The Village Baker
Small Farmer's Journal, Winter 2006, Vol. 30, No. 1



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At 3am, I pulled down the single lane main street and parked on the sidewalk in front of the bakery. Sarlat, a small town in the south of France, was still dark, shutters closed, the odd street lamp flickering in the pre-dawn grey. I couldn’t help but imagine the town fathers slumbering in their beds. All, that is, but the village baker. The storefront at la Boulangerie-Pâtisserie may have been dark, but behind the shuttered façade of the building, something was definitely happening. A thin wisp of smoke curled out of the chimney. The distinctive odour of burning pine hung heavy in the air. Maître-boulanger Amédée Humeau was already hard at work. A knock at the back door went unanswered. I walked in to find him in his mitron (the traditional white baker’s hat). As he greeted me, he took a quick peek at his rising loaves before turning on the coffee pot. The arrival of a young American intent on learning the mysteries of French bread was quite out-of-the-ordinary, and in Sarlat, out-of-the-ordinary is an excuse to sit down and celebrate. At 3am, a warm pain-au-chocolat and a bowl of fresh brewed coffee was just the ticket.

The wood-fired oven, still hot from the previous day’s baking, needed a quick burst of heat to come up to temperature. The gueûlard (a cast-iron cone) fed hot flames directly into the baking chamber and Adée, as he invited me to call him while we sipped our coffee, skilfully directed the heat from the firebox, first to one side of the oven, and then to the other, so it was evenly dispersed. By the time we reached the coffee grounds at the bottom of our bowls, I was wrapped in a white apron, well-caffeinated (which doubles for hydrated in France), and ready for the day to come. Or, so I thought.

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