History

“A person named Bellegarde, a baker”—that is the way he is listed. An old map of the city, drafted in 1722 (rather a sketch than a map), shows the location of Bellegarde’s Bakery at the corner of St. Ann and Chartres Streets, where the downtown Pontalba Building presently stands…. He sold wine and real estate, demanding prompt payment.”

Roger Joseph Baudier
From The Baking Industry in Old New Orleans

0804bellgardeEDIT0054The desire to create bread antithetical to current tastes, trends, and ease may raise red flags. Clouds of doubt, furrowed brows—beneath the veneer of dismissiveness is ignorance. White, fluffy, cottony, vacuous, tasteless logs of baked dough—soggy even in December—should not be a yardstick of great bread. Po’Boy bread, French Bread; call it what you will because it serves its purpose. But it doesn’t do much beyond that, and its existence, let alone its popularity, frightens true bakers. More than anything, the Po’Boy loaf/French Bread is an aberration, a relatively new taste that belies and ignores the amazingly rich history of bread in the city of New Orleans….

‘Settled’ by the French in the early 18th century, New Orleans and the surrounding area relied heavily upon France for supplies and recipes. Craftsman of all stripes were brought to Louisiana—bakers included—and they were left to contend for themselves in this vast European wilderness. Victims of infrequent and insufficient supplies, bakers were often bereft of the very ingredient imperative to their work. Flour: flour moldy, flour wet, flour musty, soggy, infested, fetid, damaged, spoiled, substandard, and expensive.

Flour wasn’t the only inconsistent and cantankerous ingredient. Water, the most important ingredient behind flour, was just as difficult to obtain. The city’s first bakeries procured water in two ways: from the River or from the Rain. Both were of insufficient and dubious quality.

As If the procurement of consistent ingredients wasn’t enough, the climatic conditions were salt in the baker’s wounds. Restless, relentless humidity, capricious thunderstorms—extreme cold and blistering moist heat: essentially one of the worst climates for fermentation. The craft of baking is one of control: consistency and quality are the results of control. But in such conditions bakers found it nearly impossible to regulate the temperature and fermentation of their doughs. Compacted by the sporadic deliveries and struggle which plagued the colony, bakers—more than any other craftsman—were asked to do the possible with circumstances near impossible.

New Orleans’ first bakers—Bellegarde (Francois Lemesle), Caron, Jean Ospistel, l’Abbe, Passepartout, and Jean Hemard—often had to mix what little, often rancid, wheat flour they had with local and easily obtainable fillers such as rice and corn flour. This immediately defined the relationship that bakers had to the country around them. The area’s isolation only illustrated its immense bounty.

Hundreds of years later, New Orleans’ breads were still informed by the people who ate them. German bakers baked for French and Creole customers, Italian bakers catered to more American and English tastes. Regardless, true bread—hearty, dark, wholesome, honest—was the motif within the different cultures. A true patois—in diet, tastes, ingredients, and methods—emerged and was maintained throughout the early 20th century. But with rapid industrialization—at home and in the bakery—came the mechanization of production methods. Not only did this erode the cultural history of New Orleans’ cuisine, it degraded the value of the craft and its masters.

At once home to 200 bakeries, baking breads as varied as Bavarian Rye, Anise Brioche, Flutes, Acadian Miche, Pita, Vienna, and Croissants, the city’s ability and dexterity in this category has collapsed into Po’Boy loaves and Bunny Bread.

But, as always, we must bake today what we hope to eat tomorrow. Concomitant with the decline is resurgence; a preservation of a thread, soon woven into a larger fabric. Much as any other aspect of New Orleans’ culture, Bellegarde aims to take bread away from the commodification and bastardization it has become victim too. Not wanting to proselytize, but wishing to restore a unique and wonderful aspect of New Orleans’ culture to its throne: “Everything I do from now on is gonna be…” traditional.

“[Bread baking in New Orleans] is a story of struggle, of service, of determination, of ideas and ideals, of patient effort to supply a great city…with the most essential food, the story of courageous men who saw the vision of future greatness, and grasped the advantages of solidarity and cooperation among fellow members of their ancient trade, the oldest in the world, the story of devoted bakery operators who have given of themselves their sustenance and their energies for the good of their fellow bakers and their industry. Let their memory be cherished down the years….”

Roger Joseph Baudier
From The Baking Industry in Old New Orleans

Advertisements