This is Rupert’s brief report from a trip to Brittany early in 2015. A more comprehensive write-up will be available later in the year. (PDF Available)
Nicolas Supiot is one of the most famous peasant bakers in France. In fact he coined the phrase ‘peasant’ almost 20 years ago and brought it back from a derogatory word.
Nicolas has been growing his own grain, processing milling and baking only by hand (in a dough trough) for the last 20 years. This is what is means to be a peasant baker, to use only your own flour.
If you speak French, watch this video for a good introduction
Nicolas’ home and bakery is close to the farm, which is owned by an association and of which he and his wife Laeticia are tenants. This is their blog.
At the farm the have 20 or so ‘Bret’ cows, which apparently originated from Wales. They are similar to the size of Dexters. The farmhouse dates back to the 6th Century.
I attended this five-day course, which Nicolas holds twice a year for people wishing to set up their own peasant bakeries. I was part of a group of twelve which also included Ben Mckinnon, founder of E5 bakehouse in Hackney. They have recently purchased a mill at the bakery and five hectares of land two hours from London.
During the course Nicolas expounded on 20 years of experience. He shared his considerable experience and knowledge in the areas of:
- Wheat and its relationship to the land and humans.
- His production methods, how he grows
- Harvesting and preparing for processing
- Demonstrated all his farm machinery and processing kit
- Baking and leavens. Making a leaven, working with different flours by hand, baking in a wood fired oven and oven construction.
The key things I learned was:
It is possible! Like Nicolas said ‘we did not know it was not possible so we did it’.
Nicolas grows many other crops in with his wheat, including lupin, clover, fava beans (which he feeds to the animals) and Camelina (false flax) and Nigella. He makes oil from the latter two. Nigella oil seems to be a health wonder, it has a very interesting flavor.
All of these plants work well together without competing with the wheat, they also work well with the land.
Nicolas approach to farming is not so much to follow a strict rotation, but to read the land, to see what weeds grow tells him the state of the land.
As a general rule, he plants a good diversity of plants in the land, as this is best for the long term health of the soil.
He grows a mix of seven varieties of wheat ‘Ble du Redon’, all of them local to Brittany.
Nicolas puts at least some of his straw back on the land, building soil carbon which aid the retention of nutrients. He talked allot about ‘thermo lactic’ chemistry in the soil as very important, I need to find out more on this!
Essentially Nicolas fosters a soil which is rich in micronutrients and healthy bacteria.
He ploughs with an Ecodyn which does not plough more than 5cm in depth, leaving subsoil and any microrizhal fungi intact.
Nicolas also has a range of gain cleaning and processing kit, including two cleaners, a polisher, dryer (which he does not use). I have pictures/film of some on operation. They are all older bits of kit, the new build cleaners are designed for bigger tonnage.
He also demonstrated his mill, the Moulan Astrie made in Brittany. Its an electric powered stone mill.
Nicolas mills once a week as he said that many of the minerals in the flour only last up to two weeks.
Nicolas is very in touch with the whole baking process, this is why he does everything by hand, so he can really feel everything he does.
Before he puts the water into his leaven (bulked up the night before and made from the ‘demi bran’ or semolina) he creates a ‘vortex’ in the water to restructure the molecules. Ala Schauberger.
The dough is then mixed by hand in a dough trough. The process takes around 4 hours from mix to be ready to baked. The bakery is kept at 20C and the dough at a temp of 26C.
He said that naturally leavened bread is called a ‘pre-biotic’. This means that it has the structure within it, once eating to become a pro-biotic once more.
Nicolas built his dome wood-fired oven by hand, he even made the bricks. It fits 70kg of dough. He does two firings in a day and bakes two days per week.
His wife Laeticia also makes 100% buckwheat bread, made from buckwheat grown on the farm.
The bread is the best I have eaten!