France is revered for its bread - baguettes, boules, pain paysan, pain de mie, pain de tradition, pain complet - and lets not start with the brioches and croissants. Everyone has their favourite bread - and everyone has their favourite boulangerie. It is part of the culture and essence of French life.
If a village doesn't have a boulangerie - there will at least be a depôt de pain. If there isn't a depôt de pain, there will be a baker's van that clatters through the lanes, blowing its horn in the manner of a Mr Wimpy in the UK - stop me and buy one.
And the bread is truly wonderful. Every day, in every town you will see people heading home with a baguette tucked under their arm, or poking out of their shopping basket. Everyone has their favourite bread - and their favourite boulangerie. Fresh baked every day, it is a staple of French life.
Why would you want to make your own, when some of the best bread in the world is freely available and not expensive?
Call it perverse, but I had a yen to start making my own. So - on to the internet I went, to learn about how to do it. What did I need?
Ingredients - couldn't be simpler
Water - straight out of the tap, no problem
Yeast - OK add that to the shopping list
Salt - stacks in the cupboard
Flour - ditto flour in the baking cupboard
But hang on a sec - every source I consulted, from the great master Paul Hollywood downwards said - you need strong flour, you need bread flour, you won't get good bread without it.
OK - so what is strong flour?
It is just a flour that has a high protein (or gluten) content - mormally around 14% - 15%. Normal flour is around 10% - 11%.
Right - but why do I need to use it?
Because the higher gluten content gives it elasticity and allows the bread to rise with a good structure.
Right, I understand. I need high protein, high gluten strong bread flour. It's a must have. Off to the shops then to seek out this bread making essential.
Problem - despite scouring the shelves in several different supermarkets, I could not find any high protein flour. All the shops stock for regular consumers, are Type 45 (8.5% - 9.5%) and Type 55 (11% - 12%). True, Types 65 and 150 exist, both around 12% - 13.5% protein - but only in 25kg bag and not in the shops.
So I came home with some yeast - but no high protein flour. Hang it - I just gave it a go with normal, all purpose flour. You know what - it prooved well, doubled in size, rose magnificently, baked well, had a good crust, cut easily and proved to have a very consistent texture with no big holes. Oh and it tasted pretty good too!
Consequently I remain somewhat unconvinced. As do the couple shown here. They carried out an experiment, baking two loaves - identical methods, identical ingredients - apart from using the different types of flour.
Their conclusions are interesting - you can cut straight to minute 17:40 if you don't need to watch the proof that they did both the same way!
One thing I do know is that what I make tastes a lot better than that Chorleywood Process Bread that looks like white cotton wool, is sold in plastic bags and has a shelf life of about a week and is about as digestible as the cotton wool it resembles. Remember 'Mother's Pride' in those stripey red and white waxed paper packets?
I continued to make my bread with T55. I made a lot. I ate a lot, with butter and cheese and jam and marmalade. I got a lot bigger! So, I stopped making bread. Willpower, you see, doesn't work with me. If it's there, I WILL eat it. So - better that it's not there then. I got smaller.
Currently we are in Covid-19 lock down, which, when you are on your own, is extremely tedious. So, I've started making small amounts of bread again. Please note the 'small amounts'. The 'No Knead Bread' recipe that is available here is by a distance the simplest, easiest, most consistent - and tasty! - bread recipe I've come across. Try it and see for yourself. But not too much!