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In spirit: When bread and poetry meet

St Germain-en-Laye, a small town in the suburbs of Paris where the old houses, the cobbled street, and the castle remind us that we are in a place of historical heritage. This heritage is not only in the stones but also in the craftsmanship of some small shopkeepers. I wanted to learn more about the baker on the corner, the one whose bread is well known for its impeccable quality. Beyond the bread, I could not have imagined that it was a poet that I would meet.

Mariette Raina: Your croissants are the talk of the town. What is their secret?

Cédric Hombecq: The secret is in the sprouting process. Sprouting is the last fermentation before cooking. My croissants grow at 12 degrees while my colleagues do it at 25. This temperature allows the croissant to be baked all day, because there is no frustration for the butter molecule. At this temperature, the butter becomes permeable; it is neither too hard nor too soft. This is total respect for the matter at 12 degrees. It took me 20 years to figure that out.

That brings me to my next question. What has been your journey to bread and this quest?

I am a pastry chef, chocolate maker, and ice cream maker, not a baker. I worked with the best pastry chefs in Paris, like Lucien Peltier, for 4 years. At the age of 26, I opened my first bakery. I already knew that I wanted to make my bread as good as my pastry; a very ambitious challenge. Little by little, I completely fell in love with dough and bread; I knew there was no turning back. With baking, you can buy the best fruit, create a cream, find consistency, but there is a limit. With baking, it’s another world; it’s infinite.

So you fell in love with bread, so to speak. What happened next?

When I was 26 years old, I started working with dough. I worked with the “Compagnons Du Devoir”; I wanted to master leavening, to know what a ferment was. I was curious about everything. I learned as much about skill as I did about the philosophy of a profession, and this has stayed with me throughout my life. It was there that I understood, for example, that our days should be divided into 8 hours of work, 8 hours of sleep or rest, and 8 hours to take care of the rest. This is a rhythm that ensures the proper functioning of humans. To be a good baker, you also have to take care of yourself, your body, and your soul. This is not always easy to apply, it regularly requires rebalancing things because we change, but it is essential not to forget it.  The body, the soul, and the environment in which we work must be tuned like musical instruments. It is a whole.

Tell me about the other ingredients you use for your bread?

Ingredients are crucial. For me, it’s impossible to work with a compound that I don’t know. To be able to transform and create, I have to be familiar with the starting point. It’s simple, I look for pure products, ones that make sense: fleur de sel or Guérande salt, cane sugar, or panela… I only work with living, noble ingredients. For butter, I use the PDO (protected designation of origin) label or organic butter – but you have to be careful with organic products in general, because there is everything  and nothing. Organic butter, for example, if you really think about it, comes from the milk of a cow that drinks water. But the water she drinks is not organic, and a cow consumes 100 liters of water a day, water with chlorine, nitrate, and so on. So the milk that is produced by this cow is not organic for me. You have to be careful with the ingredients.

You can say that the flour is organic, but if you mix it with dirty water and fine salt that you don’t even know where it comes from, you can’t say that your bread is organic, even though that’s what 95% of bakeries do. Water is the basis; it’s the gasoline. If you don’t put in the proper gasoline, you can’t drive.

I also heard that you work with a water dynamizer?

That’s right. At the bakery, I work with a dynamizer. The dynamizer is a machine that was designed by a “Compagnon Du Devoir”, Marcel Violet. There is a turbine, the water arrives and is then filtered (cleansed of chlorine, nitrate, and heavy metal particles).

The difference, I see it on the leaven. Chlorine breaks the yeast; instead of having this virtuosity, everything becomes dull. Before using the dynamizer, my leaven took 2 days to start working. Since I give it the water that went through the dynamizer, it only takes 5 hours for the sponge to form!

If you make croissants, you won’t notice the difference. But when you are making sourdough, you are at the stump, so it is obvious. For me, it was a revelation. So now, I wash my hands with dynamized water, I make my croissants with dynamized water, I make bread with dynamized water, all my production is, in fact, dynamized! Today, I use 3g of yeast for 70kg of flour, while classic bakers use 500g for 70kg. The fact that the leaven is like a racing car, that the dough is like a butterfly, and that the condition of my weather lab is good, then the bread is in perfect starting conditions to make quality.

The leavening is essential and requires proper know-how. I worked with Franck Debieux to learn. Today, I make my sourdough with honey, apples, and grapes. Because in the grape there is a bacterium that titillates a little the first flight of your fermentation. Afterward, you have to master a sourdough that doesn’t have too much acidity, that doesn’t leave a bitter taste in your mouth. It has to be delicate, like when you put perfume on, if you put too much it becomes embarrassing for the person in front of you. You have to find a good balance.

What’s about the wheat in all this?

I work with wheat that is 200 years old called “le rouge de Bordeaux.” It was wheat where when you were in the fields at the time, you couldn’t see the horizon because it was taller than you; it was two meters tall! Today’s industrial wheat is a product that has been shortened to avoid the combine harvester from generating all this straw that is “useless”. We have gone from two-meter wheat to sixty-centimetre wheat. The traditional varieties have been gradually eliminated. Personally, I work with the old wheat varieties. And I love it because it gives you the feeling that you’re making bread like they did 200 years ago. It’s absolutely magical. I also work with small Spelt and Kamut. Those are the three main flours I use.

There is a lot of talk about gluten intolerance, but what exactly is gluten?

Gluten is not a dangerous material in itself. Gluten is needed to work the dough. It is a substance that is found in wheat and that forms at a specific temperature. That is to say that when you mix the dough, when you knead it, at a particular temperature, it accentuates the gluten, and that is what gives muscle to the bread. I use gluten, but I know how to break it down. It’s all about resting the dough and fermenting it. If you arrive at the right moment, you get rid of the badness, and you only end up with goodness. That’s why I rest my dough for 72 hours in a cold room. It is ideal. Arrived at 48, 72h of rest, the gluten does not exist anymore, in fact. We rendered it harmless. We have gone from aggressive, active gluten to passive gluten. To have passive gluten, you have to know how to work the fermentation. 

But all this requires a love of the ingredients, a quest for detail. I am one of the bakers who are atypical; about ten of us work like that out of 35,000. The industrial bread, the Landa bakery, represents 80% of the market, so 31,000 out of 35,000 are of poor quality. Between 31,000 and 34,900, these are people who try, let’s say they want to do better. Then there are 3% of bakers who work with sourdough correctly but who have not tried to understand organic matter. I call them robot-bakers: they have their recipe, they know their leaven, it works, they use it. They are not yet virtuoso bakers because they still haven’t tried to understand the organic matter.

And what does understanding “organic matter” mean?

Ah… understanding organic matter… well, it means watching how it lives, watching how it evolves. For example, butter stored at 12 degrees; it took me 25 years to understand that 4 degrees for storage is not suitable for butter. It is a living material; we must respect it, we must not handle it roughly. At 12 degrees, we don’t cream the butter; we allow it to process to make it permeable to the incorporation of the ingredient. When you take butter at 4 degrees and work on it, it’s like being hit and ending up in the hospital; it’s violent. I’m an artist, not a baker. But you know it goes a long way. We talked about the basic ingredients earlier, water, and you see, when I wash the dishes at the bakery, it’s the same: I don’t use a product I don’t know, no bleach. I use salt and vinegar to disinfect everything. I cook my chicken in a clay pot. I implement this in every aspect of the kitchen… but you know, even my wife doesn’t keep up with me!

You’re still creating. Tell me about your recent experiments, your ideas?

A crazy idea: I would like to work on a medicinal bread made with psyllium (from India). It would be the kind of bread that will help with the intestines. But for now, my last experiment, last Friday, I made beer bread. I don’t want to say it was like making bread for the first time, but almost… if you saw the dough, you would have thought it was garbage. There was no gluten in the beer, I was working with ancient grains, so it was a flatbread that barely survived. There wasn’t that boost to make it airy; it was an earthy bread. The customers were happy anyway, but I knew that I had not yet achieved what I wanted.  I have to continue my experimentation.

You know, I am 50 years old, so I have been working with bread for more than 20 years. And yet, you never fully understand bread. Bread is like a butterfly that moves at 40km/h and never stops. It’s a magical material, art in fact, and that’s why you have to be passionate. You have to become a Mozart of the bread to make good bread. The research is constant. Being a baker is a bit like being an alchemist. It’s never easy; you can make a mistake at any time.

I used to be afraid of mistakes, of failure, but not anymore. I sometimes feel apprehensive, like an actor entering the stage, but I go for it. The boundary between me and the bread is gone, the curtain is drawn, I am in the bread now. It’s about a connection with the ingredient. For me, that’s the most important thing. In fact, to finish, I would say that I don’t just sell a piece of bread or a product; I sell a passion and a work, I sell a soul, I sell a process.

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