12 Jul 2010

Hey Mr Baker!

A few weeks ago, just before Spring, my partner embarked on a bakery course at the local Centre de Formation d'Apprentis (trades college). Originally this was no concerted option, more a decision that had been thrown upon us, with the risk of luring us away from our focussed business ambitions. But with setting up a business not exactly the right time for us, we decided that this might be a useful diversion, a possible door-opener too. And this is how my partner became Mr Baker...

I personally harboured doubts about how beneficial a choice this would prove to him, expecting him to jack the whole thing in (although all along the temptation to do just that was at the back of his mind). Yet fairy(-cake!) godmothers bestowed him with blessings:
  • A friendly, approachable and passionate tutor, a former baker from Marseille who had the gift at communicating his knowledge and enthusiasm to his students;
  • My partner was part of a small group of friendly adults who too were trying to find their feet in a changing world and were retraining as a result; and finally,
  • When doing his on-the-job training he was lucky enough to find himself under the wing of not merely a baker but a highly experienced pâtissier with prestigious international credentials who had nurtured his skill in top London hotels, French embassies of the Middle East and high-end pâtisseries.
  • With the pâtissier my partner would not only learn a few tricks but also appreciate the reality of the world of pâtisserie, observe the processes in place, learn to be organised and methodical, go 'wow!' at the magic and unfold some of the little trade secrets that make those delicate pastries and gâteaux endearingly pretty. He would 'mettre la main à la pâte' (get involved) in the viennoiserie side of pâtisserie: croissants, almond croissants, pains aux raisins, pains au chocolat, pear/ apple tarts, mushroom tartlets, croquants (cantuccini biscuits, pictured below), canistrelli (Corsican biscuits), etc.

I am impressed and proud of him for, not only is he faced with the daily challenge of trying to communicate in a foreign tongue he had virtually no knowledge of six months ago, with minimum support, missing out on the subtleties, and battling with grammatical absurdities, he is training in a field of activity he had no prior knowledge of (or prior inclination for, in his own words). Before now, his closest exposure to baking had been by his making scones from scratch (of his own accord, this was), casually watching me bake the odd cake, or wandering down the bakery isle of a British supermarket, not exactly catalysts for a career in baking.

At the end of the day, if the 8-month bakery training, compounded by early rises, unfriendly hours and the repetitive bread-making action, doesn't necessarily convince my partner to embrace the career, or encourage him to follow this up with further training - this time in pâtisserie as the logical next step - it will at least have given him the basic rules of baking, and hopefully a taste for baking in our kitchen.

This will also have offered him a valuable insight into probably the most celebrated of French culinary traditions: the world of boulangerie - pâtisserie. And how best to understand the workings of a country than by getting an insight into what makes it tick, i.e. by getting under its skin, or - rather - under its pastry lining?

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