It's just about noon in Autun, France, on a blustery fall day. Tourists are shivering in front of the magical sculpture that has decorated the town's cathedral since the 12th century. Residents of Autun, on the other hand, are busy performing a national ritual called "getting ready for the noonday meal."
It's Sunday, too, a day on which the contrast between the hour just before noon (roaring little cars, buzzing motor scooters, racing feet) and the hour just after noon (you could hear a pin drop in any town square in France) makes the tourist think there has been some kind of civil defense alert that he has somehow missed.
But tourists get hungry, too, and they naturally gravitate to the activity -- to the bakery, for instance, where the entire population seems to be lined up in quest of the midday baguette. This confluence causes a crise in the boulangerie. There is not enough bread to go around.
There are still loaves sitting in the racks, baguettes and restaurants and couronnes and flu tes and fougasses and e'pis, and they are made all the more desirable by the fact that they are spoken for, a fact that is proven with one glance into the boulange re's notebook, where all is noted, in ink.
Although it is possible in France to buy bread that tastes and feels like Styrofoam -- and croissants that taste like Crisco -- the random bread shopper is still more likely than not to stumble onto the crackling, super-fresh loaves that make French bread French bread. This is especially true in the small towns where the baker is known by all and where his wife is the one who stands out front selling his product.
The bakery in Autun is one of these, and a tooth sunk into the local product (the tourist has managed to procure the next to the last loaf of bread in all of Autun, a small baguette) reveals a crust that's crackly and chewy at the same time, and a crumb that is glutenous without being sticky or doughy. And there is flavor!
So the tourist naturally comes home with a newly awakened taste for good French-type bread, a taste that, unhappily, will go unfulfilled unless the tourist decides to make his or her own.
Thanks to machines like the Cuisinart and the big KitchenAid mixer, the preparation of bread dough has been reduced to a matter of minutes. The long slow rises that develop flavor take time, but the loaves can do their rising with no help from the baker.
The baking process itself makes as much difference as anything in the end product, and it's here that home bakers have looked for the holy grail. Some thought they had found it with a product called La Cloche, a two-piece contraption made out of porous clay by Sassafras Enterprises, a down-home sort of company based in Chicago.
La Cloche consists of a round, rimmed bottom piece and a bell-shaped top that fits over it. You can bake only round loaves in it, and it's only big enough for one loaf at a time. But it produces a homemade product that is the nearest thing I've found to real French bread. After you take it from the oven the bread makes little crackling sounds as the crust continues to crisp in cooler air.
According to the manufacturer, the clay absorbs moisture from the dough, which is what produces the crackling, crisp crust. And the close atmosphere inside the Cloche distributes heat evenly, so that at the end the top is as brown as the bottom. But at the beginning of the baking process, as moisture is beginning to escape the dough, it circulates around inside La Cloche, keeping the crust from forming long enough to let the bread rise to its ultimate.
Even though the Cloche got good publicity all around, it has all but disappeared from Washington stores. "Couldn't give 'em away," said one manager of a kitchenware department.
True, the price is fairly high -- around $35 -- but people have been known to spend much more than that on kitchenware that has no redeeming social value at all. But if you've got $35, a desire to bake good bread (albeit in round loaves) and can find La Cloche (Williams-Sonoma still carries them), that's probably your best bet.
Failing that, the next closest I was able to get to the crust of real French bread was with a very heavy, "blued" carbon steel pan shaped to hold several thin baguettes at once. The surface of this pan is slightly waffled, and the pans are deep enough so that half the circumference of the loaves touches metal. The waffling -- or something, in any case -- seems to prevent the very heavy, tough crust that dark steel can produce. The only disadvantage to this pan is that you're committed to the thin baguette shape.
I also tried baking bread on a plain pizza stone, which is the same material as La Cloche, on a plain blued steel baking sheet, and on an aluminum baking sheet. The pizza stone and the plain aluminum pan produced bottom crusts about equal in brownness and crustiness, while the blued steel pan produced a crust that was quite heavy and lacking in crackliness.
The top crusts of loaves baked on flat pans were all more or less the same. What does make a difference in the top crust is spraying or brushing it with water every minute or so for the first five minutes of baking. This accomplishes what the close atmosphere of La Cloche accomplishes; it keeps the crust from forming until the bread is fully risen, and it helps it to crisp.
A fine-spray atomizer (like the type used on ferns) is the easiest tool to accomplish this, but you can also use a pastry brush.
In the end you probably won't get what that baker in Autun could produce -- after all, he has the equipment, the experience and the culture behind him -- but you'll get closer than you would if you depended on store-bought.