I managed a French artisan bakery up until it went out of business due to the recession almost 3 years ago now. To say it was artisan is almost an understatement. Everything, and I mean everything was made from scratch and the viennoiserie (croissants and danish) were better than anything you could get in this country and to be fair, on a level with what you could get in France. We had a team of French pastry chefs and bakers and they were a real eye-opener as well. In my naivety I thought it was the Irish who had the reputation for being the alcoholics of Europe - that was until I met the French. I would say that 70% plus of our staff had a drink problem. However, that is a novel for another time!
We used very expensive ingredients including French flour, primarily Farine de Ble type 65 (wheat flour), but also siegle (rye). We used all unsalted butter, whole eggs, cream and Belgian chocolate. This, in addition to all products being handmade including the croissants, rolled by hand, made the product very expensive. Obviously in the downturn many business cut back on their expensive supplies. We had problems with customers dragging their heels paying up and this in turn led us to not be able to pay our suppliers. Every month was a nightmare, towards the end, trying to negotiate cheques from our accounts office in order to release supplies from suppliers who had our account on hold. I had to continually juggle and also shop around for better prices which ended up taking up so much time, it began to take up a large part of everyday.
We operated 3 separate sections, bread, viennoiserie and dessert. Breads included baguettes, Bretonne baguette, country bread, boule, couronne and brioche. Viennoiserie was croissant, almond croissant, pain au chocolate, pain au raisin, fruit etoile, torsade and apple chausson. Desserts were fresh fruit tarts with creme patissiere, lemon tart, chocolate tart, cheesecakes, mousses including feuillantine chocolate, opera, profiteroles (piece montee) and nicest of all La Religieuse. And this list is only a fraction of what I can remember.
We supplied primarily Dublins' - 4 and 5 star hotels. Some of the executive head chefs were the bain of my life but some were really great to work with as we often made desserts to order. We also supplied cafes, restaurants and coffee shops. Our delivery vans were on the road before 4am and most deliveries were completed by 10am. The bakery operated 24/7 and we had 3 different shifts. If I had occasion to go in at night to check something, it was like a whole other world. A bright hive of activity with the most amazing smells wafting out. There is nothing like the taste of a freshly glazed pain au raisin or a crusty baguette.
When I travel now to France, which is several times a year lately, I still compare bakery goods with "ours" and very often they fail to live up to standards; as even in France they have started to cut back on the quality ingredients (butter in particular). I can always taste the difference in croissant. But sometimes you find a small bakery in a town that produces the same sort of amazing tastes we did. And that is heaven and something the French really excel at.
One day I hope to sit down and write in more detail about the experience of managing the bakery and dealing with the French because, when I used to tell friends the stories, they all said you really should write a book. The only problem is people reading it would think I had made it up!