Breaking Bread

Inspiration / Lifestyle & Opinion

Breaking Bread

Contents

Andrew Jefford Andrew Jefford

Wine writer Andrew Jefford's travels in France and beyond

Britons living permanently in France, as my family and I have since May 2010, should expect regular interrogation. Not from unsmiling French tax inspectors (they exist, but can be kept at bay by a few simple precautions), but from friends and acquaintances, all of them curious to know what the tipping point for expatriating oneself might be. My usual summary as to why we moved to France's south is '40 per cent weather, 30 per cent curiosity and 30 per cent bread'. Everyone thinks the bread is a joke. It's not. What else brings intimate pleasure to one's life, three times a day, seven days a week? Thirty per cent might even be an under-estimate. I'd trade any of France's three-star restaurants for our local boulangerie.

Boulangerie Bread

Finding a house to rent in France back in 2010 was a struggle, since neither my wife nor I had a French employer or salaried job; we ended up, thus, in an un-picturesque village on the last northern outskirts of Montpellier. We quickly discovered, though, that the village had one irresistible attraction: Maison Heyer. The clue was the length of the queue that had already formed outside the dowdy building near the church by 7:30 every Sunday morning. Inside, we found a temple to wheat and its extraordinary powers of metamorphosis, once conjoined with water and yeast, and guided by strong, French human hands in the small hours through purgatorial kneading towards a very hot steam oven. (The church struggles to compete.)

There are at least half a dozen Heyer variants on the generic term 'baguette', for example, from the springy, responsive Tradition through the crustier, flour-dusted Provençale, the torpedo-like Tradimeule (always burnt at the ends) and the rabbit-eared Fagotte to the Bûche de Prades, a blasted, Lear-like truncheon of a loaf made of nothing save crust, and eventually banned by my wife since it was impossible to cut without snowing morsels of crumb over her scrupulously swept floor tiles.

The Campagnard is a Zeppelin-sized creation of limitless splendour, though any family numbering less than 12 will find it takes some weeks to eat: we occasionally manage a half, if armed with a houseful of guests. There is a Baguette Viennoise for toothless, aged relatives, as well as maternal, bosom-shaped brioche loaves for those who have yet to grow teeth. They even manage to make a fine wholemeal loaf (normally beyond French baking genius) called a Gros Bio.

The moment I discovered Maison Heyer, I lost any residual fear about inviting guests to lunch or dinner, even if deadlines are pressing. The reason was the meal I've come to call 'Bread And'.

Bread and Cheese

Once, in other words, I've biked home with a couple of effusively scented loaves from Maison Heyer, whatever else I might serve is an afterthought: the meal is made. A sun-ripened 'ancient tomato' or two, a dish of olive oil, a roll of butter, a few radishes, a slice of ham: the courtiers clustering around King Loaf barely matter. The bread renders potatoes or rice with a bit of meat superfluous; the bread is there to mop up the juices from a grilled fish. It eclipses both.

Bread and Wine

Its final virtue becomes evident when you pull the cork from a wine bottle. 'Goes well with bread' is a rarely seen back-label formulation, perhaps because most bread is a dismal parody of what it might be, or perhaps because it seems... obvious. Sometimes the obvious needs stating. If you steer clear of a few car-crash accompaniments (artichokes, bottarga or Roquefort) great bread is what every wine dreams of.