If you’re like we are, you’ve always dreamed of being able to go behind the scenes of a French bakery and patisserie to see what happens there. Well, today you are in for a real treat because that’s exactly what we are going to do. Actually it’s a double treat because this bakery is not only a boulangerie, but a patisserie as well.
This post is long, but honesty, how often do you get to go behind the scenes of a true French boulangerie & patisserie? Don’t worry, it’s mostly pictures anyway, so grab a cup of coffee and sit back. My husband Meakin has arranged for us to experience the day-to-day activities that take place in actual French bakeries every day of the year throughout France.
So it’s all yours Meakin.
On our first morning in Maillane I set out on a mission – to find a bakery and get started on the right foot. I needed a baguette, a few croissants for breakfast, and something sweet for dessert for our first dinner in Provence. The bakery was only a four or five minute walk from our house and I was really looking forward to learning the layout of the town along the way. When I turned the first corner I saw the sign for the Fassy Bakery AND a man with a large tray of baguettes going “into” rather than “out of” the bakery. What is this all about?
I got my bread and things and then, trying not look like a CIA spy, I waited to see where this man would go when he finished his delivery. My sleuthing was rewarded after a few short minutes - the same man came out, crossed the street, and slipped into the very unassuming door in a building across the street with no sign.
On the way home I walked quickly by the building and looked in. Here I found the baker for the bakery across the street and his support team. As it turned out, a very old bakery… 7 generations old.
Several days passed. I was on my way home from the bakery and, with a baguette tucked under my arm, I finally got around to sticking my head in the door. “Good morning, my name is Meakin. My wife Sam & I are staying here in your beautiful village for the next two months. May I come in?” (all in broken French that probably wouldn’t pass for 3rd grade, but was good enough to get things started). The owner, Jean Pascal (the man carrying the baguettes across the street on the tray and also below) looked up and said, “Oui. Bonjour Monsieur. Voulez-vous un café?” (would you like a coffee?) And that, as they say, was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
I spent many happy hours in the bakery, taking pictures and visiting with Jean Pascal and his wonderfully talented staff. My French got better and their English did as well. They all had taken English in school, but here in this small village there wasn’t much of a chance to practice it and they were reluctant to try. As our relationships grew, they grew more confident and tried what they called a very hard language. One of these great folks was Ralph (“Ralphie”.) He was younger and had the most beautiful English with the musical French tones. Later you will see a sequence of pictures where he walked me through all the steps involved as he turned out 200 perfect baguettes a day.
Here Jean Pascal is misting the dough. This misting process (a fine spray of water) helps promote that nice crunchy crust that we all love.
The tarts from the Fassy bakery were pieces of art both to the eyes and the taste buds. Blandina makes each one with tender love and care. While taste is the biggest test, we first start to enjoy food with our eyes and these were something to behold. As a side note, notice the flat of “Driscoll” raspberries (click photo to enlarge) on the work table. Most of Driscoll’s berries are grown in the USA, along with two farms in South America. When I commented on the beautiful berries, Jean Pascal got a box from the cooler and pointed with pride to this fruit flown all the way from the USA.
Every organization must have a “go to” employee and Anthony (Tony) above is just that. He is valuable beyond belief. Not only is he an artist with cakes and other sweet delights, he has a total knowledge of the entire business. When Jean Pascal and his beautiful family want a vacation, they can count on Tony to run the business with the same precision and care as JP. Truth be told, he is almost family.
In the next photos you can see a cake with the decorative lines on the icing for a special look. How in the world do they do that? Watching and asking questions, I found the trick. First you make a small pastry bag by rolling wax paper into a cone, cut the tip off, fill it with chocolate and you’re ready to “draw” lines on a cold plate. A cold plate is nothing more than a sheet of metal that has been in the freezer. When the chocolate lines are drawn on the plate, they harden and then you have nice lines of chocolate to decorate the cake. This is not easy. Tony let me try…and I repeat. This is not easy.
On many occasions Tony would call me over, swipe his pastry knife through a cream or glaze, then wipe it on my finger and say “Ici essayer cette” (here try this). One of these tastings prompted the question, “What makes this so good?” Tony held up a big brown bottle and said with a huge grin, “rum.”
Raphial (Ralphie) took me under his wing and, with beautiful English, walked me through the steps taken to make the perfect baguette.
Big powerful mixers combine full bags of flour with water and yeast. The mixing tub is so big that it has to be moved on casters to the next station.
Now it is divided for the first time and three big mounds are placed on the work bench.
The big pieces are divided by hand into smaller units and are weighed and trimmed or added to make just the right amount on the balance scale.
Finally these weighed portions are placed on a hydraulic press to be divided for the last time into individual baguette portions.
Not only does Ralphie knead two baguettes at a time, he actually carries on a conversation with me, telling me about his pastry final exam that he is going to take tomorrow… he passed with honors.
Here we see the master at the rolling machine giving each individual baguette his special touches for just the right finished look and size.
These finished baguettes were being delivered to the school for student lunches.
In this photo Jean Pascal is making a fougasse, a special type of Provencal bread. The fougasse is slashed or sculpted to resemble an ear of wheat. It is similar to an Italian focaccia. The Provence version often contains olives, cheese, and anchovies, which some say is a primitive form of pizza without the tomatoes. You’ll see photos of the finished product in cases in the boulangerie later in the post.
Here Jean Pascal is assembling a Pan Bagnat (pronounced pan banhat). It is a specialty sandwich from Nice that is very popular for lunch throughout Provence. Its name is derived from the local Provencal language and means a bathed/wet bread. The sandwich is based on the classic Salade Nicoise, a salad composed of raw vegetables, hard boiled eggs, anchovies and tuna. The bread is bathed in a French vinaigrette (never with mayonnaise). It’s normally made on a pain de campagne, a whole wheat bread formed in a circle, although I’ve seen a French baguette used. You’ll find Pan Bagnets sold in local bakeries and markets throughout Provence.
Now it’s afternoon and the end of the day. The guys are standing in the doorway, ready to go home and relax. The next day at 4 am they start all over again.
This is the Fassy store and Jean Pascal’s mom’s home is located above. They also own a newspaper and magazine shop, which is a part of their boulangerie & patisserie. Here are some photos from the inside of their store of their beautiful pastries and breads.
Sweet tarts, whole and individual servings, éclairs, French macaroons and below, small rectangular loaves of dense sweet breads in a variety of flavors – chocolate (my absolute favorite), orange, fruit confits and lemon. Many a night we had a slice of this delicious rich chocolate bread with a couple of fresh strawberries as our dessert - what a treat.
More éclairs, Opéra gateau (layers of coffee flavored butter cream, thin slices of syrup-soaked cake & a ganache are all covered in a smooth, dark chocolate glaze – devastatingly rich – a chocolate lover’s dream), millefeuille (layers of flaky puff pastry are sandwiched with vanilla custard to make the rectangular millefeuille) and other tarts and sweet treats.
Tuilles, thin sweet and crispy cookies named for French tuilles (tiles) that line the rooftops of French country homes in Provence. Crispy and delicious, these are sold by the gram.
Several savory loaves of fougasse, some with goat cheese, Roquefort cheese, ham and mushrooms, chorizo, and anchovies, a pizza with mushrooms, a couple of savory Roule sandwiches, one with cheese and one with sausage, a quiche and a croquet monsieur (a French baked or fried ham and cheese sandwich topped with grated cheese).
Fougasse, this time sweet with orange and chocolate, brioche with pralines, the Pan Bagnet sandwiches that we saw Jean Pascal making above (a favorite lunch for people on-the-go in Provence). In the front row are a pissaladière (an onion and anchovy tart) and various pizzas, some with anchovies, or mozzarella, Gruyere cheese, ham or mushrooms. On mornings when we planned a road trip and would be away all day, often we brought a couple of these wonderful pizzas home with us to serve as an easy dinner that day.
A same sweet fougasse flavored with orange flower water and dusted with confectioner’s sugar, a brioche Modane (a cousin of pannatone), croissants with almonds, a crispy palmier (often called an elephant ear due to its shape – they are wonderful for breakfast), and other sweet French treats with almonds and chocolate.
Lots of baguettes and different various French breads.
Jean Pascal Fassy with his mother in their shop.
Merci beaucoup today to Jean Pascal and his great staff for the opportunity to be a “fly on the wall.” Thank you for sharing your morning with us so we could see what actually goes on behind the scene in a real French boulangerie / patisserie.
A last thought…this experience was unusual to say the least. Out of this story came friendships that will last both of us for a very long time. We were invited to Jean Pascal’s house for aperitifs with his beautiful wife Nathalie and we had them to our home for a quiet dinner. Nathalie’s English was very limited, but because we wanted to, we found a way to “talk” with our broken French, sign language, a shrug of the shoulders, or just a nod of the head and a smile. The warmth can be demonstrated further by the sweet way Jean Pascal would say, “This is for Sam” when he handed me a small bag to take home when I stopped by for our baguette. When I peeked in the paper bag, there was something sweet he had chosen just for her. This he did several times a week.