As I enter the boulangerie of Jean-François Gimenes, he is in the process of rolling out a pâte feuilletée, a puff pastry, folding it seven times. The next day he will cut it into long loaves, and put it into his wood-fired oven on a long paddle to bake.
He has been here since 2.00am, fired up his oven just after 3.00am and his day will end at 12.30pm, when he sweeps up the last bit of flour. “That’s the way it is, I have to get everything done,” he says, shrugging his shoulders.
Jean-François Gimenes was born in Pernes-les-Fontaines back when it was still a small town. After years of working in a variety of fields, he woke up one morning and had the crazy idea to do something completely different. He packed up his knapsack, toured all of France, and returned to the south with a passion for baking bread, but à l’ancienne - the old style of baking in a wood-fired oven, a time-honoured tradition - and specifically with levain, or sourdough.
After spending a few years in Carpentras, the bakery in his home town came up for sale, he snapped it up and has since been baking up a storm for the last 10 years. Pernes is now a city, but maintains the spirit of a village, and the bakery remains the oldest shop still in existence in Pernes, he says proudly. It remains the heart of the community, a meeting place.
He used to stop by this very bakery as a boy to buy bread, baked in the very same ancient oven. "That’s what I love about it, this spirit. And in the context of this bakery it’s got a friendly atmosphere and it’s close to everyone - it’s in the centre of Pernes, and that’s something I really love."
The entrance to his tiny shop is modest, nondescript, nearly unchanged since its founding in 1890. As I open the door the next day, a chilly Saturday morning, his daughter Manon at the till, I am welcomed by a burst of warm air and a crowd of convivial people chatting. Many of them are friends, who wait in line patiently for their bread - most of the loaves are set to one side, as locals know to reserve their loaf in advance. Otherwise, the shelves are normally bare by noon.
Meanwhile, Jean-François deftly manoeuvres his long paddle in the vast, hot oven, pulling out crusty loaves, rearranging others, trying not to prod customers filing into the shop. That magnificent ancient oven is the centrepiece of the bakery. For him, the wood oven evokes everything that his ancestors used to do. "I’m doing the same thing. I’m reproducing what the past generations did. It’s the love of the craft - I have no desire to work with an electric oven or with yeast, not at all. It’s the choice I made and I love it. It’s hard work, but I like that."
Jean-François loads the wood into the lower portion of the oven. The wood heats the stone slab above where the loaves will be placed. After two hours, it’s ready. The wood-fired stove is what gives his bread its unique texture, which I adore: the crust much thicker and chewier than industrially produced bread made with yeast. I’m also interested to learn that the shape of a bread affects its taste. For example a baguette and a miche (a round ball) could be made with the same dough, but the baguette will cook quicker, at a higher heat, while the larger loaves will cook more slowly, over the dying embers. The flavours will be completely different.
"That changes the taste and it’s something that you can only achieve with a wood-fired oven," he says. I tear off a piece of that feuilleté loaf which he was rolling out the day before, and the crust shatters into a magnificent shower of flaky, light layers.
It’s just one of at least a dozen types of bread and speciality breads Jean-François bakes each day. He is best known for his humorously-named Pernoise, a slim loaf which he bakes every day, and the heftier Pernois, which he only bakes on Saturdays.
But the work has begun much earlier. As he uses only sourdough, the mixture starts fermenting two days in advance and is then baked on the third. Creativity is essential to his craft. He loves experimenting with different types of flour, mixing and matching until it’s just right. For example, petit épeautre de Sault, an ancient grain of the region (similar to spelt) will form the basis of an enormous square loaf that customers buy by the slice - a six or 12 cm slice, or more! He also uses rye, whole wheat, buckwheat and various other organic flours.
"I’ve always loved to create different varieties, to work with new types of flour. After that, well, it’s humour. It’s something I love, to experiment." And evidently, lots of ideas emerge if you work all alone in the middle of the night! He accepts the solitary nature of his work. "I like working all alone, it’s a choice. I do my research, I am the only one responsible for the quality, and I pull my very own bread out of the oven."
Jean-François once contemplated packing up and moving to Canada. But his roots are here and he’s committed to the community - and the citizens of Pernes-les-Fontaines - and visitors - are all the happier to be able to order their Pernoise loaf on a weekday and Pernois on Saturdays.
Boulangerie Gimenes AU FEU DE BOIS
51 rue de la République
04 90 60 00 74