop itself. We always got our bread directly from the baker in the cavernous room that housed his ovens and wood.
The baker, a jovial man, dressed in his whites and dusted with a fine coating of flour, would always shout ”Bonjour les enfants!“ (Good morning children) as we tumbled into his kitchen. We would watch, mesmerized, as he took a huge wooden paddle off the brick-lined wall and opened the ovens to pull out the freshly baked loaves. We would stand transfixed as loaf after loaf would emerge from the massive ovens, and listen as the crusts crackled as they started to cool. The challenge was to try and make it back to the house without breaking off the end of the baguette or chewing an ear off a croissant. We failed every time.
So what is it about that aroma that is just so tantalizing? This one aroma that can make me think of home, that will always make me smile, and start a kaleidoscope of images in my mind, documenting past decades of travel highlighted by delicious morsels of bread. This yeasty scent populates some of my favorite memories: a bakery near my grandparents’ house where the local specialty was a craquelin,a brioche-type of sugar-bread which—when toasted and slathered with butter and my grandmother’s apricot jam—came as close to heavenly breakfast food as one could imagine; or a small bakery in Provence that made delicate fougasse, the perfect vehicle for the fresh goat cheese we found at the local market; or the olive laden and lardon packed baguettes that I covet and that can transform crostini into the hors d’oeuvres-to-end-all-hors d’oeuvres.
I realize now that I have always been on a quest for good bread. When I moved to California in the mid-Eighties, that bread was hard to come by. By then, even some of my favorite haunts in France had closed and new ”modern” bakeries had taken their place. The bread never tasted the same, and I yearned for the bread from my childhood.
Years later, I found myself walking down another narrow street, in another Provencal village, this time with my own children in tow. We strolled past an old bakery early in the morning. The door to the little shop opened, a smartly dressed man stepped out with a baguette under his arm and in that moment that magical yeasty aroma drifted out through the door. I stopped in my tracks, doubled back, walked into the boulangerie holding one child in each hand, inhaled deeply, closed my eyes, and inhaled again as childhood memories came flooding back. I am sure that I smiled even as my children squirmed on the ends of my arms. The baker’s wife cleared her throat to bring me out of my reverie. ”Madame?“ she inquired, as if to ask if I had not momentarily lost my mind as I stood there gulping the air in the middle of her neatly appointed establishment. Regaining my senses, I promptly bought a fougasse, pain au chocolat for the kids, and a delicate ficelle. The children happily chomped on their treats as we continued our stroll through the village. “Wasn’t the smell of that bread incredible!?” I mused. They looked at me in a way only children can—Mum’s gone mad. I waxed lyrical about the bread, the crust, the crunch, the delicate flavor of the crumb, the give in the bread as I squeezed it. They were spectacularly nonplussed.
Fast forward ten years. I was—through the-most-appropriate-auction-item-ever purchased by my Mum - given the opportunity to learn how to make bread in the style of Tartine, Chad Robertson’s renowned bakery in San Francisco. On day two of this bread intensive, my good friend John turned up at a somewhat unearthly 4 am to show me how to shape and bake the bread.
I should add at this point that making bread this way is a labor of love and not something to be rushed. Starters are nourished, fed and nurtured with the same care and attention as is a newborn. Some bakers I know have travelled with their starters lest something should happen to them unattended. Using a bloomed starter, mixing it into the warm water, adding the bread flour and watching the ensuing transformation is absolutely magical – every time. The dough, once it has risen, is soft and pillow-like. The surface is smooth and delicate, and I find that I treat the dough with reverence as I caress it into shape.
I was apprehensive that morning as John, my mother and I placed the dough into the hot cast-iron bakers. Would the bread rise? Would it have that crust? Was it possible to recreate that type of bread at home? Forty minutes later came the moment of truth. The bread emerged from the oven golden brown; it made the tell-tale hollow sound as we knocked on the bottom of the loaf; and best of all, THAT aroma flooded the kitchen as we open the oven door. Oh my, oh my, oh my! It practically made me jump up and down – shades of that little girl running through the cobbled stone streets all those years ago.
As a result of that baking class, I launched into a four-month bread-making extravaganza, sometimes baking twice a day, testing all manner of fillings. One morning, my now teenage daughter emerged from her bedroom, rubbing the sleep from her eyes. “MUM, Mum!” she cried, “It’s THAT smell!” “What are you talking about?’” I teased. ”THAT smell of fresh bread – just like when we were in France. Remember when you dragged us into that bakery and just stood there! Don’t you remember?’ And I thought it hadn’t registered. Yet ten years later she recalled with crystal clarity the day on the bakery steps. That is bread’s magical power. It makes you smile. It makes you remember. It is simple, yet complex. It is good and nourishing. All of this in a loaf of freshly baked bread.
Note: Thankfully bread making has enjoyed a renaissance in the past decade and there are plenty of good places to get some really excellent bread. Bob’s Well Bread in Los Alamos uses some of the same techniques as Tartine and his bread is excellent. If you find yourself in Los Angeles it’s worth making a trip to Republique and Gjusta.
There is a lovely French word, l’apéro (short for apéritif), which means an informal, relaxed get together for nibbles and a drink. An apéro can last thirty minutes or two hours. It precedes dinner and always involves light, tasty morsels to munch on, some wine or perhaps a kir, a pastis or other drink. The nibbles often consist of olives, tiny tomatoes, saucisson, a good paté, crackers and perhaps some small crostini or bruschetta. We are all apéro aficionados in my family. In the summer, we used to gather under the plane trees outside our old farmhouse, play boules and while away an hour or so as the sun dipped below the horizon. Friends would drop by, sit on the old stone well, watch the game at hand and catch up on the day’s events before going on to supper. It is one of my favorite times of day. I made this whilst dreaming of my next apéro in Provence.
Serves eight people as an appetizer
8 pluots — halved, pitted and diced
4 green onions — ends trimmed and finely sliced
2 tablespoons chives — finely chopped
4 tablespoons olive oil
4 tablespoons basil — finely chopped
6 large or 16 small slices of olive bread — toasted
3 oz goat cheese
Fig Tapenade Crostini with a Watercress Salad
This is what you make when you have either too many figs or too many ripe figs. Olives and figs are oddly wonderful together — it’s that whole salty-sweet thing that can work so well. You can also serve the crostini as an appetizer.
Serves 8 people
For the crostini:
1 cup black olives — pitted
1 teaspoon capers
1 clove garlic — chopped
Juice and zest of 1 lemon
8-10 fresh figs (depending on size)
Salt and pepper
½ bunch chives — finely chopped
Baguette or ciabatta — cut into thin slices and toasted
For the Salad:
3 tablespoons olive oil
Juice of 1 lemon
Salt and pepper
4-6 oz watercress (use some watercress micro greens too if you can find them)
24 small green figs — halved