Croissant Bread Pudding. Photo by Wil Fernandez.

The Bread Culture of France

Global Local Cuisine

It’s hard to say exactly when I fell in love with France, because I’ve fallen in love with the picturesque villages, melodic and descriptive language and, of course, the world-renowned food over and over throughout my life.

My mother, a fellow Francophile, spoke French to me as a baby and cooked traditional French dishes with me throughout my life. Next to her, I rolled sponge cake for bûche de Noël, the traditional French yule log cake, and made gratins of every kind. She attended La Varenne Cooking School in Paris in the 1970s, bringing home pages and pages of stained, yellowed notes that we still reference today.

So when, on a whim, I applied to the famed Le Cordon Bleu in Paris last fall, I was simultaneously thrilled and terrified to receive an acceptance letter for the spring term. I packed my bags, found an apartment and headed to that city I so love.

Le Cordon Bleu was a change of daily activity: early mornings and late nights, spotless uniforms, loud choruses of “oui, chef!” throughout campus, and a rigorous training schedule. My class consisted of students from 55 different countries, and though there was a translator, all of the demonstration classes were in French. Between school and daily life in Paris, I was completely immersed in the language and the food.

Ah, the food. There are many things to love about French food, but simply put, the crusty French baguette has become synonymous with France. I have always adored bread, but in Paris, I feel like I reconnected with it in a different way. For the French, it’s a part of every single meal; even on holidays, at least one boulangerie per neighborhood is required by law to be open.

There was nothing more satisfying than snapping off the quignon (the end) of a warm baguette fresh from the oven on my way home in the evening, or smearing jam on a torn hunk in the morning to enjoy with my coffee. Bread rounded out the meal, soaking up the sauce, serving as a utensil or adding texture to a dish.

To get to school, I walked through the buildings in my neighborhood, the 16th arrondissement, and crossed the Bir-Hakeim bridge, the Eiffel Tower constantly in view. One day, I stopped at my boulangerie to grab a jambon beurre sandwich, and as I happily munched in the sunshine, my dear friend Bob came to mind.

Bob Oswaks, owner of Bob’s Well Bread in Los Alamos, California, makes similar sandwiches in his shop, and has, throughout his baking adventure, inspired me with various bread insights. Upon returning home, I met Bob at the bakery bright and early one morning to get a crash-course introduction into his world.

Bread baking goes back to Bob’s roots; in fact, as you step into the door of his shop, you notice his grandmother’s bread fork, the store logo, which was used in Victorian times to pick up bread from the basket. Bob’s foray into baking truly began at the San Francisco Baking Institute, where he dove in headfirst to traditional baking methods while simultaneously writing rigorous business plans. While we sipped coffee and checked the morning’s levain, Bob shared his story with me.

After over 30 years as a television executive came to an end, Bob was unsure of his next steps. Though the future seemed complex, he and his wife, Jane, built a wood-fired oven in the backyard of their home in Los Angeles and started experimenting with baking. Full of Life Flatbread’s rising star and Los Alamos neighbor, Chef Clark Staub, shared his bread starter and influential books on bread, imparting to Bob the true greatness of the process of fermentation and baking.

As a result, Bob started baking daily; in his own words, he became “obsessed” with the rituals of fermenting the starter, kneading, steaming and baking, as well as the final result: the perfect loaf. He wanted to make Old World–style bread without additives or cheap ingredients.

“When you bake bread, there’s a magic to that. People love learning about that experience,” Bob told me.

As the windows steamed up and the bread went into the hot ovens, I asked Bob and his head baker, Scott Smith, how the local conditions influence their bread. They described their ingredients, all of which are organic and wholesome and many of which come from nearby suppliers. “We could use cheaper ingredients,” said Bob. “But then we wouldn’t be making something we’re proud of.”

Additionally, the two described to me how weather conditions affect the breads. “When the weather is hot, you have to be careful not to allow the levain to over ferment and result in a sour flavor,” said Scott. “Careful temperature control is essential to getting the right flavors in the final product, but there is only so much control over the weather.” To compensate when the weather is warm, the boulangers use much cooler water during the mixing process.

Anyone who has ever made their own bread starter has some experience with the natural process of creating levain, the mixture of flour and water that has been converted into a leavening agent through fermentation. Though Bob’s version of this is complex and fine tuned, it makes one think of the wine term terroir, which is the taste and flavor imparted to a wine by the environment in which is it produced. Clearly, this exists for other things, especially bread, as the breads created in Los Alamos are unique in their own way.

How lucky are we to have such nutritious, traditional-style bread products available right here in our own community? For me, it’s a continuation of that lifestyle I cultivated in France that centered around fresh bread.

To celebrate this, I took home some of the breads and croissants that Bob and his team made that morning and created a few dishes that can also be paired with locally produced wines.


Smoked Salmon Toasts – 2017 Margerum Riviera Rosé

French Onion Soup – 2015 Cotiere Pinot Noir

Croissant Bread Pudding – 2015 Riverbench Demi-Sec Sparkling Wine

For links to the other recipes, click here.

Recently returned from attending Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, Laura Boorasis the general manager at Riverbench Vineyard & Winery in the Santa Maria Valley. She lives on the vineyard, where she regularly hosts food writers, celebrity chefs and wine critics for unique meals prepared with locally sourced ingredients.

Categories Category: Food