Sunday, February 6, 2011

What is the Baguette du Perche and Why Does it Matter to Farmers?

Rebuilding local food economies requires the restoration of direct economic relationships between local food growers, processors, and preparers – essentially reconnecting the farmers, bakers, butchers, shop owners, and chefs. These professions once worked well together at a regional scale in rural farm economies around the world, but became separated with the industrialization, nationalization, and globalization of our food system over the last century.
In triangular relationships involving three parties, the baker (preparer) specifies the wheat to be grown and the type of flour to be milled from it, the farmer (producer) grows the wheat to the baker’s specifications, the miller (processor) grinds the wheat to the baker’s specifications, and the baker has the right flour to bake the best bread in the region.  Or the butcher/meat distributor (presenter) specifies the type of heirloom hog to be raised and what to feed it/finish it on, and how it should be cured, the farmer (producer) raises the hog to the butcher’s specifications, the curemaster (processor) cures the meat to the butcher’s specifications, and the butcher has the right finished country ham to sell as the region’s best.
The common thread through many of these examples is the farm -- growing the type of meats, grains, dairy products, fruits, or vegetables that can distinguish a region and provide its processors and preparers with the best farm products that can be produced there.  Successful farms of today and tomorrow will inevitably be part of the Renaissance of the rural village economy -- the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker...and the farmer. 
This is exactly what happened to create “the world’s best baguette” – La Baguette du Perche in lower Normandy, France.  As described in the New York Times article (March 27, 2007), the baguette du Perche originated when Philippe Gallioz and Jean Larriviere, who both left corporate jobs, purchased a 400-year-old mill in Bivilliers, in the Perche region. They knew they could partner with farmers to grow exceptional wheat varieties, grind the wheat to perfection in their mill, and work with bakers to produce the ideal loaf of bread. “What we were looking for could only be accomplished in an area like Le Perche, which still operates on the criteria of 100 years ago” said Galloz.
Today about 50 bakers in Le Perche make this fragrant, perfectly crusted bread. And the reigning king of la baguette is David Lambert, whose bakery, Les Flaveurs du Perche, is in Bretoncelles. Lambert is a second-generation baker and one of the new group of Percherons who combines modern marketing ideas with old traditions. Community response to his bread has been so favorable that he built a new wood-fired brick oven and began using a machine that simulates kneading by hand. His output has swelled to more than 1,200 baguettes a week.
What are the opportunities for these relationships in the many growing regions and local food economies of the US?  The North Carolina Organic Bread Flour Project is one example, working with farmers in different regions of the state to produce varieties of hard red wheat, milling those varieties to bakers' specifications, then working with bakers to produce a local loaf of NC bread. 

Other examples of triangular relationships include the American Country Ham revival, in which the hog farmer raises hogs to specifications of a butcher/meat distributor, who also works directly with a curemaster who prepares the hams to rival the finest Spanish mountain hams, or Italian prosciuttos.  It could also be the chef who features a special regional sauerkraut on her menu, with cabbage grown by certain farmers and the fermentation and canning done by a start-up company using a shared commercial kitchen. Or a bartender working with apple growers and a cider mill to produce a regional hard cider.

Farms that are tailoring their production to the needs of local food processors and preparers, to meet regional demand for regional speciality foods and beverages will be more profitable and resilient than those stuck on the debt treadmill of global commodity crops, chemical intensive fruits and vegetables, or industrial meat and dairy production.  Local food entrepreneurs are restoring these direct economic relationships -- blending the old world traditions of the rural village economy with 21st century technology, marketing, and regional distribution channels.  What is YOUR region's version of the "Baguette du Perche"?