December 3, 2010 10:16 pm

Baking hot

L’Ecole des Boulangers trains France’s best bakers and pastry chefs. Top restaurants are now offering three-star bread to match the three-star cooking
 
Students at L’Ecole des Boulangers

Students at L’Ecole des Boulangers in Paris

L’Ecole des Boulangers

 
Dominique Descamps and Jean-Philippe de Tonnac

Dominique Descamps and Jean-Philippe de Tonnac

Once our lunch orders had been taken at L’Auberge Aveyronnaise and the 2008 Marcillac poured, Dan Lepard, Dominique Descamps and Jean-Philippe de Tonnac raised their glasses and made a toast. “To bread!” they cried, celebrating their combined expertise and passion in this staff of life.

This restaurant, in the 12th arrondissement of Paris, is popular for its generous servings of Aveyron dishes (Aubrac beef and lashings of pommes de terre Aligot – laced with Tomme cheese), but for this lunch, location was also important. L’Auberge is around the corner from L’Ecole des Boulangers, which for 80 years has trained France’s best bakers and pastry chefs.

It was this anniversary that had brought our table together. Lepard began his career more than 20 years ago as a chef, before becoming a baker, writer and, today, a highly regarded consultant on matters baked. He would like everyone in the UK to eat bread on a par with what he sees in the best French bakeries. Earlier that day he had taken me to one of his favourites, Le Pain au Naturel, in Place d’Aligre, which has just opened a branch in Tokyo. Alongside their normal, mouthwatering range they were baking an autumn loaf with chestnuts, hazelnuts and oranges.

Descamps, a quietly spoken Frenchman with excellent English (he spent a year as a teaching assistant in Nottinghamshire 30 years ago), is director of the school. He maintains standards but also encourages his students to embrace new technology. The phrase coined by the French master baker Lionel Poilâne, that his profession must adhere to “retro innovation”, is his leitmotif.

We had all been brought together by de Tonnac, a former journalist with Le Nouvel Observateur. Tall, rangy and with grey, frizzy hair, he resembles many people’s idea of a French intellectual, though a mid-life career change saw him enrol in a bread-baking course at the school. For the past three years he has been compiling and editing a new book, Le Dictionnaire Universel du Pain, which takes in the technical aspects of this profession and the different styles of bread made the world over.

 

De Tonnac believes this is the first time a book of such scope has been written on bread. And while it may be some time before the book is translated into English, it is bound to have a big impact on bread-makers, chefs and restaurateurs.

Offering fresh bread at all points of the meal remains a constant challenge for any restaurateur who does not bake his or her own. And it is not just a question of price. The bread basket is invariably the first tangible sign of both the restaurateur’s style and the kitchen’s potential.

The most encouraging fact that I heard over lunch came from de Tonnac’s investigations into bread-making at the top French restaurants. “I think a lot of these chefs have thought that although they were cooking top-quality food, their bread didn’t really have to be to quite the same standard,” he said. “But over the past year I have noticed a significant improvement. Today, there is a lot of three-star bread to match the three-star cooking.”

Lepard is far less optimistic about the best bread reaching the tables of British restaurants. “Although there is an obvious renaissance in the art of bread-making in the UK,” he explained, “there are too many commercial factors mitigating against us ever attaining a similar standard of excellence to that which exists here.” Rents are so high in central London, he said, that the bread has to be made elsewhere, and often leaves the bakeries at 4am to avoid the morning congestion. “And that certainly isn’t the best for any customer coming in to eat at 8pm. Above all, London doesn’t have a school like this.”

Descamps accepted this compliment modestly, and added that interest in his school (funded since its inception by Grands Moulins de Paris, a major French flour producer and baker) had never been greater – both from the 250 apprentices who pass through every year, to the adults hoping to open their own bakery.

Later that afternoon, the names of the 28 young bakers who had been successful in the extremely difficult Meilleur Ouvrier de France exams currently taking place in the school would be announced. Judging from the baskets filled with the most appetising rolls, baguettes, couronnes and even the Jewish challah I had seen them just prepare, the future of French bread-making looks bright and secure.

nicholas.lander@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/lander

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L’Auberge Aveyronnaise, www.aveyron.com

L’Ecole des Boulangers, www.ebp-paris.com

Dictionnaire Universel du Pain, Jean-Philippe de Tonnac, Bouquins, €30

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