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Artisan baker Thierry Dumouchel on why we need our daily bread

PUBLISHED: 00:00 05 January 2015 | UPDATED: 13:46 24 October 2015

French artisan baker Thierry Dumouchel in his Leeds boulangerie

French artisan baker Thierry Dumouchel in his Leeds boulangerie

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Every single loaf handcrafted at Thierry Dumouchel's West Yorkshire bakery has a lineage that can be traced back almost two decades.

Thierry Dumouchel shares more than 50 of his recipes in BreadThierry Dumouchel shares more than 50 of his recipes in Bread

When the Normandy-born culinary craftsman first opened his business in Garforth, Leeds, 17 years ago, he created a sourdough starter with just flour, water, a pinch of patience and a healthy dollop of expertise. The dough bubbled into life, creating its own intensely flavoured wild yeast that gave – and continues to give – every loaf he sells its distinctive, almost nutty deliciousness.

Thierry still feeds that original ‘mother dough’ as part of his daily routine, ensuring there is always some available for incorporating into the current batch. He also makes a little more dough than he needs every day – if, for instance, he needs 20kg, he’ll make 22kg – so that batch feeds the next, creating a never-ending spiral of flavour that goes back 17 years and will continue for years to come.

He has no time for commercially-baked bread, particularly the white, bouncy but largely tasteless loaves created using the Chorleywood process, which revolutionised the industry in the 1960s by allowing companies to make bulk batches at speed.

‘In France, our bread tends to be heavier and quite small,’ he said. ‘We want bread that is full of flavour; we don’t want big, airy, white clouds of nothing.’

The shaped dough is left to naturally ferment for 12 to 36 hoursThe shaped dough is left to naturally ferment for 12 to 36 hours

His own method is deceptively simple: fresh ingredients, some French, some from on his doorstep in Yorkshire, a very small amount of yeast, a very small amount of salt and lots and lots of time.

‘We don’t add fat and we don’t add chemicals. Ever,’ said Thierry, with some conviction. ‘All we add is time. Our dough ferments for 12-18 hours, and sometimes as long as 36. This gives the wheat a chance to break down and lets the fermentation process take place at its natural pace.’

This produces a finer quality bread with an immense depth of flavour and, as a bonus, makes it easy to digest, even for those who are gluten-intolerant.

‘Gluten-intolerance is a matter of chemistry,’ said Thierry. ‘Real bread that is left to ferment naturally is digestible because it has already done all the work it needs to do before you eat it. If you rush bread on a production line and give it just an hour, it’s simply not ready.

‘The type of bread I make is good for you. It is alive and vibrant. You have to respect yourself and your body; to eat less and move around more. But it doesn’t mean you can’t eat bread.’

His passion for fresh, simple food comes from his childhood as part of a large farming family in Normandy, where his mother would often bake up to 15 loaves a day to keep everyone fed and happy.

‘Food was very important and, from being very small, we all cooked,’ he said. ‘We always sat down to eat together and my mother could tell us exactly where all our food had come from. I still want to know what I’m eating now, where it came from and who supplied the ingredients. I believe knowing all that adds to the experience of eating.

‘I also think you have to put your trust in nature. I was brought up on natural ingredients. Now, far too many people feed their children food that is full of rubbish. They claim they are precious to them, then feed them rubbish. That is something I’ll never understand.’

Thierry is hoping to pass on some of his knowledge and passion for his art through his new book, perhaps not surprisingly titled Bread, which slices through all the inconsequential filler that some chefs favour in order to deliver more than 50 precise yet approachable recipes for favourites like croissant, brioche, fougasse Provençal and pain au chocolat.

‘I have quite a scientific, analytical approach,’ he said. ‘I love the chemistry of baking; the experimentation. And I want to encourage people to have a go themselves and be experimental. I give recipes but I want them to be the basis of many great adventures. I want people to create, to innovate and to be expressive.

‘I also want them to understand the bread. Every flour and yeast is different; they don’t always react the same way, so you have to learn how to adapt to the needs of each ingredient.’

Thierry and his team have built an enviable reputation for themselves over the years, with their small but perfectly formed boulangerie, patisserie and chocolatier business becoming a byword for excellence. They make it look easy, but that is not an accurate picture of life in a busy bakery.

To say Thierry works long hours is like saying Usain Bolt is quite a fast runner. On the day of our interview, he’d started work at 1am and wasn’t planning to leave before 5pm. Yes, this was in the frantic run-up to Christmas but still, on an average day in an average week, he’s usually in for 3am and is generally to be found experimenting in the chocolate room until late afternoon.

‘I am not interested in money,’ he said. ‘My wife might not be entirely happy about that, but that is the way it is. Baking is not a means to an end for me. It’s not a way of making a living, it’s my life.’

If you don’t live near Garforth and aren’t willing to travel for the most delicious bread you’ll ever taste (you fools!), Dumouchel’s offers an online artisan bread service. All you have to do is thank the courier nicely when they deliver your lightly baked bread to your door, then give it a quick blast in the oven and enjoy. You can also freeze it for later if you like (although the urge to eat it in great buttery chunks will be difficult to resist).

But if you can pop in to this off-the-beaten-track boulangerie, it’s well worth the journey. It’s small –something of an afterthought tagged on to the bakery – and is not on Garforth’s main street, but it’s a real treasure trove of delights. And there is something very special – very French even – about picking up your daily bread fresh from the oven.

‘My father-in-law, who is English, is happy to shop for bread every day when he’s in France, but not in England,’ said Thierry. ‘Why would you not want fresh bread?

‘It is not bad for you and it doesn’t make you fat, unless you have a tonne of butter on it. I eat at least two baguettes a day and I am hardly fat, am I? A little bread, cheese and salad is a perfect meal – and it keeps you full so you don’t indulge in silly snacking.

‘I personally cannot have dinner without bread. It is incomplete. If I go to a restaurant and they can’t tell me about their bread and who made it, I’ll take my own. I’m polite; I don’t make a big deal of it. But I’m not going to eat bread with no heritage.’

When he first came to this country in a bid to enhance his work prospects by improving his English, he lived in Devon. But he soon followed his heart – and a lovely Leeds lass called Angela – north, where he was surprised to find a community that reminded him of his Normandy home.

‘Yorkshire people are very much like the Normans,’ he explained. ‘They are very honest and very straightforward. If they don’t like something they will tell you.

‘And the county is fantastic for produce. I have everything I could want here. I am inspired by the county all the time – by its flour and its rapeseed oil – and develop products that show them off.’

He’s also inspired and intrigued by his customers who, he says, offer him a constant stream of feedback (whether he asks for it or not).

‘I talk to people all the time and their words, thoughts and ideas keep me excited about baking,’ said Thierry. ‘I know that my bakery is a place of pleasure. Can you imagine how great a feeling that is?’

Bread by Thierry Dumouchel, priced £25, is available from dumouchel.co.uk. Call 0113 287 0055 or email info@dumouchel.co.uk for details.

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