Tuesday, September 12, 2006: It is quite warm for mid-September in Burgundy, but we are squeezed into a small, ramshackle and stifling hot room which houses the 17th century brick oven at Chateau du Fey. The oven fire was started this morning and is now well over 400 degrees.
Monsieur C is a spry and amusing young French gentleman, who is both a Master Boulanger and a Master Artisan Patissier. He is wearing a bright white baker’s coat and an enthusiastic smile. He begins our session by demonstrating the art of folding croissant dough and shaping it into the traditional spiral pattern. We learn that some boulangeries use margarine for croissants, which is thought by some to offer a lighter density. Croissants made with butter are rolled straight, and those made with margarine are formed into moon-shaped crescents.
His nimble fingers work quickly to roll the cushiony dough. It is a speed gained from experience. He typically starts work at 2:00 a.m. and prepares five hundred croissants a day in a nine-door oven on his premise in a nearby village. As Monsieur C works, orange embers glow inside the brick oven, and we feel a blast of oppressive heat each time he lifts the latch on the metal door.
Monsieur C explains that bread actually requires the simplest of ingredients. One needs only four items – flour, yeast, salt and water. Yet the results can be deliciously complex. He specializes in special dark breads and country loaves. We are invited to roll croissants and pains au chocolat, and to shape and slice hatch marks in baguettes. He sends batch after batch into the oven arranged on a craggy wooden baking paddle with a long handle that keeps him a safe distance from the heat. He teaches us to knock on the bread and listen for the correct sound to assess if the loaf is fully baked.
We return to the main house at the conclusion of the demonstration. The students of La Varenne bring a wicker basket layered with hearty multi-grain loaves, baguettes, croissants and pains au chocolat to the entry hall of the chateau where we sample the results.
I tear a piece off the end of a puffy croissant. The crust is a lustrous gold, and the inner spirals are sunny yellow. There is just a seductive hint of smoky wood flavor that melds with the overwhelming taste of warm melted butter as the tender flakes dissolve in my mouth. And, I suspect that I can taste a bit of Monsieur C’s joie de vivre, as well.
© 2006 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved