Bread of Three Rivers: The Story of a French Loaf

Overview

What is it about bread? Why am I, here in the middle of my life, so enamored of French loaves? Two images kept cropping up: two French people sitting in a café for a long afternoon of eating thick hunks of bread and drinking cups of coffee, and a Frenchman on a bicycle with a loaf slung across his handlebars. These visions seemed to depict lives soaked in leisure, where there was time for the good things. . . . Then this thought ambled forth: It's the dailiness of bread, like a reliable friend. . . . My plan ...
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Overview

What is it about bread? Why am I, here in the middle of my life, so enamored of French loaves? Two images kept cropping up: two French people sitting in a café for a long afternoon of eating thick hunks of bread and drinking cups of coffee, and a Frenchman on a bicycle with a loaf slung across his handlebars. These visions seemed to depict lives soaked in leisure, where there was time for the good things. . . . Then this thought ambled forth: It's the dailiness of bread, like a reliable friend. . . . My plan starts to billow forth. My project, as I imagine it, will be a natural history, an ecology of bread. The story of a loaf.

Overcome by a passion for French bread, Sara Mansfield Taber travels to Brittany in search of a loaf, which like the lifestyle that must surely accompany it, is perfect in its simplicity. After many months of seeking, she tears off a hunk of pain trois rivières, made by Gold Medal baker Monsieur Jean-Claude Choquet of Blain, Loire-Atlantique. It "smelled like heaven and tasted a mile deep." It tasted honest. Here was her loaf.

In Bread of Three Rivers Taber takes us deep into the grainy crumb, uncovering the four basic ingredients-the salt, water, wheat, and yeast-that when combined by M. Choquet make for a spectacular loaf. We learn of the marshy fields of Guérande where for hundreds of years salt, blessed with a unique mixture of microbes and minerals (that lend their flavor to the bread), has been harvested with the help of the sun. Then we're off to Moulin de Pont-James to meet the miller, who whispers to Taber that he actually uses strong American wheat from North Dakota to fortify the local harvest. Then to Nantes to engage the organic wheat farmer. In Nort-sur-Erdre we discover an ancient natural aquifer, composed of sand and limestone somewhere between 8 million and 50 million years ago. We end our journey in Lille at the Lesaffre Yeast Company, where the alchemy responsible for everything from American white loaves to Turkish flatbread is revealed.

A deliciously satisfying mixture of history, science, travel narrative, and romance (could anything be more powerful than bread love?), Bread of Three Rivers reminds us that nothing, no matter how basic, is as simple as it would seem.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
[T]he printed page alone will evoke the crackling noises and the toasty aroma of cooling loaves in Jean-Claude Choquet's boulangerie.--William Castle, The Boston Globe

"Bread of Three Rivers . . . is a work dripping with charm and more importantly is a homage to artisan French baking and the culture that sustains it.'--Sophie Herron, Slow Food

William Castle
The zealots will want this book. I think of my cousin Ellen, who would sooner have starved her children than her yeast, or my colleague Paul, who still longs insatiably for the sourdough of his San Francisco childhood. These readers will supply any poetry or technique that may be missing from Sara Mansfield Taber's ''Bread of Three Rivers,'' and for them the printed page alone will evoke the crackling noises and the toasty aroma of cooling loaves in Jean-Claude Choquet's Loire Valley boulangerie.
Boston Globe, 12/5/2001
Mark Knoblauch
Nothing epitomizes the French lifestyle more than a loaf of bread fresh from the local bakery. How can something so distinctive be made from only flour, water, salt, and yeast? Taber assesses the state of contemporary French bread by visiting an artisanal bakery and some producers of those four ingredients. She spends days at a celebrated Breton boulangerie, uncovering the traditions and techniques of producing an incomparable, crusty loaf. She proceeds to the miller of the bakery's flour and, to her surprise, discovers that much of the wheat comes from the U.S. She visits the pumping station that supplies the bakery with water from the local aquifer. She tours the factory that grows the high-quality yeasts used by the bakery. Her most extensive investigations occur where generations of workers employ elaborate series of sluices and ponds to extract the finest salts from seawater. The ingredients and the baking of French bread are threatened by technological advances and the nascent world economy, whose effects on the foundation of the French diet may be profound.
Booklist
Library Journal
Frustrated with the hectic Washington, DC, lifestyle and disappointed with the perpetually busy lives of Americans, Taber attempts to find delight in a simple, honest loaf of French bread. As many others before her, she flees to France to immerse herself in the cuisine of the country and to write about it. Unlike others, she concentrates solely on the search for "a wonderful French loaf" and the story behind it. Traveling across France to research each ingredient salt, wheat, water, and yeast she interviews the individuals who provide each ingredient to the baker of her perfect loaf. What results is a romanticized book that is equal parts history, travel narrative, and culinary scientific process. A former university professor and participant in the 1996 Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, Taber has written a literary title filled with metaphor, but her irritation with the American way of life and its global influence detracts from what is an otherwise fascinating look into the complexities of seemingly mundane ingredients. Readers interested in food writing are more likely to be entertained by Peter Mayle's French Lessons (Knopf, 2001). Recommended for larger collections. Pauline Baughman, Multnomah Cty. Lib., Portland, OR Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
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 hardand as long as any Washington bureaucrat. Informative, comprehensive-but burdened by gee-whiz insights into the ways of the world.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780807072394
  • Publisher: Beacon
  • Publication date: 10/28/2002
  • Edition description: None
  • Pages: 256
  • Product dimensions: 5.52 (w) x 8.24 (h) x 0.73 (d)

Meet the Author

Sara Mansfield Taber has taught at the University of Minnesota and the graduate writing program at Johns Hopkins University. In 1996 she earned a William B. Sloane Fellowship in Nonfiction to the Bread Loaf Writer's Conference. She lives in France and Washington, D.C.
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