Homemade bread was a byproduct of the Covid-19 lockdown worldwide, as witnessed by the lack of flour on supermarket shelves and proudly displayed loaves on Instagram feeds. I understood the trend – bread gave people a sense of purpose, warmed homes with comforting scents and filled the void left by closed-down everything. Plus, the act of kneading gave the one-two punch of stress relief and tactile pleasure.
Yet, I felt no need to knead. For I live in France, the land where boulangeries churn out 30 million baguettes a day. A place where bread is such an integral part of life that no meal is considered complete without it. Whatever I made at home wouldn’t match the loaves of someone who has devoted their life to the craft of bread making.
In my neighborhood in Marseille, I have three boulangeries within the one-kilometer radius enforced during the first two-month lockdown in the spring. Two are mediocre – yes, even France has so-so bread – but the third, Ludivine, aka Le Fournil Notre Dame, is one of the city’s best.
My trips to the boulangerie every other day allowed me a chance to commune with others besides my partner, support one of the city’s small businesses, which have been hit hard by the pandemic, and pay homage to this very French profession. Plus, my walks gave me a reason to get outside and get a bit of exercise on the return up the hill.
Before the lockdown, I’d often buy the pain noir, a dark brown bread that feels more Scandinavian than French. More frequent trips encouraged me to experiment. I discovered a delicious pain de siegle (rye bread), a pain de maïs (sourdough bread made with corn) and challah for Shabbat.
Lined up like edible jewels behind the glass display case, the patisseries came to the rescue on days when the news, or life, was hard to bear. I bought a brioche studded with gianduja and hazelnuts, a slice of tarte au citron, or vanilla and chocolate diamants, which my niece and nephew had gobbled up on their pre-pandemic visit.
I was touched by Ludivine’s efforts to make the confinement less difficult. Normally closed on Mondays, they stayed open every day from 7 a.m. until 8 p.m. to accommodate the increased demand in my highly residential neighborhood. They also have donated bread to hospital workers and Marseillais in need throughout the pandemic.
Like others, I spent the lockdown cooking, finding comfort in the meditative act, nourishing my partner and me, and making dishes that brought me closer to family far away. But my daily bread gave me something that had become rare in this year of canceled dinner parties and restaurant closures: good food made by others. And it reinforced a lesson of 2020 – pleasure can come in the smallest, simplest form.
Editor’s note: Normally when December rolls around, we ask our correspondents to share their “Best Bites,” as a way to reflect on the year in eating. But 2020 was not a normal year. So at a time when the act of eating has changed for so many, our correspondents will write about their “Essential Bites,” the places, dishes, ingredients and other food-related items that were grounding and sustaining in this year of upheaval.
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