Friday, November 21, 2014

Meet the Baker: Frédéric Pichard

I am filing this post under the Meet the Baker label but in fact the two hours of this time Frédéric Pichard so generously gave me on a recent Saturday morning were less about him than about his all-consuming passion, le pain français. Pain français means "French bread" of course but I won't use the translation in this post because Monsieur Pichard would have a fit if he could see what comes up when one googles "French bread," definitely not the kind of bread he is devoting his professional life to. He has no website and zero interest in the Internet, so hopefully he won't see these pictures but, out of respect, I'll stick to the original French. I first met Frédéric Pichard in a chapter of Sam Fromartz' excellent book, In Search of the Perfect Loaf, a Home Baker's Odyssey. Despite the fact that Pichard had won best croissant in Paris in 2011 and that his baguette had placed in the top ten in the 2009 Grand Prix de la Baguette, I hadn't really paid much attention before but when I read what Sam had to say about his methods, I knew I had to go see him. And even though I am not sure Monsieur Pichard knows what a blog is,  he was most welcoming when I called. And at the appointed time, we sat under a tree at a long table in the quiet courtyard behind the boulangerie. Madame Pichard came to say hello and brought me coffee and a croissant.
 I thought of Sam who described Pichard's baguette as almost floating in his hand as he held it. Well, that croissant was so crisp and light it practically levitated. Definitely worth crossing a continent AND an ocean but hard to eat elegantly: as it dwindled, it kept showering my open notebook with golden flakes which I tried to brush away while still writing a mile a minute... Not an easy feat. Fortunately Monsieur Pichard paused long enough to let me catch up.

Croissant dough (made with milk levain)
As you will see if you read on, what Frédéric Pichard gave me that morning was a treatise on pain français, complete with practical information and historical references, and because he was so intensely involved in his subject, listening to him was an unexpectedly moving experience. Monsieur Pichard knows full well that he is un oiseau rare (literally a rare bird) among French bakers. When I told him that he reminded me of Don Quixote, he laughed and he shrugged. Like all of us, he can only do his best, right?
If an eighteenth-century French baker time-traveled to Maison Pichard, 88 rue Cambronne in the fifteenth arrondissement of Paris, he or she (were there women bakers then?) would feel at home almost immediately. The technology and equipment have evolved but the process has remained almost identical. They would find the flour and its sometimes erratic behavior eerily familiar as well. They used farines-mères, a flour whose only ingredient was wheat. Frédéric Pichard does too: no additive is ever allowed into his flour, not even malt. The grain is grown and milled to his specifications in his native Beauce, a region so fertile that, from time immemorial, its vast plains have been considered France's breadbasket. One of his grandfathers was a farmer and he used to say: "France is divided in two parts: one half is to the north of the Loire River, the other half to the south. Pain français comes from the northern part of France where wheat grows best." Today Mr. Pichard makes his baguettes with the very same high-protein wheat varieties that this grandfather used to grow: Capelle, Capitole, Hardi. Why high-protein? To prevent gluten degradation during fermentation.
Pichard bakes his baguettes in a wood-fired oven because falling heat makes for better development. The bread gets a bit chewier and therefore tastier. The cost of wood isn't an issue: "Because I use my own flour and don't pay a premium to a miller for putting in additives and test-developing recipes, I can afford wood and still sell my baguette at a very competitive price."

What follows is a synopsis of what Frédéric Pichard told me, based on a translation of my notes.

What is pain français?
  • "Le pain, ce n'est que de la fermentation;" (Bread is nothing but fermentation)
  • Pain français is bread made of pure T55 flour sublimated through the fermentation process (according to this article, the ash content for T55 flour is 0.50-0.62 and the extraction rate 75-78). The flour must contain no additives of any  kind: a baker who uses additives is alienating his or her profession. To use a wine-making metaphor,  it is like adding raspberries to Romanée-Conti
  • Pain français must taste lactic and its flavors be subtile; using a higher extraction flour would make for a stronger taste and the resulting bread wouldn't be pain français; 
  • There is no prescribed recipe for pain français; the baker must adjust to the flour: wheat has its vintages as does wine. Moreover, "les blés bougent à chaque écrasement" (wheat changes with each milling);
  • Pain français is all about the baker's savoir-faire (know-how);
  • When properly made, the baguette is the ultimate pain français.
In the eighteenth century, bakers of pain français:
  • Always worked en masses importantes (in large batches). The size of the batch was proportional to the oven capacity;
  • Used as much water as they possibly could and mixed until the dough started to look homogenous and the gluten network to develop; didn't work from a recipe (there was none);
  • Let the dough ferment for a while (sometimes up to ten hours) then added fresh flour and water to prevent pourriture (decay), i.e. the formation of undesirable acetic bacteria. These additions were called rafraîchis. Their object was to "launder out" the unwanted bacteria which routinely appeared because the bakers used wooden troughs (where germs tended to proliferate) and worked in labs that were not immaculate;
  • Let the dough ferment again and added the salt at the end of the mixing; then did the last rafraîchi, called tous points;
  • Worked in the room where the oven was, which means that there could be tremendous variations in ambient temperature. Typically the oven wasn't lit yet when the mixing began. The lab went from really cold at the beginning to really hot towards the end of the process. Such variations in temperature were detrimental to the yeast micro-organisms.
To make pain français today, Frédéric Pichard: 
  • Applies the CELFEL (Culture Endogène Longue/Fermentation Exogène Lente) method that he has developed over the  years (lengthy endogenous culture/slow exogenous fermentation);
  • Mixes flour, salt and water in stainless steel cuves (see picture below: the word is normally used for wine and means "vats") which are scrubbed and bleached between each batch and allows the mixture to rest for as long as needed to get the endogenous fermentation he is looking for. This fermentation differs from autolyse (whose function is to relax the gluten.) Here there is no prescribed duration: the process can take twenty hours, it can take more than thirty. The key is to add as much water as the flour can take. The more water, the more active the fermentation; no recipe can help the baker determine how much water to use. If a baker applying the CELFEL method underestimates the amount of water that the flour can absorb, then the baking goes south: there is less fermentation which means the development won't be optimal and the bouquet aromatique will be less complex;

Fermented baguette dough ready for the addition of yeast and for mixing
  • Adds a minute amount of fresh yeast (0.2 to 0.4% of flour weight, sometimes even less than 0.1%) at the time of the final mixing "pour imprimer au pain une poussée gazeuse" (to facilitate a gaseous thrust) which, combined with the bulles sauvages or wild bubbles created during the long endogenous fermentation, will help give the crumb its honeycomb structure);
  • Mixes only as long as necessary to develop the dough;
  • Allows the dough to ferment again for four to seven hours after mixing; 
  • Doesn't proof his baguettes: once shaped, they are ready for the oven after one single long slash with a lame;
  • Uses a wood-fired oven in which he burns hornbeam wood (the young tree growing in his courtyard is a hornbeam which he planted to honor the wood that helps make his pain français);
  • Bakes his baguettes for 20 to 22 minutes or so;
  • Never uses his retarder for pain français, only for bulk viennoiserie and specialty doughs. 
A bit of history
  • Le pain français first appeared at the time of the First French EmpireTalleyrand, France's most important diplomat under several kings and one emperor, was a gastronome; his chef Antoine Carême made it his mission in life to refine French cuisine as a whole, bread-baking included. He had flour sifted so that only the white endosperm was retained. No longer able to rely on the strong taste of grain, French bakers learned to use fermentation to create flavorful and airy breads: they invented pain français;
  • Pain français became famous because it was the bread of the rich and powerful (lower classes ate miches which generated no interest). Almost every country in the world has a bread tradition, yet twenty years ago nobody talked about Italian breads or pita bread; multigrain loaves started appearing thirty-five years ago in Paris; Parisian bakers began using dried fruit in bread twenty years ago or so. These breads are tasty because they contain ingredients suitable for pastry. They are not to be confused with pain français.
Further remarks
  • One gram of flour contains thirty to forty yeast micro-organisms, one gram of baker's yeast contains one hundred billions. Most bakers use way too much baker's yeast with the result that no characteristic aroma is produced; that's why they use flour to which malt has been added;
  • The Meilleurs Ouvriers de France (MOF) bakers have considerably evolved over the years in terms of shaping and presentation. But bread must be judged based on both its esthetic and its organoleptic qualities and unfortunately only esthetics seem to matter today. The French no longer know how to taste their bread. If they did, they would know it isn't good. Aromas are what make bread interesting, the reason we get it day after day and never get tired. Combining aromas is an art, l'art du boulanger, the baker's art;
  • When the wheat varieties that Pichard uses were developed, there was no seed lobby, no studies. Only know-how. Money wasn't the only factor then: work ethics and honor were important values. Today two criteria enter into play when creating new seeds: resistance to disease and productivity. In the old days, organoleptic qualities were taken into account as well. Pain français was at his best from 1900 to 1960 because that's when wheat was at its best.
  • Nowadays, more often than not, pain français is an imposture. The fault lies with the millers who strive to normalize flour. In France, four milling companies produce 68% of the flour used by the bakers. They eliminate all possible variations, come up with a recipe and standardize the bread when there should be as many baguettes as there are bakers;
  • Learning how to make pain français takes ten years. Everything else (pastry, viennoiserie, specialty breads) can be learned in six months; 
  • The baguette is key to the survival of individual bakeries in France. In Germany where manufacturing plants are humongous, stores sell for more money a bread that costs less to make and bakeries are disappearing. The beauty of the baguette is that it must be eaten fresh, so that customers have to come in everyday. If all bakers made only miches, there would soon be no more bakeries in France;
  • Maison Pichard makes three to four thousand baguettes a day.

Brioche dough

Maison Pichard's laminated brioche
Before leaving, I asked Monsieur Pichard what recommendations he would have for a serious home baker who wanted to make good baguettes. He sighed. He knew I live in the United States where access to a local bakery is more problematic than in France and I could see he was trying to come up with an encouraging answer. After a minute, he said: "Use nothing but pure wheat flour, water and salt and rely on fermentation alone to develop aromas. That should give you a good wheat bread." He didn't say pain français.


  1. Carissima MC,
    il tuo articolo mi ha lasciata senza parole.
    Sei riuscita ad esprime con le parole e con le splendide immagini tutto ciò che io ho sempre apprezzato dello straordinario mondo della Panificazione Francese, che accosta l'eleganza al gusto ed alla fragranza più assolta, ma soprattutto al rispetto di una grande professionalità che non dimentica le sue storiche tradizioni, una cosa d'altri tempi.....
    Questo articolo, che ho già stampato, mi farà da guida nel mio percorso di apprendimento. GRAZIE!!
    Con ammirazione ed affetto, Anna Giordani

    1. Grazie mille per i tue incoraggiamenti, Anna! Mi fa caldo dentro.

  2. Hi MC,
    Another delightful read that has brightened my morning. Your creative writing has done a wonderful job at capturing a glimpse into the life another baker that I never would have heard about yet who makes up this fantastic tapestry of bread bakers that span our globe. What a wonderful thing you do here. I have never even heard of the method he uses to make his breads. Fascinating. I do have the book 'In Search of……' but it is sitting in line behind others on my 'to be read' book shelf. A treat I look forward to savoring along with the book '52 Loaves…'
    Keeping you and your family close in my heart this holiday season…
    Thanks for all you do!

    1. Thank you, JanetH. I am so grateful to bakers for being so welcoming and for agreeing to share their life passions. Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours!

  3. This is a great post. It reminds me of janedo and your niece Flo interviewing Parisian bakers some years ago. I had to go back and re-read Fromartz's description of M. Pichard's method, and with your photos and notes now it makes more sense. 'Fermentation is everything' is I think how txfarmer explained her success with her baguettes. You have a remarkable rapport with your subjects, and such skill in reporting.

    With a rotating hearth, and the firebox on one side of the oven, perhaps one side of the oven was hotter than the other, so he could continually rotate the bread and effectively simulate a falling oven temperature without having to stop production to re-fire the oven. Did he use the oven this way? Or maybe all production wood fired ovens work this way. Three to four thousand baguettes a day, from a single oven! That would be 167 baguettes per hour, working around the clock. There is a lot to mine in your report. Thanks.

    1. Hello Anonymous and thank you. I am not sure how Mr. Pichard uses his oven. Maybe Sam explains it in his book. I would have to go back and look. But yes, Maison Pichard is a very busy bakery. I didn't mention it in the post but they also make an array of miches, whole-grain loaves and specialty breads that look very attractive. I saw the doughs. All very wet.

  4. MC, lovely article....and I want to strive to make a pain Americaine..haahh... wonder how you could do that loaf? And as for the revolving oven, it's maybe a Llopis...from Spain, I saw them used when I staged a month at David Bouley' can brake the oven and put in and pull out loaves.
    Happy Thanksgiving!

  5. Thank you Marie-Claude, for a fascinating and detailed explanation of M. Pichard’s pain français

    On the subject of “endogenous culture”…

    I don't wish to take anything away from the method M. Pichard employs, however I would suggest the "endogenous” fermentation mentioned is not a result of yeast metabolism (wild or otherwise).

    I've been experimenting with spontaneous fermentation for about 5 years now and have concluded the primary metabolising organism in the first 48 hours of mixing flour and water is bacteria of the genus clostridium. Regardless how sterile an environment you maintain, clostridium (most likely introduced via the flour) will be first to metabolise the wheat. It is the organism responsible for leavening “salt rising bread”. If left to continue to ferment, it will produce a rather noxious odour (butyric acid) at around 36 hours with an accompanying (dramatic) proteolytic effect.

    Before this undesirable stage is reached, it has been my observation that the dough can smell pleasantly "wheaty" and even "sweet". I speculate it is at this point M. Pichard introduces fresh yeast to finish fermentation with a view to baking the bread before any chance of clostridium fermenting uncontrollably.

    The leavening effects of “wild” yeast cannot be harnessed in such a short time span unless acidifcation occurs in the dough. This is why a stable sourdough culture cannot be reached until you have sufficient lactobacilli population (esp. obligate heterofermenters such as Lb Sanfranciscensis.) producing lactate/acetate to allow wild yeast to thrive (and also keeping clostridium, enterobacter etc. populations down). In short you cannot have thriving “wild” yeast without sour dough.

    1. Interesting, Toby! Thank you. I wish you could communicate directly with Mr. Pichard on the subject. I am sure he would love talking to you.



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