Sunday, November 8, 2009

Meet the Baker: Gérard Rubaud

Si vous souhaitez lire ce billet en français, cliquez ici.
Having met with several artisan bakers over the past year and a half (since I retired from my other life), I am ready to vouch that they are a breed apart. They exhibit none of the greyness, sameness, run-of-the-mill-ness which seems to fall like a cloak over many of us as we grow up. They come out as real characters, intense, focused and passionate.Now are they bakers because they are passionate? Or passionate because they are bakers? Or both? To borrow a phrase from George Stapledon as quoted by Andrew Whitney in Bread Matters: The State of Modern Bread and a Definitive Guide to Baking Your Own, bread which, at its most elementary, comes from the soil, has the "ability to enliven". It is alive (or it was before it went into the oven) and it needs to be coaxed into being. To my mind here lies the challenge and with it, the kindle that fires the baker's soul.
But all bakers are not created alike. Some are always on the lookout for new techniques, others wax poetic on the music of the cooling loaves, others yet talk about their wild yeast starter or levain as if it were their favorite child or their most valuable asset. French baker Gérard Rubaud, from Gérard's Breads of Tradition in Westford, Vermont, is and does all of that and more. More than an artisan (although he is that too, definitely), he is an artist who plays his levain with the same dexterity and virtuosity as Yehudi Menuhin played the violin. With minute changes in temperature, fermentation times and hydration rates, he gets a wide array of subtle flavors, giving his bread a complexity that most bakers can only dream of. He is the prince of aromas. No wonder the ten stores he supplies locally - among them City Market in downtown Burlington, Healthy Living in South Burlington and Richmond Cornermarket in Richmond as well as CSA Intervale - can never stock enough of his fragrant loaves.
Gérard sees the baker as a poet, not a movie star. Calm and solitude are the two ingredients that feed his creativity. As he works, he alternates between silence, music and Radio-Canada's ad-free nightly broadcast of programs from France and other French-speaking countries. A fervent believer in simplicity as the road to excellence, he makes only one dough but strives for perfection. He wants each of his loaves to carry the bouquet which is his signature. The aromas which waft up from his mixers when he mixes either the firm levain or the final dough are heavenly. I could get totally hooked on them. I wish there were a way I could reproduce them for this blog!
Apprenticed as a baker at the age of 13, Gérard got his baking & pastry diploma (CAP or "certificat d'études professionnelles en boulangerie-pâtisserie") early on.
(In this videoclip, Gérard explains that the exam was a competitive one and that, as indicated on his diploma, he won first place. When he was young, it was more important for him to win first place than to get the diploma itself. As he added a few minutes later off-camera, in each district the youngster who won first place was awarded a trip to Paris financed by a major margarine manufacturer!) However, when he was a youngster, the mountains held more appeal for him than bread (although he vividly remembers the fragrance of the huge loaves baked each week at the mountain farm where he was sheltered during World War II). He skied in the winter and mountaineered in the summer, while working as a baker to finance these two hobbies, a way of life he reproduced later on when he was a member of the French national ski team in the winter and took tourists on tours of the Mont-Blanc in the summer. He soon became a ski racing coach as well but then he got married and his life changed. He started working for Rossignol, the French ski manufacturer, and from then on devoted his enthusiasm and energy to making sure the racers had the best possible skis to help them win. He sees a lot of similarities between the job he did then and the one he does now. Then as now, he strove for excellence. Working closely with the racers, he also developed invaluable communication skills which serve him well today in his relationship with his students. For Gérard isn't satisfied with producing the best possible bread. He also wants to make sure his knowledge of the levain is passed on to the next generation. To that effect, he takes on students (usually bakery owners or instructors in baking schools and culinary institutes from the world over) whom he coaches on the intricacies of what is commonly called "sourdough baking", a misnomer in Gérard's case as his bread is anything but sour. His classes run 5 or 6 days and the price ($2350) includes room and board as well as some small tools he sees not only as necessary but as most valuable for the baker (a manual grinder for the grain fed to the levain, a small thermometer and a small scale). He only takes about 2 students a month, unless they come in a pair. Then he might take four (there is a discount for pairs). He likes teaching partners because, working in shifts, they may find a way to keep their bakery open 7/7, something he sees as a social duty for a village baker. He did it himself for a while but there was only one of him and the relentless pace almost killed him. Since the stroke he suffered in March 2004 (which left him paralyzed for 5 months and unable to work for more than a year), he limits himself to making bread 5 days a week.
Manual grinder used by Gérard to mill flour for his levain
(Can be found online at Lehman's Hardware - reference number: 30347120)
What brought Gérard from the steep slopes of his native Savoie to the gentle hills of Vermont? It is a long story. Suffice it to say that he went quickly up the corporate ladder at Rossignol and ended up as president of the company's North-American division. The job took him to Vermont when the ski giant built a factory in the state. He and his family thrived there for a dozen years or so but at age 47, he decided that time had come to do something else with his life. After a brief stint as the owner of a restaurant and vacuum-cooking facility, he went back to his first profession and opened up a bakery on a large tract of land he had purchased near Burlington.
He set it up on the model of an 18th century French bakery, working from old engravings to have a local carpenter and a woodworking buff he knew from his restaurant days reproduce the equipment commonly found at the time, save for the mixers which, while old, obviously do not predate electricity! By opting for old-fashioned equipment, he wasn't trying to be quaint or to make a statement. He just chose what he deemed best for bread and in his opinion, wood is best because it allows the dough to breathe without perspiring.

Bakery illustration from Diderot's mid-eighteenth century encyclopedia (found here on the Web)

Gérard has built two wood-fire ovens with the help of a local bricklayer but although the smaller one (designed for week-end use before he went back to baking full-time) is in good working order, it cannot handle the number of loaves he needs to produce daily (around 170). The large one weighs 50 tons and if shut off, needs ten and a half day to come back to the point where it is hot enough to bake bread. Gérard uses the wood from his woods (mostly maple) which a forester selects and a lumberman cuts down for him, paying close attention to environmental and aesthetic issues. Since landscaping is another of his passions (and he did a great job around the bakery and the main house), he is not likely to overlook these two considerations.

When I arrived at Gérard's bakery, night was falling and he was feeding the levain, using a blend of all-purpose flour (which he says doesn't count, flavor-wise, but acts as a filler) and one third each of whole grain wheat, rye and spelt which he had ground less than thirty minutes before, using a manual grinder, and then sifted. In his experience, using freshly milled flour is not only the best but also the only way to capture most of the wild yeasts packed in the kernel. He has also found that using an electrical grinder produces a coarser flour which is less propitious to yeast growth in the levain. Gérard mixed the levain with the freshly milled flour blend, some all-purpose flour and water in the old Hobart which he uses only for this purpose (it wouldn't be gentle enough for the dough).
Here is the levain after the first feeding:
and seven hours later:
Before mixing the final dough, Gérard grinds a larger quantity of whole wheat, spelt and rye berries (using an electric grinder this time) to add additional layers of flavor to his bread. He does it right before mixing a new batch to make sure most of the wild yeasts will still be present.
When the levain is ripe, Gérard mixes these just-milled flours, all-purpose flour and water in the big mixer, then lets the whole thing rest for 30 to 40 minutes (autolyse). The process helps develop the gluten, making it possible to reduce mixing time later (thus preserving the flavors). Then he adds the levain and the salt.
The mixer is a sixty-year old German machine on which Gérard has disabled the second speed setting (to make sure his students will not be tempted to use it). It continuously folds the dough, reproducing the baker's age-old gesture. There is something serene about the way it works and watching the dough slowly come together is a real pleasure. In the above videoclip, Gérard is cutting up some of the ripe levain for the first batch of dough and adding it to the "autolysed" (fully hydrated) flour while the Hobart is mixing the remainder for the next one. (A portion of the levain is always reserved from one feeding to the next).
After the mixing, the dough goes into the big wooden box for the first fermentation (which can last up to 4 hours). It is poured from the box onto the bench and folded when the box is required for the next batch:
After another resting period comes the weighing...
...and the pre-shaping:
Then Gérard gives the bread its final shape:
...and lets it proof (ferment) for up to three hours depending on the temperature inside the bakery and the quality of the levain. He uses 35% levain for 100% flour (except when it is cold out, then he uses more levain) but he says he would have a slightly different approach if he worked with a partner. Right now he does whatever is needed to give him enough time to mix and bake two or three successive batches by himself without running the risk of overproofing the dough.
When the time comes to put the bread in the oven, he scores it delicately, holding the blade sideways so as not to get deep "ears" which he says distract from the taste.
Gérard adds steam then the loaves bake for 30 to 40 minutes at around 450 F/230C (the oven is hotter though for the first batch).
The goal of the first fermentation is to develop the flavors while the second one (the proofing) creates the gas. A good hydration rate (Gérard goes for 78-79% but tries to get as close to 80% as the flour will allow) combined with a good quality levain helps produce the airy crumb which characterizes a country bread.
A good levain has a delicate and complex flavor, it must taste like a ripe pear or peach. The only way for the baker to get these aromas is to control the production of acids. Gérard feeds his levain every five hours, which means that he never sleeps more than five hours at a stretch or leaves the bakery for longer than that. When he needs to go away for a few days, he dries it up. Exceptionally he may put it in the fridge for 12 hours at a time (but then he makes sure the temperature never goes below 46 degrees F/8 Celsius) to avoid losing some tasty acids. Gérard says jokingly that he is a slave to his levain but almost in the same breath, he says that what he loves about his job is that it is constraint-free. I suspect he doesn't see what he does as a job. It is his life, his "raison-d'être". He shares his days and nights with Jojo and Bibi, his two black labs who seem to love bread with the same passion. They never come close either to the dough or to the loaves (they even act as though they didn't exist) but the minute they hear the crunch of the bread knife in the kitchen, they rush in, sit and wait, tongue lolling, eyes shining. They always get a slice. Clever puppies!
Interestingly Gérard renews his levain regularly (every 4 to 5 weeks, sometimes 6 in the summer and every three months in the winter) as he finds it impossible to control the acids otherwise. He never uses high-protein flour (which, he says, is useful to make car tires, not bread) and he is a firm believer in the nutritional properties of wild yeasts as opposed to commercial yeast. Today he is living his dream, which is to make it possible for people to eat real bread at an affordable price (his breads - which are sold for 24 oz - weigh closer to 26 and they are sold for less than 5 dollars) and to coax out of his levain the complex and heart-warming flavors he remembers from his childhood. Considering the tastiness of his bread and the enthusiasm with which it is received, I'd say: "Once a champion always a champion! The former topnotch skier and racing coach extraordinaire is today a world class baker". I would even go as far as to say that he is in a league of his own... For those who might be interested in training with Gérard, the best way to reach him would be to send me a message (

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  1. Wow, fabulous, heart warming, it's like a Pagnol story!

    Merci MC

  2. What a wonderful story! Thank you, I enjoyed it so much!

  3. That's amazing! Please, I would like to know more about his process.


  4. @Jeremy, Esther and Giovanni, thanks for visiting. I am so glad you liked Gérard's story. I do too.
    Giovanni, Gérard brings so many variables into play at the same time that it would be hard for me to be more specific about the process without risking mistakes. I will let him know that there is an interest and we'll see what he suggests.

  5. Wow, thanks MC for all this great info - but it raises sev questions:
    * Are you saying that Gerard creates a new starter every so often, and that he "does not" keep it going as we all have been led to believe is proper? How does he know when his levain is off balance?
    * Another popular belief is that high gluten (high protein)flours are best if one is working with high hydration doughs! Gerard says, No? What kind of flour is he using? Protein level?

  6. Hi, John, yes, Gérard creates a new starter every so often and says that this hullaballoo about using a starter that has belonged to your great-grandma or has crossed the US on the Oregon trail and so forth makes for a great conversation piece but as far as bread is concerned, it is completely off the mark. He thinks that such a starter is way too acidic for a baker to coax great aromas out of it. This opinion is shared by most German bakers according to Thorsten Philippi, the German baker who taught the German Breads class at SFBI last September. Apparently German bakers renew their starters several times a year to the point that many of them have a contract with a starter company that sends them a new one at regular intervals. Interestingly though, Jeff Hamelman - who was also trained by a German baker, albeit in Vermont - believes that his rye starter is all the better for being already more than 26 years-old. So there are definitely two schools of thought, both valid. I would think that Gerard's habit of changing his starter regularly is one of the reasons why his bread is so extraordinary because it is the right decision for the type of dough he makes. No "pain fantaisie" in his repertoire, although when pressed, he will admit that it might be okay to like both his bread and the vast array of pains fantaisie that can be made today (I think he was trying to be kind as I had told him I loved all kinds of breads). :-)
    In answer to your other question, he uses the same all-purpose flour as Jeff Hamelman, i.e. King Arthur's Sir Galahad (a.k.a. all-purpose flour). I believe the protein level is around 10.5%. Both at SFBI and at the Baking Center, instructors have repeatedly told us that this is the protein-level most appropriate for artisan baking. So there is no discrepancy there. What's annoying though is that in many books, the author uses the term "bread flour" to actually refer to a 10.5% protein all-purpose flour and not to the flour that is sold as "bread flour" in the supermarkets, including under the King Arthur brand and which has a higher level of protein. For more info, I refer you to this post:

  7. thanks for the great piece...
    i will have to go back and really disgest it...
    especially the part about the levain build...
    I wish i could afford to study with him...

  8. I am starting to believe that AP is the better answer then bread flour, as my breads seem to be too doughy or tight with Bread flour?? Will have to do a comparison and will get back to you on it!?


  9. @Judd, interestingly Gérard doesn't keep a liquid levain. One of the reasons is because, historically-speaking, there is no tradition of liquid levain in French bread-making and he is making "pains de tradition". But the main reason is that it is much easier to control aromas with a firm levain. With a liquid one, fermentation is way too fast to give you much room for playing with flavors.
    @Jeremy, I know my bread-making improved when I switched to all-purpose, so I wasn't surprised when Frank told us during Artisan I at SFBI that all-purpose was the way to go. But I read in a comment on a Spanish blog that when you make one of these doughs that are too wet to actually shape, then you get better oven rise and a more open crumb if you use high-protein flour. I am going to give it a try.

  10. MC,

    Merci pour ton magnifique reportage. Je rêve d'aller manger du pain de Gérard. J'espère un jour réussir à avoir d'aussi beaux gestes pour faire mon pain. En attendant, as-tu une photo du "manual grinder" utilisé pour broyer des éléments à incorporer au levain ?

  11. Bonjour, Anne-Laure, et merci de ta visite! I added a picture of the little grinder to the post as well as information as to where it can be found online.

  12. Giovanni, I spoke with Gérard and he's going to try and put something together in writing that I could post on Farine to answer some of the questions the readers might have. It may take a while, though...

  13. Thank you very much MC! I'm waiting your post.

  14. MC, I very much enjoy all your "meet the baker" posts, with this one in particular. I first heard of Gérard from our mutual friend James, who also had the pleasure of meeting Gérard at his Vermont bakery. I also understand that the owners of Wave Hill Breads are protégés of Gérard.

  15. Hi, Steve! Thanks for stopping by! Yes, you are right. Gérard is very special to both James and the owners of Wave Hill Breads, although I wouldn't say they are his protégés. I would say that Gérard is their mentor. What does it make them? Mentorees? You would looooooooove talking to Gérard.

  16. Great article and great videos. It was nice to see him work.

  17. Please, please, please tell Mr. Gerard to bring his bread back to a store in Fairfax!!!!

  18. How about you and Gerard doing a Book together on a longer video.. Merci

  19. @Mimi, I am glad you enjoyed the visit. It was a wonderful experience indeed to see him at work.
    @Anonymous1, I gave him the message!
    @Anonymous2, I'll mention it to him...

  20. MC

    This is one of the most moving and beautiful "meet the bakers" stories I have ever read. So much love coming out of your description of Gerard Rubaud, the man, and his way of making the pain au levain. I have not read of such a moving story for a long, long time. Your effort in bringing his story to readers and viewers is most appreciated. Hats off to you, MC!

    Your story gave me a few questions:

    (1) His 50%-hydration stiff levain is ready to be fed every 5 hours. What is his room temperature? It sounds like very fast maturing stiff starter to me. Or, unless he feeds only a small amount of flours each time? If the flours he feeds the starter is 100%, what is the starter percentage, 40%?

    (2) You said that when he mixes his final dough, his starter is 35% to final dough flours. What is the baker's percentage of the all-purpose flour that he uses in his final dough, 70%? Is this the same baker's percentage for the all-purpose flour that he uses to feed his starter?

    (3) What about the baker's percentages of the rye, WW, and spelt flours in both the final dough and when he feeds the starter? If this is too proprietary to answer, it would be perfectly fine for me. I would understand.

    And, lastly
    (4) What is "pain fantaisie?" Oh, are you referring to the "wonder bread" of the modern mass-produced factory bread?

    Thank you soooo... much for your post.


  21. MC,

    I read your Gerard Rubaud story a second time and found something really interesting to me. Correct me if I am wrong:

    (1) He uses his starter after seven hour of fermenting; the two drawings you have (one showing the levain after the first feeding, and the next showing seven hours later) seems to indicate to that effect.

    (2) If this is the case, why does the description to the first drawing read, “… levain after the first feeding?” Is there another feeding before this levain is taken to make the final dough? I am guessing NO.

    (2) As his starter is a 50% hydration starter, and at only seven hours of fermenting, when he uses his starter to make his final dough, the starter looks like a piece of dough, as the three little pictures show (after the above two drawings). What is in the three small pictures are the cut-up levain, ready to be combined into the autolysed final dough flour and water, right?

    Thank you.


  22. MC...
    I have been coming back and soaking up your story...when my brain gets to saturated with studying French. It is going slowly...but I am determined! I think you really captured the essence of the man!

  23. MC,
    What an interesting interview. From my own experience with feed a mixture of grains to the starter, it does become very active. I was using a 80% hydration and found if I didn't stay right on the feeding schedule I would miss the peak. At 50% it would be easier to use I suspect.

    One thing that isn't clear is you mention that Gerhard says the first ferment is to develop flavors and the second for producing gas. Your description of the process doesn't mention a first ferment. The dough goes from the mixer to the box for a rest and onto the work surface for dividing/pre shape and shape, whereupon it is proofed(fermented) for 3 hours before baking. Unless I missed something, including the autolyse, that is around 4 hours from mix to bake. Can this be right? But, perhaps the activity of the levain is such that flavors develop quickly. I'd be interested in hearing your reply.

    Good work MC, as usual!
    Eric (ehanner)

  24. Thank you for your kind words, Eric. I am glad you enjoyed the visit with Gérard. I should have been more precise and will amend the post accordingly. The first fermentation ("pointage" in French) is indeed done in the big wooden box but the word "rest" was misleading. That fermentation can last up to 4 hours. Then comes the resting on the bench, the weighing, the pre-shaping and the shaping, then the second proofing ("apprêt" in French) which can last up to 3 hours.
    I hope this makes it clearer. Thanks for pointing out my confusing choice of words.

  25. Great story. I've read it twice today and have it bookmarked for insipration. Thank you and Gerard.

    Michael - Lyman, ME

  26. Hi, Michael, thank you for your visit. I too find Gérard to be a great source of inspiration and I am glad it comes through in the post.

  27. Very interesting post, committed passionate baker. I also loved the relaxed way he shaped his loaves. We often try to hard. He doesn't.

  28. Sorry, I don't like being referred to as "6p00d8341cc84e53ef" so will sign in another way. Best, Sam

  29. Sam, thanks for your visit. It is interesting that you should say that because Gérard likes to say about shaping : "whenever you work dough, count your gestures. Then think about them and eliminate the ones that have no real purpose. You'll be surprised how few you need in the end". I will soon be posting a video where he teaches how to shape a batard.

  30. Dear MC,
    would mind if I'll translate the post into Belarusian and repost it in my blog for readers in Belarus? Certainly, link to the original post will be available.

  31. Dear Aleś,
    Thank you for asking! I am sure Gérard will be very happy to hear that his fame now extends to Belarus. Please send me a link when you are done.

  32. MC,
    here is my blog but without your post at the moment and ... in Belarusian :)

  33. Thanks for the snow, Aleś! I love the pics... Dreamy and gorgeous.



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