Bread to feed the soul

PUBLISHED: 14:18 27 February 2009 | UPDATED: 15:50 20 February 2013

Fabrice's bread

Fabrice's bread

Grenville Simons watches Fabrice the French baker at work, using organic flours and long, slow fermentation along with the artisan's touch to make his distinctive, delicious loaves. Photographs by Paul Lack.

Grenville Simons watches Fabrice the French baker at work, using organic flours and long, slow fermentation along with the artisan's touch to make his distinctive, delicious loaves. Photographs by Paul Lack.

'Bread,' wrote Jonathan Swift at the start of the 18th century, 'is the staff of life.' One imagines he was thinking of a product that was basic, tasty and pretty healthy to eat. Just a hundred years later things had changed and all sorts of adulterations were in use in bread-making, including adding chalk and alum to the mixture to change it into an unhealthy, chewy, flavourless, white stodge. Roll the clock on to contemporary times, and we find that over 75% of UK bread is made by the Chorleywood Process, a method which produces vast tonnages of white, fluffy loaves, containing a concoction of chemical additives. It is eye-catching and sells very well, but that's about it.

So, it is no surprise that one of the joys of crossing the Channel is to visit la boulangerie for really tasty bread and perhaps some mouth-watering pâtisserie., those of us living in this area don't have to dig out our passports or brush up our French vocabulary - le boulanger est ici!

Fabrice Ponteville is the sixth generation in a family of bakers from Baisieux, a few kilometres east of Lille. In 1815 Pierre Ponteville opened the bakery and Fabrice recalls being told stories from those days when big dogs were used to turn a large 'hamster- like wheel' which ran a belt to turn the mixer. Bread was sold from the baker's shop and delivered throughout the surrounding area by a cart, drawn by four magnificent horses.

Living above and working in the family bakery, Fabrice acquired the skills to make bread in the traditional way, but as a young man wanted to broaden his horizons and travelled to various European countries "learning different techniques and gathering new ideas".

Ten years ago his "itchy feet" took him to London where, he says, "I wanted to see what was happening". He contacted the Delice de France bakery and was immediately given a job. Within three months he had been appointed manager. "I organised everything," he smiles, "but I got bored; there was no challenge, I was not making bread."

Then followed a spell in a craft bakery in Haslemere, where Fabrice discovered that this British way of baking was no different to the method he already practised. "It's just like riding a bicycle," he quips, but adds, "I did discover how to make hot cross buns". Journeying westwards, he then worked for The Authentic Bread Company in Newent, where he developed their pain au levain loaf, which was voted one of the best breads in the UK and gained an organic food award from the Soil Association.

In 2003, Fabrice started up his own business, renting a bakery and selling in farmers' markets and shops: Aux Bonnes Choses was born. An early venture, using water collected from a spring on the Malvern Hills, was baking 'seasonal' loaves, olive and tomato in summer, walnut and raisin in winter. He shrugs his shoulders, recalling that "it didn't really work", but never being one to turn away from a challenge, he is quite prepared sometime to have another go.

In May last year, having found a suitable site in Bromsberrow Heath, Fabrice opened his own bakery and now he modestly describes the business as "going from strength to strength". This is hardly surprising, for here in his efficient yet unpretentious bakery Fabrice seems to produce food not just for the belly, but to feed the soul as well. Using organic flours and long, slow fermentation processes along with the artisan's touch, he produces distinctive loaves free from the cocktails of enzymes which doctor industrially made bread.

There are five stages of bread-making: mixing and kneading; rising or fermenting; shaping or moulding; proving and finally baking. Five nights a week, just as most of us are going to bed, Fabrice starts work. Observant and critical throughout all these stages, he says, "I am always striving for perfection, observing, and feeling with my hands, touching with my fingertips, so that at any stage changes can be made. I am critical to the end of production because I want to offer a quality product." He smiles and adds, "I do not advertise; my business card is my bread."

By the morning a wide range of bread and patisserie has been made - it is a mouth-watering sight! Sourdough loaves along with paysan, rustic, rye, spelt and wholemeal varieties are transported to an ever-increasing number of outlets. Rosemary, a customer at Fodder in Hereford, comments "It's the best bread in town," while Richard and Suzanne Snell, owners of the newly opened The 207 Store in Malvern Wells, recall how Fabrice was given a loud cheer by customers as he arrived with his tray on their opening day. In Ledbury his bread is available from the busy café and delicatessen Cameron and Swan, and further up the Homend in Four Oaks continental delicatessen. Deliveries are also made to outlets in Ross-on-Wye, Monmouth, Lydney, Newnham-on-Severn, and Chepstow, while on a Sunday Fabrice's produce is pounced upon at the award-winning Cardiff farmers' market.

Approaching the continental-looking Bromsberrow Heath Post Office and Stores it almost feels like France; and stepping inside it fulfills the promise of giving 'an old-fashioned warm welcome in a traditional village shop'. Every day from Wednesday to Sunday there is a large tray of Fabrice's 'very good things' for sale. Carol and John Meredith are pleased that Fabrice's bread has brought an increase in customers, particularly on a Sunday when fresh bread is unavailable elsewhere, and say that baguettes and croissants are particularly popular.

So what are the future plans and aims for our French 'free-range' baker? Well he certainly won't just be just sitting and watching the sourdough loaves rising. He wants to get out and about, especially to farmers' markets where he can talk to customers, investigate the possibility of gaining organic certification, and keep a watchful eye on the quality of bread-making flour. Fabrice is in no doubt that the recent poor harvests, leading to a worldwide shortage of wheat, have meant the mixing and blending of flours has resulted in a reduction in quality.

Before long he wants to purchase a wood-fired bread oven. "It's a challenge. I am always in competition with myself. Using a mixer, the oven and my hands, this is the real art of making bread." His emphasis again is on 'the hands' and it is this intimate contact with the raw materials of his trade that not only gives him satisfaction, but ensures quality. Production from the wood-fired oven would be very small, but reminiscent perhaps of the distinctive two kilogram loaves of Lionel Poilâne, to date 'the most celebrated baker since King Alfred', which sell in Paris for breathtaking prices.

An old Chinese proverb suggests, 'If you have two pennies, spend one on a loaf and one on a flower. The bread will give you life, the flower a reason for living.' I am a great fan of flowers, but I'll put both of those pennies towards one of Fabrice's spelt loaves.

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