Returning from England to France, there’s generally a bag or two of various kinds of flour in the luggage. ‘What?’ I hear you grumble. ‘That woman who’s always banging on about buying local? The one who’s got no time for the English abroad who can’t exist without their mug of builder’s tea and a custard cream?’ Yes. That’s me. Guilty as charged.
But the thing is, when in France, I sometimes have a happy hour or two baking English goodies – Melting Moments, Gingernuts, Marmalade Loaf Cake, that sort of thing – with or for French friends. And as I discovered the other week, French flour is simply not right for the job. Not better, not worse, just different.
I’d run out of my own supplies, so I nipped out and got a bag of good quality baking flour (because even more than in England, it’s important to buy the right type of flour for the job). And my tried and trusted favourites turned out all wrong. Ginger biscuits, instead of being satisfyingly chewy, with a solid crunch between the teeth, were sandy and brittle. Marmalade loaf cake, though light, was close-textured and almost crumbly. It was so disappointing. The answer, it seems, lies in the gluten content. The average French flour is ‘softer’, and has a lower gluten content than the average English flour.
So is it surprising that superior French bakers in England, such as Dumouchel, where my daughter used to work on Saturdays, send over to Normandy for supplies of authentic French flour? Or that the average French stick, bought from the average English baker, in no way resembles its chewy French antecedent, the baguette.
On this visit to England, I’m appreciating the softer crust and slightly moister qualities of a well-made wholemeal loaf, just as over in France, I enjoy the the crustiness of crisply baked French bread. Best to accept, I think, that both countries produce fine bakers and cake makers. But neither could do a fine job using the flour preferred by the other.
If you want an introduction to some of the many flours on offer to the keen baker, Dan Lepard’s site is a good place to start