It may have been the first week back after the Easter break, but we weren’t going to ease ourselves back into the routine. Nope. We were going to pack our bags, hop in the school mini-bus for eight hours and drive ourselves to France!
The purpose of the trip was to visit the headquarters of Lesaffre, the world’s largest yeast manufacturer, in Lille. After some creative navigating around the outskirts of Lille we finally made it to our accommodation in a somewhat industrial area of the city, right near a Paul Bakery factory. The view of the huge nondescript facility nestled amongst a rather ugly business park was a precursor to the kind of world we would be immersed in for the next few days.
The Lesaffre facility is, by an artisan baker’s standards, massive. It is used by Lesaffre’s medium and large clients to product develop and troubleshoot baked goods. The building is separated into four or so independent bakeries – each decked out with a plethora of ovens, mixers, dividers, shapers, fridges, proofers and other bits of kit many of us had never seen before. There was enough equipment to pump out thousands of breads a day but here it sat dormant most of the time, waiting for some test bakers or students to come along and whip up a few small batches of baguettes or pain de campagne. So that’s exactly what we did.
Over Wednesday and Thursday we baked about ten different types of breads along with a couple of croissant and danish pastries. Naturally we used Lesaffre’s products in each of them. Apart from their yeast the ingredients also included pre-made sourdough cultures (LV1, LV2 and LV3) and a kind of sourdough flavouring called creme de levain. It was interesting to see how these ingredients worked but, ultimately, I don’t think that they are the kinds of things most of us will be adding to our breads. It was great to see the facilities that Lesaffre have available to their clients and it’s nice that I can now say that I have baked bread in France, but I don’t think these are things that most of us in the class will have the need to revisit anytime soon.
We enjoyed a lovely French meal together on our final night in Lille, then got up early the next day to explore the city centre and seek out some bakeries. While we came across too many Paul chain outlets we did manage to find a couple of really high-end boulangeries and patisseries selling very refined products in some fancy looking outlets at rather high prices. It was amazing to see bakers mixing it with high-end fashion shops but at the same time it’s a bit sad that something that should be simple and accessible to all can be pushed to a premium level. It’s not the way I would want to run a bakery, but it certainly was an eye-opener.