SAINT-QUENTIN DU DROPT, FRANCE - Some keep it for a week. Some eat it right away when warmth still emanates from within. It isn't the kind of bread that goes stale the next day, only good for chickens or French toast. This organic sourdough bread is baked in a tiny village in a small bakery run by a French man and a Minnesotan: Laurent Pouget and Jim McGinnis.
The bakery, Lo Pan del Puech, or "the bread of the hill" in the dialect spoken in this part of France, was born as an idea in Kenya before coming to fruition in the fertile grounds of vineyards, orchards and fields of corn and sunflowers in the undulating hills of southwestern France. Although surrounded by six bakeries in a 3-mile radius and an organic one about 15 miles away, their business has been growing since they opened the oven doors in Saint-Quentin du Dropt in 1999.
"Our clientele keeps increasing. We have very faithful customers. If we take 10 days vacation, they buy extra bread for the freezer. Some of them complain," McGinnis says. "French people take bread very seriously."
Increased concern about chemical pesticides and fertilizers and the growing presence of genetically modified foods only fuels their commitment to make, grow and eat organic food. Their stone-ground flour comes from local certified organic wheat farmers.
"We don't work with mills. We don't work with wheat varieties that have been commercialized by Monsanto," Pouget says. "We're the little village of Gaulois resisting the Roman invaders. It's very much in the French spirit. There's a feeling of resistance. There's no way they'll have the last word."
Their choices come with a high price tag. Their water goes through an expensive filter system and when organic sunflower seeds became available locally, they swallowed the 79 percent price hike.
Several farmers purchased land alongside one another to maintain a pesticide-free environment. "If there's a field next door that's not organic, contamination is a risk," says McGinnis, who is originally from Austin, Minn. "That's why we prefer to buy locally."
A necessary balance
Bread does not rule their life; it is a part of it. For Pouget, it means getting up to light the wood-fire oven at 6:30 a.m. to reach the right temperature by the time the loaves go in. He will knead, weigh, divide and shape the bread sometimes to the sound of music, sometimes in silence. When it's time to fill the oven, he's in a focused trance. He slaps two loaves on a paddle, slices a quick three strokes with a razor, opens the heavy squeaking door and situates them in the 10- by 13-foot vaulted oven. It's systematic and fast. No talking, no distractions. The loaves have to be placed just so. They must have nearly the same time of baking or the oven's slow falling temperature will affect each loaf differently. The last two go in and voilà!
Each loaf passes through the baker's hands at least seven times before reaching the customer. Every 220 kilos (485 pounds) of bread requires at least 12 hours of manual labor -- a heavier load than for a modern baker.
The couple met in Paris and eventually traveled to California where Pouget deepened his knowledge of sourdough while McGinnis worked with developmentally disabled adults. They moved to France in 1999 when a law passed that legally recognized them as a couple.
The village they chose had a rarity: an original brick oven. Pouget's predecessor had long abandoned the oven that required more than just pushing a button and a thermostat reading. They first rented and then purchased the bakery in 2007.
They took time to find a rhythm that fit their individual priorities and dreams. Pouget, the more outgoing of the two, was literally the breadmaker. "I am in the dough." For the past three years he has been president of the Villeneuve-sur-Lot organic market. McGinnis, who relishes more quiet, solitary time, was challenged to manage the bakery's storefront and drive 175 miles a week to distribute and sell bread.
Beyond the bakery
But just as they found the right amount and quality of flour, water, air and warmth to activate the original sourdough "mother," or "chef" as its known here, to make that perfect loaf, so too did they rely on experience and intuition to find the balance.
Pouget bakes, McGinnis sells. When Pouget is baking, McGinnis is often working on his illustrations -- he has a degree in fine arts.
They even complete each other's sentences. Pouget: "The problem in our society is not the price of good food, the problem is that a lot of people eat bad food." McGinnis adds: "and are used to cheap prices."
It was easy for them to sell in organic markets, but more difficult to convince locals.
"French people have very strong habits for shopping, marketing, and for cooking and for eating," says McGinnis.
"And for people to change, I think it's probably not as easy for a French person as for an American."
The reputation of their 12 sourdough bread varieties eventually spread.
"There has been a rediscovery of bread," Pouget says. "The principle of baking at a 'falling temperature' is very particular to the wood-fire oven and is very good for making bread. It can't get any better."
But don't expect their success to mean there will eventually be a Minnesota version of their bakery.
"What I would prefer is to transmit my knowledge rather than to make a huge Lo Pan del Puech that would flood the markets," Pouget says.
"It's part of the philosophy of artisanal professions: passing on the savoir-faire."
To see videos or read about the bakery (all in French) see lopandelpuech.blogspot.com. Cyrille Cartier, who has Minnesota origins, is a freelance journalist based in Croatia.