At breakfast, I scooped up butter on the tip of my knife and tasted it. It was fatty and beautifully bovine. The bread was curious. It had been sliced from a rectangular loaf and, to my prejudiced eye, looked store-bought and industrial. I had a bite. It wasn’t store-bought. Wow, I thought. This is good bread.
The flour, the owner told me, was from Le Bourget-du-Lac, on the other side of the lake. The name of the miller was Philippe Degrange. I wrote it down. It didn’t seem right. A grange is where you store your grains. Degrange? It would be akin to buying milk from a guy named Dairy.
I drove to the town and got a coffee. At the bar, I Googled “Degrange”—and there he was. Minoterie Degrange. What was a minoterie? I looked it up. “Flour mill.” It appeared to be within walking distance. I set off.
After half an hour, my doubts returned. The addresses were erratic, and the street—flower beds, trimmed hedges, garages for the family car—was unequivocally suburban. Was there really an operation here, milling only local grains? But then, just when I decided to turn back, voilà! In the shade of tall trees, half obscured by thick foliage, was a small letter-slot mailbox, no street number but a name, Minoterie Degrange.
The trees and a high metal gate, covered with graffiti, hid whatever was behind. Next to the mail slot was a speaker box. I pressed a button.
“Oui?” the speaker box said, a woman’s voice.
“Bonjour,” I told the box. “I have eaten a bread made from your flour, and I would like to meet the owner, Monsieur Degrange?”
“But it’s lunchtime,” the box said finally.
“Of course. I’m sorry. I’ll wait.”
Another protracted silence. Then the gate opened and revealed an industrial yard, completely out of keeping with its neighbors. A man emerged, round and robust, with a factory foreman’s forthrightness, wiping his mouth with a napkin. He looked at me hard.
“Monsieur Degrange?” I confirmed. “Please excuse me. I ate a slice of bread that was made, I believe, with your flour, and it reminds me of the bread that my friend Bob used to make.”
He pointed to a car: “Get in.”
I got in.
“It’s all about the flour,” he said. “I’ll take you to Boulangerie Vincent. ”
The boulangerie, a few miles down the road, was also a bar and a pub and a restaurant with tablecloths. The door opened directly onto the four and a cooling rack built against a wall. The top rows were for boules (“balls,” the ancient way of bread baking), about thirty of them. On the bottom were couronnes, massive, each fashioned into a ring like a crown. A woman, carefully dressed, affluent in manner, was negotiating with the bread guy.
“Mais, Pierre, s’il vous plaît. Just one boule, please. I have guests tonight.”
“I am very sorry, madame, but every loaf has a name attached to it. You know that. If you haven’t reserved, I can’t give you one.”
“He does two ferments,” Degrange whispered, “and starts at seven in the evening. The bread needs ten hours. Or twelve. Sometimes fourteen.”
Inside, men were gathered around a bar—electricians, cable people, metalworkers, painters, mecs. The room roared with conviviality. Degrange ordered us diots, a Savoyard sausage, and a glass of wine, a local Mondeuse. Through the door to a kitchen, I saw hundreds of diots, drying in the air, looped by a string. They were cooked in a deep sauté pan with onions, red wine, and two bay leaves, and served in a roll made with Degrange’s flour.
It had the flavors that I had tasted at breakfast. I asked for another roll, broke it open, and stuck my nose into la mie, the crumb—Frederick’s routine. It smelled of yeast and oven-caramelized aromas, and of something else, an evocative fruitiness. I closed my eyes. Bob.
“You recognize it,” Degrange said. “It comes from wheat that grew in good soil.”
“Where do you get it?”
“Small farms. Nothing more than forty hectares.”
Small farms, he explained, are often the only ones in France with soil that hasn’t been ruined.
“Where are they?”
“Here in Savoie. And the Rhône Valley. They grow an old wheat, a quality wheat. And the Auvergne. I love the wheat from the Auvergne. Everyone does. The volcanic soil, the iron-rich dirt. You can taste it in the bread.”
We drank another glass of Mondeuse. Degrange proposed that we go back: “I want to show you the factory.”
A Degrange has been milling flour here, or on a site closer to the river, since 1704. Until modern times, the operation was powered by water; on a wall was an old photo of Degrange’s father and grandfather, seated before a mill paddle wheel three times their height. There are no mill paddles today. The process is whirringly hidden in pipes and generators and computer screens—except for the source material, freshly picked wheat that is tipped out from hydraulically raised trailers. I followed Degrange up ladderlike stairs to the third floor, where he opened the cap of a pipe and retrieved a cupful of a bright-golden grain.
It seemed to dissolve in my mouth, creamy and sweet and long in flavor. “What is it?”
I wanted to take some home. “You’ll have to refrigerate it,” he said. “It is like flour but more extreme. It has fat, which spoils rapidly.”
He described conventional flour production—the sprawling farms in the French breadbasket or the American Midwest, their accelerated-growth tricks, their soils so manipulated that they could have been created in a chemistry lab. “The bread that you make from it has the right texture. But it doesn’t have the taste, the goût.” He asked an assistant to bring him a baguette, then tore off a piece, smelled it, and looked at it approvingly.
“In the country, we don’t change as fast as people in the city,” Degrange said. “For us, the meal is still important. We don’t ‘snack,’ ” he said, using the English word. “What I learned from my father and grandfather is what they learned from their fathers and grandfathers. There is a handing off between generations.” The word he used was transmettre. Le goût et les valeurs sont transmis. Flavor and value: those are the qualities that are transmitted. Only in France would “flavor” and “value” have the same moral weight.
Degrange gave me a ten-kilo bag of his flour. A gift. I said goodbye, an affectionate embrace, feeling an unexpected closeness to this man I had reached by intercom only a few hours ago, and who instantly knew what I was talking about: goût.
I was flying home in the morning and reserved a boule at the Boulangerie Vincent. I contemplated the prospect of arriving in New York bearing bread for my children which had been made near Le Lac du Bourget earlier that very day. On the way to the airport, I stopped to pick it up. It was dawn, and there were no lights on inside, just the red glow from the oven. My boule was hot and irresistibly fragrant.
In New York, I cut a few thick slices and put out some butter. “I think you’ll like this,” I said.
Frederick took a slice and sniffed it and then slammed it into his face, inhaling deeply: “It’s like Bob’s.”
George ate a slice, then asked for another and spread butter on it.
When the loaf was done, I made more from the ten-kilo bag. It was good—not as good as the boule from the Boulangerie Vincent, but still good. It had fruit and complexity and a feeling of nutritiousness. A month later, it was gone, and I stopped making bread. ♦