This story began about 20 years and four months ago in Brussels, when a chef couldn’t find bread he liked enough to serve at his restaurant. So Alain Coumont decided to switch his chef’s hat for a baker’s and got down to the basics: He bought a 3-tonne oven and went back to the traditional way of making sourdough bread, which is now broken on communal tables at Le Pain Quotidien (LPQ) cafés in 19 countries.
The founder of the chain was in Mumbai this week and we discussed bread as he brushed egg wash on his croissants and watched them turn golden in the oven. Edited excerpts from an interview:
Thoroughbread: Coumont’s techniques date back to the Middle Ages. Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
How can you tell good bread from an excellent one?
Bread is like wine. You have to have the knowledge that when you eat it you feel the difference. Nowadays bread is like white sponge with no taste and you put a spread on it and eat. You can eat excellent bread just by itself, and it is nourishing.
What makes the bread at LPQ different?
Most bread is made with commercial yeast and they turn out bread in an hour or two. Sourdough bread was the way it was made in the Middle Ages, before the invention of commercial yeast. It’s a much longer process, about 7-9 hours. You get better flavour and the texture is different. It’s not that you want to make it sour, that’s just part of the natural process. You have to create the mother dough. For that you just mix water, flour and salt. Then every 12 hours you add a little bit of fresh flour, water and a pinch of salt. Natural fermentation takes two weeks. After two or three days, the natural yeast starts developing and you cultivate it. After two weeks, you have increased the population of the wild yeast. You keep part of this dough to put in next day’s bread and the process goes on forever. It’s time consuming and requires patience, but once the process has started it is easy.
How did you learn baking? How do you train your staff to ensure a standard quality of bread at all LPQ outlets?
Google didn’t exist those days. So I read a lot. There are plenty of books. It’s not secret information. Bread is important because most of the food we make is based on bread and served with bread. We start the training process six months before we open. Every three or four months, we have someone coming from Europe to see if there’s any problem or any requirement.
Can one bake good bread at home?
You have to cook bread on stone. It has to be a thick stone that can accumulate heat. At home, it’s hard to reproduce. The water in the base of the dough is transformed into steam and that raises the dough and gives it lightness, which is difficult to produce in a home oven. Even I try to bake at home but it’s not the same.
How did the idea for the communal table at LPQ come about?
I was looking for furniture for my new bakery that was in harmony with the type of bread we were doing. It was old-fashioned bread from the Middle Ages, so I was looking for antique furniture. I went to a bazaar and saw a big pinewood table. It had legs eaten by bugs but it was inexpensive so I got it. My first shop was small so I had enough space for one big table with 14 chairs. It was fun. This became the DNA of the brand and people were talking about it. You don’t want to change a formula that works, so it became a standard feature at most places.