Friday, March 9, 2012

Women bakers speak up...

If you are familiar with the term "autolyse", you may have heard of Professeur Raymond Calvel, the French baking professeur and author of The Taste of Bread, who invented the technique in the 70s as a way to improve the taste, texture and overall quality of French bread. Calvel was such an indefatigable promoter of artisan bread both in France and abroad (his memory is particularly revered in Japan which incidentally just won first place at Coupe du Monde de la Boulangerie) that his former students and friends have created Amicale Calvel, an association designed to disseminate, perpetuate and build upon his teachings.
A great place for bread people to meet and chat, the Amicale had organized a roundtable during Europain on the theme "Paroles de boulangères" (Women bakers speak up). The room was packed with a majority of men, most of them bakers and/or baking instructors, many from distant countries (including Japan). Jeffrey Hamelman, director of  King Arthur's Bakery in Norwich, Vermont, and author of Bread: A Baker's Book of Techniques and Recipes was in the audience and wrote an account of the meeting on King Arthur's blog. You can read it here.
I was particularly impressed by the testimony of Domitille Flichy, a jurist who decided to put to direct use her expertise in the field of professional reinsertion by opening a bakery founded on the principles of solidarity, equitability and sustainable development. Needless to say, the banks didn't break down her door trying to provide financing, especially since she wasn't a baker by trade. It was an uphill struggle but she managed with the help of social-minded sponsors. Today her bakery, Farinez'Vous,  employs eight people. Four of them are enrolled in a two-year economic and social reinsertion program at the end of which they'll be ready for a job in the outside world. Since they usually struggle in more ways than one, a psychologist comes and spends the day once a week to help solve any social issues they may have either inside or outside the bakery. Domitille gets her flour from Normandy, less than 70 miles away, from a farmer who farms sustainably. She is clearly a woman who lives by her convictions. I have yet to taste her bread but it is such an honest one (she uses local flours, no chemicals, no dough enhancers, works with levain, etc.) that, if nothing else, the taste of the ingredients must shine through. Baking having the reputation of being a male reserve in France (typically with the husband in the lab and the woman minding the store), she was asked about her relationships with other bakers. She said she had been made very welcome.
Another woman baker, Cécile Piot, a translator by trade, came to bread because she deeply felt the need to understand how it was possible to create so many tasty products with so few ingredients. She went to baking school, got a "panoplie d'outils" (literally, a toolbox of skills) and after a few years at the Ritz in Paris (where, unsurprisingly, she was the only woman baker, she moved to a farm with a little mill and a bakery. She sees the fields change with the season, bakes with what grows around her and gets high on the fragrance of fermenting dough and baking loaves. She cherishes the memory of Monsieur Ganachaud's hands. A famous Parisian baker, now retired, Bernard Ganachaud could take a shapeless piece of dough, barely move his fingers and voilà,  a flûte would emerge. This memory will stay with her forever. She too is living the life she wanted for herself.
As for Fuyumi Katano, another baker on the panel, she left her native Japan at 15 on a quest for bread because of a show she saw on TV at the age of 5: it showed how African street children had to toil all day to get enough money to buy bread. Pooling their earnings, a group of ten kids had managed to buy one loaf. They shared it, grinning at the camera. She was appalled that they had so little and resolved to learn how to make bread so that one day they would have more. Now 20, she is in the last year of her training with les Compagnons du Devoir. When she's done, she want to go work in Italy and in Germany for a while. She would love to train for la Coupe du monde one day. She might go back to Japan but mostly she wants to use her baking skills to do something in the humanitarian sphere.
Marianne Ganachaud comes from a family of bakers. She describes the French baking world as resolutely male but as luck would have it, her dad, the above-mentioned and justly famous Monsieur Ganachaud, had three daughters and no sons. Her two sisters stepped right into his tracks but she went her own way  and became a nurse. She reminded the audience that this macho thing is fairly new. In the old days, the women were the ones entrusted with the making of bread (I myself recall my father describing his grandmother and his aunt making huge round loaves of bread twice a month with a levain they kept under the sink). In other words, women bakers are nothing new. Bakers work both with their hands and with their heads. Both sexes have those. Of course heavy flour bags and huge batches of dough are an issue for women but in the Ganachaud bakery, the problem has been solved with the use of smaller mixers (15 to 18 liters). Smaller mixers mean smaller batches, smaller cooling racks, smaller everything. Everything is done by hand and a woman can hand-shape 200 to 300 baguettes just as easily as a man. When Marianne decided to join her sisters at the bakery, she let go of her job as a nurse and went to baking school. She had one goal: learn to be the best possible baker. She knew what a masculine niche the profession was (un monde d'hommes, literally a world of men) and wanted to "seduce" (her expression) her male colleagues and competitors by the depth of her knowledge. She succeeded. Her former instructor, Gérard Brochoire, who was also on the panel, later made the audience laugh by saying that, yes, Marianne knew how to seduce but one only had to see her negotiate with a miller to know that seducing wasn't her only weapon. On the occasion he clearly had in mind, nothing was left of the miller! 
Madame Riblet manages an artisanal bakery. She has been in business for thirty years. She wants to erase from memory the image d'Épinal de la femme du boulanger (traditional image of the baker's wife). Women are agents of change and come naturally to the baking world where they can move effortlessly from the lab to the store to the office.
After the interventions of Antoine Lemerle, an equipment manufacturer who said his profession now focused on lightening the tasks of the baker while leaving him or her free to create, and of Gérard Brochoire, a baking instructor who said progress had been made but there were still too few women in baking school (3% to 6% of students at the national level), Hubert Chiron, a brilliant baker, teacher, writer and Professeur Calvel's fils spirituel or true heir, brought the round table to an end. He said he had seen male and female bakers work together and that the male bakers often ended up copying their female colleagues' gestures and learning to be more gentle with the dough. Women were usually more motivated and wanted to challenge themselves. But there were practical issues: bakery premises are usually tiny in France and it is sometimes a huge hassle to have to put in a separate locker room. Men don't always like the competition. Some wives don't like the idea of a young woman working all night with their husbands. Society still favor men in the métiers de bouche (food professions). There has been been no woman Meilleur Ouvrier de France in the bakery category (Best Baker in France) yet for instance. But there were reasons to think the situation was evolving, slowly but surely.
As for him, he loved the fresh outlook women were bringing to a thousand-year old job: excellence, yes, but also, sharing, caring and a more sensuous approach. Cécile's image of Monsieur Ganachaud's hands dancing over the dough was a beautiful reminder that women see differently from men and having them on a team was a tremendous asset.


  1. This post was inspiring for so many reasons, the most prominent being the following two: it is so great to hear of women being successful in traditionally male-dominated trades. I happen to be one of those women who seem to routinely find themselves in male-dominated trades (audio engineering, political science, technology, now bread baking...) and so hearing of other women and their great successes is always refreshing. Second, I'm only an amateur bread baker but with a passion and hope to do something more professionally some day in the future. It's great to hear that many of these women had other professional jobs before embarking on their bread baking adventures. Thank you for this post.

  2. The comment by piecurious pretty much summarized how I feel about your article, so I will echo her words.

    I've enjoyed A LOT your recent series of posts, as you imagine - it's been absolutely great reading about your experiences and thoughts!

    Thank you!

  3. Thank you for such an interesting write up! Fascinating women. I especially like that "how it was possible to create so many tasty products with so few ingredients" because I am always thinking/saying that.

  4. I loved reading this!! :D
    Have a great day!

  5. thank you for this article, in the name of bakinggirls !!



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