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In France, Bucolic Bakers Cook Up Real Country Bread

Believe it or not, good bread can sometimes be hard to find in the French countryside. Some farmers are rising to the occasion, swapping their work gloves for baker’s mitts and offering customers some genuine country cooking.

French bakers are known for their bread making skills
French bakers are known for their bread making skills
Olivier Razemon

CAYRIECH/LOMBERS – The countryside is aglow after July's heavy rain. Farmers have just completed the harvest, and the promising golden wheat ears will soon be turned into flour – and then into crunchy bread. Only the bread isn't likely to be made – or even available – just here. In many of France's rural areas, wheat fields abound. But it is not uncommon for residents to drive 25 kilometers or more to buy decent bread.

The exception to the rule are the baguettes and round breads produced by farmer-bakers, who number about 500 nationwide and use a portion of their own wheat supply to bake and sell directly to customers. Regulations allow the farmer-bakers – most of whom got their start in the early 1990s – to use about 30 tons of flour per year. As everything is organic these days, most of them abide by organic farming rules and refuse to use synthetic products in their crops.

The phenomenon remains small. But according to Patrick de Kochko, coordinator of a group called the Farming Seeds Network, it "has aroused an interest among young farmers who, because of a shortage of land, are looking for new ways to develop their soils by controlling the whole production chain." The Farming Seeds Network promotes biodiversity in farming.

Hervé Cournède is one of those 500 farmer-bakers. His farm, near the small village of Cayriech in the Tarn-et-Garonne region, is not easy to find. Nevertheless, area residents and even some summer tourists venture there to buy bread. The farmer dedicates 15 of his 47 acres to wheat. He bought and set up the necessary tools for bread-making in a facility adjoining the main building of his farm. Besides the kneading machine and the wood stove, Cournède also has a machine that makes pasta.

Depending on the season, Cournède, who describes himself as a "farmer-miller-baker-pasta maker," also sells einkorn, sunflower oil, asparagus, melons and home-made ratatouille. "Before I settled down, I spent three weeks in the United States with Wisconsin farmers who used to sell milk and ice cream to their clients. It got me thinking," he says.

The farmer doesn't sell his products only to customers who visit the farm. He also travels every week to the cities of Toulouse and Montauban, where he operates market stands. Cournède even sells some of his products online, via a website called Grainesdeterroir.com, which features products from about 20 of the area's organic farmers.

In the neighboring region of Tarn, in the city of Lombers, Jean-Francois Roques, a farmer-baker since 1992, introduces himself as a "pioneer." His office, set up on the ground floor of a modern flour mill, looks exactly like the office of any other CEO – except for the notable farm odours and the flies that sometimes buzz around his computer screen.

Roques uses his 40 acres of land to grow cereals, sunflowers, or as pastureland to feed his cattle. He often says he "breeds cows to make bread," noting how he uses their manure to fertilize his fields. Each week, the farmer makes his own bread, which he sells on Tuesday and Saturday morning in the Albi market, in the shade of the gorgeous cathedral made of pinkish bricks. Most of his customers are individual marketgoers, but he also sells to some restaurants, including a crêperie, which buys whole sacks of his flour.

Just like his colleague from Cayriech, Jean-Francois Roques prefers to use a stone grinding process. "The wheatberry doesn't burst, but rather unravels and thus maintains its excellent health properties," he says.

Farm bread tends to be more attractive than the precooked baguettes sold in supermarkets. But it is often denser and darker than the bread produced in normal neighborhood bakeries. After tasting some bread produced by a local farmer, one tourist sums up the difference quite nicely: "Baker and farmer are two completely different jobs."

Read the original article in French

Photo - jean-lous zimmermann

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