Wednesday, March 28, 2012

In Normandy, a different kind of bakery: Boulangerie Les Co'Pains

There is so much that blows my mind about this bakery that I find it hard to even start writing about it. Part of me would be tempted to let the photos tell the story (there is something singularly eloquent about the way light settles on flour, dough and bread), another part needs to talk about the bakers and yet another part wishes to dwell on the bakery's unique bread-baking philosophy. Each of these elements, the visual, the people, the philosophy, tells it all and yet there is more. So I'll just forge ahead and try.
I'll start by setting the decor: the bakery is located in Saint-Aubin-sur-Algot, a small village near Lisieux (Calvados), a lovely area of Normandy famous for its apples, its cider, its apple brandy, its cheeses (Camembert, Pont-L'Évêque, Livarot), its milk, cream and butter, etc... Barely off the main road between Caen and Lisieux, the place is so rural you wouldn't be faulted for thinking you have crossed an invisible border and find yourself in a different country or, possibly, century.

The treehouse Erik the baker built with his teenage son

The bakery gets the wood for its oven (wood scraps really) from the nearby sawmill: cutting it to the right size is a three-hour job that two of the bakers tackle every week (they alternate).

(above photo by our friends from Tree-Top Baking, along for the visit. Reproduced with permission)

The wooden troughs and boxes are the work of a local artisan. As for the molds and sheet pans, their previous owner was an old Dutch baker whose family had used them for more than a century of artisan bread-baking. When he retired, he couldn't bring himself to throw them out. Erik's mom lives in Southern Holland in the same small city as this old baker. When he learned her son was opening a bakery in France, he was glad to give them to him...

But here I am using first names when I haven't even introduced any of the bakers. Let me do it now:

Meet Erik Klaassen, 52, one of Les Co'Pains' co-owners ("Co'Pains" is a play on words: the bakery is a cooperative (a "société coopérative ouvrière de production" or SCOP) which initially had three owners, hence the "Co'". "Pains", well, you know it means "bread" in French, right? As for "copains" -all in one word, mind you- it means "buddies".)
The three original baking buddies were Erik, Antoine and Manu. Antoine has moved on to open his own little bakery; Manu is still there but currently apprenticing to a farmer for a year because he's planning to eventually grow and mill the grain for the bakery. We didn't get to see him. We heard about Mickael, another of the current bakers, but he wasn't working that afternoon and we didn't meet him either.
Getting back to Erik, this giant of a Dutchman didn't plan on becoming a baker. He trained as a forestry engineer in his native Holland but after one boring meeting too many, he quit his job to travel around the world. In 1984-85, a girlfriend led him to France.
Determined to work with his hands, he started baking three breads per hour in an old gas stove he had refurbished and installed in his small city apartment (he then lived in Caen). He sold them at the open-air market. After a while, eager to move closer to the grain, he left the city for the country, soon getting his hands on more castaway gas stoves... At one point, seven of those could be counted lined up in his living room.
He dreamed of a wood-fired oven but his budget didn't allow it. Luck intervened: he heard of a baker up north who was planning to dismantle his old oven and would be willing to sell the metal parts for scraps. He bought the scraps and trucked them back and with his buddies' help, he finally built his wood-fired oven. It took him a year...
That was in 1993-94. The oven has been in constant use since then. Erik says that once he switched ovens, his bread quickly became so much better that he could no longer satisfy the demand. He needed to make more. He had a choice: invest in equipment or invest in labor. He chose to make more bread with more hands instead of with more machines. He also decided he no longer wanted to be boss: time had come to share the burden of garanteeing a steady income to all those who worked at the bakery. The cooperative was born.

Meet Seth Wiggin, 27, employed at the bakery. Like Erik, Seth didn't originally embark upon a career as a baker. His degree is in civil engineering. Although he comes from a small port on Lake Erie in Ontario, he holds dual British-Canadian citizenship which gives him the right to work in the European Union.
As he tells it, about two years ago he biked his way around France for a month, exploring the countryside and eating baguettes every day. Once back home, he realized that he wanted to make bread. So he built himself a levain from scratch and started baking. The first bread turned out okay and it spurned him to make more, much more. He finally made it back to France the following April, first working as a volunteer (wwoofing) at an organic goat cheese farm (cheese is his other passion), then seeking an organic bakery that would use a wood-fired oven.
He contacted Les Co'Pains through a mutual acquaintance and they agreed to let him "wwoof" at the bakery, at the beginning just for room and board. He is now a full-time salaried employee. He enjoys many aspects of the bakery and finds great personal satisfaction in the atmosphere it fosters among the bakers and their network of friends and acquaintances.

Meet Didier Bodelot, 44. I didn't get to talk to Didier as much as I would have liked to. I have since written to him. If he decides to share more about his life as a baker, I'll be sure to update the post. At this point, all I know is that he too comes from a different professional background (he used to work for Doctors without Borders) and is taking advantage of a French government's re-training program to go back to school and get certified as a baker. Within this program he must alternate between classes and internships. He chose to intern at Les Co'Pains because he is interested in the cooperative bakery model.
Now that you have met the bakers, let's talk about the baking.  Erik describes an epiphany he once had as a student in a high-school chemistry class: "Aaargh! I never want to be precise again!", he vowed, and to this day, he describes himself as a "latitudinarian". He bakes by feeling, not according to any formula. There is nothing written in the bakery (except a schedule of bread prices) and no ingredient is ever weighed or temperature measured.
As Manu writes in Boulange: "Empty the bag of flour into the trough. Throw in pinches of salt (more or less one for each kilo of flour plus another for the sheer beauty of the gesture). Dip your hand into the levain. Estimate how much you need depending on the temperatures, both indoors and outdoors, the proofing time, the flour you are using, the composition of your levain... Careful! Things get a bit more complicated. Head towards your source of water. Use cold water if the temperature is warm, warm water if it is cold. If you don't know whether the temperature is warm or cold, ask Erik. If Erik isn't around, improvise! The dough will let you know the day after if the water was too warm or too cold..."(my translation).
On the whole it surely evens out. The bakery has been successfully selling its bread for more than 20 years, so it must know what it is doing. I imagine an intern has a hard time of it until he finds his bearings though. And it is hard work, no doubt about that. Although to the onlooker, it may look like sheer poetry...

Shortbread cookies are made the same way: nothing written, nothing measured. Asked how many eggs he uses, Erik will tell you: "As many as necessary..." Sugar? Butter? Same answer. Would I be able to reproduce his recipe? Not really. Did I love watching him make it? Yes, totally! Out of one dough, he makes four different batches: plain, sesame seeds, chocolate and raisins. I only took pictures of the chocolate ones. There is magic in the way a shaggy mess of flour, butter and eggs slowly morphs into an orderly line-up of ready-to-bake cookies. Look!

La marche des sablés (The march of the shortbread cookies)

Let's turn to the bread...

(above photo by our friends from Tree-Top Baking. Reproduced with permission)
You are probably thinking that, save for the occasional baguette, the bread doesn't look much like bread normally found in France and you are right. Erik says his customers mostly want bread they can slice and freeze and conveniently re-heat in their toasters. That tells me that many of them are probably foreigners and when I ask, Erik confirms that indeed many British or Dutch families own country homes in the area. They want organic and they buy his bread. He knows what they like and he gives it to them. 80% of his customers are return customers.
Four days a week he sells at markets: Wednesdays in Honfleur, Fridays in Caen, Saturdays in Lisieux, Sundays in Caen again. He delivers to several natural food stores and CSA's. People in the know even make their way to the bakery on baking days to pick up their bread as it comes out of the oven. But local villagers typically do not get their bread from Les Co'Pains: first of all they are not necessarily able or willing to pay a premium for organic and secondly, they prefer the baguettes they can buy at Carrefour or Leclerc, two ubiquitous chains of supermarkets typically found in most cities or on their outskirts.
Did I like Les Co'Pains' bread? After a whole afternoon spent at the bakery, you'd think I would have an opinion, right? Well, to my everlasting mortification, I can't say anything about the way the bread tastes because I never thought to sample it! I was so spellbound by the slow ballet of the bakers at work, the heady fragrance of the wholegrain levain as it incorporated with the flour and water, the smell of the burning wood, the play of light on the loaded peel, the song of the cooling breads that I went on sensory overload and completely ignored the fact that my tastebuds needed to be consulted.
We did buy a baguette and had it that night with cheese. It tasted wonderfully wheaty but it was also saltless. Yes, you read it right: there was no salt in it. Clearly the follow-no-script method has its pitfalls ! But then what method doesn't? I have taken to always measuring the salt first and putting it very close to my mixing bowl so I can't possibly not see it when the autolyse is over. Salt-less does happen. Levain-less too sometimes... Not fun! The baguette was otherwise excellent. 
Erik explained that they basically mix three different doughs, all organic and all-levain based: one entirely wholewheat (based on T150 flour), one semi-whole wheat (based on T80 flour) and one all-white (based on T55 flour). For more info on the French classification of flours, you may want to refer to this page on the artisan website.
Out of these three doughs, they make nine to ten different breads, adding various seeds (sunflower, poppy, sesame or flax) and other flours, including spelt, buckweat and a 5-grain mix, also walnuts or hazelnuts. They make an emmer bread that Erik describes as their most expensive at € 5.30/700 g ($ 7/24 oz.) but which always sells very well.
Mixing is typically done at the end of the day, entirely by hand. There is no mixer. No stretch and fold or other form of gluten-development either. Erik describes the resulting dough as slightly more than no-knead. That's all. Fermentation takes place from 8 PM to 4:40 AM. The dough is never refrigerated or otherwise retarded. That's baking like it was done in the old days, folks! A mind-boggingly different business model from the ones we saw in Paris during our BBGA-sponsored visits (see In Paris with bread on my mind, Two more Parisian bakeries and Award-winning baguettes in Montmartre) where shiny modern stores hide diminutive labs (often located in the basement) and where the husband toils in the back while the wife officiates at the cash register. No cash register is visible at Les Co'Pains, only a cash box and Erik's wife commutes to a nearby small town where she teaches French. There is no woman in sight actually and I forgot to ask if the bakery ever had a woman apprentice.
When at Europain I attended a roundtable of women bakers and I remember the participants bringing up the issue of pénibilité (the demanding nature of the work) and the way labs could be adapted to women's physical requirements to make professional baking more appealing to them. Well, at Les Co'Pains, such adaptation hardly seems possible. But what goes for women also goes for aging workers. Erik is probably already thinking of the day when his back rebels or his arms slow down.
Young partners and/or workers will need to be secured and he himself might choose then to focus more on what he already says he greatly enjoys: perpetuating a skills by training apprentices and teaching breadbaking to school children. Many classes already visit regularly as a group. For a set fee of € 6 euro per child, the kids play with flour and levain and get to bake pre-shaped loaves that they can take home. These visits are a good source of income for the bakery and they help strenghthen its ties with the community. They may also help train the tastebuds of future generations of local customers...
As Manu writes in Boulange, today the Co'Pains are bakers. Tomorrow they might be farmers too (he's working hard towards that goal). Together with other like-minded artisans in their community (such as Lin or Sophie, who make cheese, Nicole, who makes cider and apple-juice, etc.), they are forging ties both to the land and to the people who nurture it by working it the old-fashioned way. Their network grows with every passing year and their hope is that twenty, fifty, a hundred years from now the artisan model will the prevalent one. The land will have been re-parcelized and supermarket-shopping will be no more than the memory of a quaint aberration in a not-so-distant past... We will all be thinking like stewards of the Earth. The Co'Pains already do.

External resources:


  1. You captured a very beautiful place with such amazing -- accurate -- detail. I wish I could have explained it so succinctly. Congratulations. Readers should know this is an amazing, almost spiritual environment....

    1. Thank you, The Bakers! Your presence and your interaction with the "copains" made the experience so much richer...

  2. Very interesting bunch of bakers they have there at Co'Pains! And the place looks absolutely beautiful!

    It seems a lot of bakers come from some background other than baking. Have you figured our why that is?

    1. Hello Jarkko! Glad you liked the piece. Maybe les Co'Pains will make it in a future issue of Bread magazine?
      Re: your question. Yes, it never ceases to amaze me as well. With no disrespect to any other profession, it does seem to me that bread attracts more passion than many other food item. Maybe it is the timeliness of it (I know I feel a deep connection to something that stretches way beyond my own life when I bake) or it could be the fact that dough is alive and you have to coax it into giving you the end product you want and you don't always succeed, so it is a permanent challenge. There are also the fragrance of the levain, the rustic smell of grains and all that they evoke of a world which is often remote from modern life... I know that all of this is true for me. What about for you?

  3. What a wonderful post! Everything looks so wonderful and delicious! Thank you again.
    Esther in Ottawa

    1. Esther, hi! How are you? So glad to hear from you again... So glad you liked the post.

  4. Absolutely beautiful and amazing story. All your pictures are so full of life, feels like one is right there.
    Thank you for sharing your adventures.
    Ajay (Seattle)

    1. Hello Ajay! Thank you for your kind comment. I am so glad you enjoyed the story and the pictures! I meant to ask you: did you make it to Whidbey Island as planned the other day? If not, I heard that the Bayview Farmers Market is having its grand opening on April 28th. It is very pretty and picturesque. I have lovely memories of it. It could be a great way to start your island tour...

    2. Hi Farine, Unfortunately I haven't made it to the island yet but plan on doing so in the next couple of weeks for a weekend trip and hopefully enjoy the tulips in Skagit valley at the same time. I did drive up to Breadfarm a while ago and bought several breads, it was a real treat. Thanks for the information about the Bayview Farmers Market.

    3. I am so glad you tried Breadfarm and liked the bread. I have the Skagit Valley tulip fields on the agenda too for later this month. I'd love to make the opening of the Bayview Market as well. Maybe I'll see you there... Enjoy your weekend trip!

  5. I loved this piece! From the play on words to the glorious photographs and to the stories that you weave around them you had me captivated all the way through. I love the bit about the no salt in the bread too. I have a friend who lives in Normandy and my sister goes there two or three times a year, I will tell her all about this place and maybe one day I will visit too :)

    1. Thank you, Joanna! So glad you got into the story and came along for the ride. Hopefully you can go and visit one day. Don't forget to taste the bread for me then and let me know! ;-)

  6. Hi Farine, this is great. Thanks for sharing this with us. Great photos; they show even more than what you tell us. I agree, the photos do tell the story but I love your explanation. Even though we live in Thailand I'm Dutch by birth so a bit proud of what Erik accomplished.

  7. Hi Connie, oh, you would have been right at home. My husband is from Antwerp in Belgium and Erik from a small Dutch town 35 km north of Antwerp. When the two of them discovered they shared the same (almost) native tongue, they started chattering away like there was no tomorrow... If you had been there, you would have joined right in! Thank you for your kind comments on the post. I am glad you enjoyed it.

  8. I wish I could work in a place like this. To learn how to make a better bread and to feel close to tradition and nature. Do you think they'll accept a passionate homenbaker (like me) to work with them for a month or two?

    wonderful post, MC. Great pictures and great story.


    1. Hello Codruta, thank you! I am always happy when readers like a story so much they want to become part of it! Maybe they'd have you as a wwoofer if you applied. But it is truly hard work for a woman (between cutting the wood and mixing all that dough by hand). I guess it depends on how athletic you are... :-)

  9. Beautiful photos! What type of camera do you use?
    I loved your story of the bakers and of this bakery. The passion shines through in the work they do and how you captured it in words and in the video.Thank you so much for sharing it all here for us to see too. I had never seen dough mixed in troughs before and found it captivating.

  10. Hi Janet,
    So glad you enjoyed the visit! I was under the spell myself. Bread poetry in action! But it is a lot of work... I use a Lumix GF3.

  11. Hey MC,
    Thanks again for the visit. It is nice to be able to show family and friends a little of what I do here in France- including a bit of the story behind the boulangerie. Also, thanks for linking to the book 'boulange'; I didn't know it existed online.


    P.S. Sorry, but I wasn't at M. Supiot's farm- it was another paysanne bolanger in Bretagne, so I have no information in regards to the video you watched. However, I do plan on asking him if he takes stagiaires.

  12. Hi Seth, I am so glad you like the story and also that it makes it easier to share a bit of your French life with friends and family back home. They must love seeing you in action! Thank you again for making this visit happen: we loved meeting you guys and learning about the bakery. Please keep me posted as to your new bread-baking adventures.

  13. Hello MC,
    Your photographs are beautiful and they capture so many reminders of that other century; the way this bread is made, the Dutch baking pans, the buildings and countryside (I love the church steeple in the distance).
    How wonderful these bakers have apprentices, and are teaching children about what they do, what good bread is and what it should taste like. Thank you for writing about Boulangerie Les Co’Pains and I wish these bakers every success growing and milling their own grain.
    :^) breadsong

  14. Hi MC,

    Great post about a great bakery. Love the true take on traditional methods, even down to mixing the dough by hand. I've not heard of any other bakeries that got that traditional; even the most stringent, all "hand made" artisanal, wild yeast only, wood fired oven traditionalist seem to leave that particular daunting task to a machine. That has to be quite the work out! How long did it take for them to mix those huge bins of dough that way?


    1. Hi Paul, yes, hand-mixing is a true workout in a professional setting but basically that's what they used to do in the old days, right? My concern is that it isn't necessarily sustainable as the body ages (and it ages for way longer now than it did in the old days where life expectancy was much shorter). So it kind of presupposes that the baker/owner is able to secure the help of younger people if he wants to keep on producing in his late fifties and in his sixties, sometimes earlier depending on his health. Not a given in today's world. I am not sure about bakers as there is this big bread "renouveau" going on but I know that French artisan butchers have a very hard time finding young apprentices and that is why there are only 15% independent butchers in France and most of the meat is sold in supermarkets.
      I didn't time the mixing on the day we visited les Co'Pains but it wasn't especially long. They mix until everything is incorporated then they allow the dough to ferment for 8 hours or so, with no foldings. Gluten seems to develop adequately during the slow fermentation at cool temperature...

  15. I loved your article! I am actually going to be going there on the Wwoofing program soon for 10 days. Your article got me even more excited!!!

  16. Hello, Nicole! I can't wait to hear about your experience. So glad the article helped put you in the mood!

  17. Thank you for sharing this fantastic story with amazing people and amazing places. It touched my heart! You have a native talent to write...don't stop :)

    1. and I guess is useless to say that I would like to work in a place like this :)

  18. Thank you, Ana, for your very nice words. If you speak French or English or Dutch or Spanish, maybe you could consider applying to work at the bakery as a wwoofer? That would certainly be a memorable experience!

    1. Of course, I would consider to work as a wwoofer in a French bakery, because I'm sure it's not the same way to make sourdough breads at home and to see how really works a traditional boulangerie. I am really aware that are two distinct things. Actually, I'm still thinking to take some classes to EBP (The Paris School of Bakery and Patisserie. They have a session in December.
      Unfortunately my French language is very poor, Dutch language I don't know (even if I worked in Holland for almost 7 months but it was 10 years ago; the spoken language there was English)and about Spanish I can understand a bit. In one word, yes I'm interested even if is for 2 weeks but in the spring time.
      We'll keep in touch if you don't mind but I don't know why I feel that I know you from a lifetime. Maybe, it's sounds silly but that's the way I feel.



Blog Designed by: Deanna @ Design Chicky