Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Our Pandemic Stress Baking French Friend

Meet Philippe Delansay, a Silicon Valley wizard who has turned to breadmaking in the crisis
Screen Shot 2020-04-09 at 1.40.29 PM

Good morning. Well, it’s morning to me. As you know, I’ve had a recurrence of mononucleosis, which is knocking me around quite a bit. I woke up at 12:30pm, and was tired. This stuff makes my mind foggy too, episodically. And this isn’t as bad a relapse as the original was, from 2012-15. Man, that was bad. I have no idea how I kept this blog going and wrote two books in all of that (except the second book was written after I was much better). But here we are. I saw the new unemployment figures this morning: 17 million Americans unemployed. If any of us still have jobs, we have no reason to complain.

After that jolt, this is going to sound off-key, but still, I think you’ll like this. My French friend Philippe Delansay is a Silicon Valley genius who started his own successful company. He’s now living in the Netherlands, his wife’s home country, with Beatrice and their kids, and an Italian exchange student. He normally flies to San Francisco once a month or so for work, but with the lockdown, he is housebound like the rest of us. Let me tell you, if you’re going to be cloistered at home, you want to do it with a guy like Philippe, who, being French, has decided to pour his passion into home bread-baking.

He has started a bread-baking blog, Flippin’ Yeast. And here is a link to his first video. The original is in French, but he has overdubbed it in English — that’s why the lips don’t match the words.

There is no more good-humored and companionable Frenchman than Philippe — and trust me, this man can cook. My daughter Nora has been baking a lot during the lockdown. I’m going to show her Philippe’s video, and we are going to try making a loaf of his pain de campagne on our own.

Here is a link to the blog itself (versus the overall site). Philippe is a computer scientist by training, so he will take a scientific approach to baking bread. It’s like being in the kitchen with Pascal and Descartes. Philippe says on his blog:

My dream for this blog would be to give life to an online community where people feel free to share and exchange with one another tips and tricks, suggestions and resources that could help everyone grow in their amatorial kitchen experiments. See you in the comment section!

Won’t you join him? Trust me, this is going to be good. Philippe really has the joie de vivre that makes cooking, and eating, and living, fun.

UPDATE: Oh joy, here’s a New Yorker piece by the great Bill Buford, on his experience learning how to bake bread in Lyon. Excerpts:

In Lyon, an ancient but benevolent law compels bakers to take one day off a week, and so most don’t work Sundays. An exception was the one in the quartier where I lived with my family for five years, until 2013. On Sundays, the baker, Bob, worked without sleep. Late-night carousers started appearing at three in the morning to ask for a hot baguette, swaying on tiptoe at a high ventilation window by the oven room, a hand outstretched with a euro coin. By nine, a line extended down the street, and the shop, when you finally got inside, was loud from people and from music being played at high volume. Everyone shouted to be heard—the cacophonous hustle, oven doors banging, people waving and trying to get noticed, too-hot-to-touch baguettes arriving in baskets, money changing hands. Everyone left with an armful and with the same look, suspended between appetite and the prospect of an appetite satisfied. It was a lesson in the appeal of good bread—handmade, aromatically yeasty, with a just-out-of-the-oven texture of crunchy air. This was their breakfast. It completed the week. This was Sunday in Lyon.

For most of my adult life, I had secretly wanted to find myself in France: in a French kitchen, somehow holding my own, having been “French-trained” (the enduring magic of that phrase). I thought of Lyon, rather than Paris or Provence, because it was said to be the most Frenchly authentic and was known historically as the world’s gastronomic capital. Daniel Boulud, the most successful serious French chef in the United States, was from there, as was Paul Bocuse, the most celebrated chef in the world. The restaurateur Jean-Georges Vongerichten had trained in Bocuse’s kitchen, as his sauce-maker. “Lyon is a wonderful city,” he told me. “It is where it all started. You really should go.”

Buford was taken in by “Bob,” a Frenchman who ran a tiny boulangerie across the street from the Buford apartment. Bob — real name: Yves — showed him how to make real French bread:

From our balcony, with a mountain breeze coming off the Saône, the smells of the boulangerie were inescapable. When you live here, you have no choice: Bob’s bread enters your living space. The boulangerie was the village equivalent of a campfire. It held the restaurants together. It united chefs and diners. It made the quartier a gastronomic destination.

Once, I asked Bob for his secret: “Is it the yeasts? Are they what make your bread so good?”

Oui,” he said very, very slowly, meaning, “Well, no.”

I pondered. “Is it the leavening?” Bob always insisted that a slow first rise—called le pointage—was essential to good bread. Factory bread-makers use high-speed mixers to whip a dough into readiness in minutes. Bob’s took all night.


“The final resting?” Bread gets its deeper flavor in its last stages, people say.

Oui-i-i-i. But no. These are the ABCs. Mainly, they are what you do not do to make bad bread. There is a lot of bad bread in France. Good bread comes from good flour. It’s the flour.”

“The flour?”

Oui,” he said, definitively.

I thought, Flour is flour is flour. “The flour?”

Oui. The flour.”

Bob bought a lot of flours, but a farm in the Auvergne provided his favorite. The Auvergne, west of Lyon, is rarely mentioned without an epithet invoking its otherness. It is sauvage—wild—with cliffs and forests and boar. Its mountains were formed by volcanoes, like so many chimneys. In the boulangerie, there was a picture of a goat on a steep hill. It was kept by a farmer friend, who grew the wheat that was milled locally into a flour that Bob used to make his bread. The picture was the only information that Bob’s customers required. Who needs a label when you have a goat?

For Bob, farms were the “heart of Frenchness.” His grandfather had been a farmer. Every one of the friends he would eventually introduce me to were also the grandchildren of farmers. They felt connected to the rhythm of plows and seasons, and were beneficiaries of a knowledge that had been in their families for generations. When Bob described it, he used the word transmettre, with its sense of “to hand over”—something passed between eras.

Read it all. Can’t wait for Buford’s new book to come out: “Dirt,” about his experience learning how to cook French in Lyon. It will be published on May 5. The Lyon episode of Anthony Bourdain’s show is my favorite of all Bourdain’s work. It features a segment in which Buford takes Bourdain to Café Comptoir Abel, where they try, among other things, Lyon’s famous quenelles. Because of that episode, I stopped by Lyon with a New Orleans friend, on our way back from the Palio di Siena. James C. met us there. We went to that same cafe to eat. Here is the shot James took of me eating my first bite of quenelle. This, my dears, is what ecstasy looks like:

By the way, here is a ten-year-old BBC segment in which Buford cooks with Bob. Make sure you’ve read the New Yorker piece before you watch this, though. It’s more poignant that way: