An American writer details her infatuation with French bread, in a part-reportage and part-earnest attempt to understand national differences and obsessions.
When her husband’s job transplanted them from Minnesota to Washington, D.C., Taber, the mother of two young children, found herself in a place that prized work more than community and free time. She took long drives to find bakeries that made good French bread and tried making loaves on her own, but that didn’t lessen her feelings of loneliness. She decided to write the story of a loaf of French bread. She would go to France and there find all that was missing in her American life: a nourishing community, balanced lives, and more time; France, unlike the US, would be “the repository of quality.” So Taber travels to the village of Blain in Brittany, where she meets Gold Medal baker Jean-Claude Choquet. She learns how bread is made, the process still lengthy and energy-consuming although it has been helped by the modern invention of a cooling chamber in which the dough can be left to rise for longer periods than in the past. Taber goes to the marshes of Guerande, where the salt Choquet uses is harvested from the sea in an elaborate process involving channels and a sequence of pans. At a mill she learns that the French have six categories of flour. Since they fortify their bread flour with American wheat, she next visits an organic wheat farmer, then the water company that serves Blain, and finally the yeast manufacturer, whose largest client is China. The author is chagrined to learn that the French enjoy the convenience of American sandwich loaves and McDonald’s fast food; she also discovers that all the people she meets work as hard and as long as any Washington bureaucrat.
Informative, comprehensive—but burdened by gee-whiz insights into the ways of the world.