The Holy Grail of French bakers
While browsing through the recipes on this site, you may have noticed that while I adore cooking (everything, in fact, to do with eating and drinking), I am particularly drawn to bakery: bread, viennoiseries and all that goes with them – it’s a real passion of mine; I love making them and I enjoy eating them just as much.
For a long time I made do, finding recipes and information here and there, getting quite a long way by trial and error. But an idea was gradually taking root in my mind: I really needed to go and learn properly, and from real bakers.
The best plan seemed to be to take a CAP course (vocational qualification with certificate) in baking. This meant I would need to find not only the time necessary, but also the money (and this training doesn’t come cheap) and somewhere to do it.
I can tell you, it didn’t take long to decide on the “where”. As any French baker in the know will tell you, there’s one institute that really counts: the Institut National de la Boulangerie Pâtisserie (INBP) in Rouen – more or less the Holy Grail of professional bakers in France. If I had to come up with an analogy from a parallel universe, it would be the Harvard or MIT of bakers, no less.
From first having the idea to actually making this project happen took several years. To get on this famous course in Rouen I had to raid my piggy bank and clear five and a half months of sabbatical leave, temporarily leaving behind the world of IT in Brest and, along the way, dipping a toe back into student life (and as a rather “mature” student, you might have guessed).
Well, I managed it. Now here I am, training in Rouen since the beginning of January 2018, totally immersed in the world of baking!
I can sum it all up for you quite easily in two words: exciting and exhausting.
Exciting, because the training is extremely enriching, led by trainers with near encyclopaedic knowledge, who know all there is to know and can reply to every question. Their technical know-how and practical skills are simply amazing. These guys (yes, we haven’t have a woman tutor so far) are capable of explaining all the how and why to do with the importance, reasons, angle, size and number of cuts to make with a blade on the top of a loaf before it goes in the oven. Exciting, as I was saying – I’m learning so much from rubbing shoulders with them and I’m thrilled to bits about it.
Exhausting, too, because we have 4 baking sessions per week (minimum), each one lasting six and a half hours, starting at either six in the morning or one in the afternoon. Believe me, there’s no down time at all for the whole session: we calculate, weigh, knead, divide out, shape, prepare, decorate, cook and finish. We are all completely wiped out by the end of the session, happy to a greater or lesser degree with what we have produced (bread and viennoiseries), as you can imagine.
Baking is a school of “the perfect gesture”, and it’s very difficult to get this just right. There’s no secret: the only way is to do it again and again, over and over, in order to improve by small steps. Sometimes proud of what one has made when it comes out of the oven (rarely), sometimes disappointed (often), but always happy because, after all, it’s there to be eaten and it tastes good, even if it doesn’t look particularly beautiful, well-shaped or regular.
I’m about halfway through the course as I write these lines, and when I look at the photos of my first croissants, just over a month ago, and the ones I’m making now, I tell myself that there is still hope.
And why am I telling you all this, I hear you ask? Well, because it is affecting the website in two ways:
1) You may have noticed that the frequency of new recipes had gone down considerably. This is simply because I’m a long way from my own kitchen and this course is taking up close to 100% of my time, so I have very little left for publishing.
2) Also, I’m now aware that quite a lot of what I have written in the bakery articles and recipes is in need of a freshen-up, with better explanations, additions and, in some cases, corrections. But don’t worry; as soon as I have earned the title of Baker, and have the certificate to prove it, I’ll be on the case and get down to it seriously.
So, wish me luck, and the stamina to make it to the end… 🙂