This post is unlike my usual snappy story with a recipe chaser … best to grab a cuppa and a comfy chair before you start reading. This is a post I have been promising for some time and one I am very passionate about … my research will forever continue on this topic. But for now, here’s what I’ve learnt about French flour.
I’ve had seven wonderful filles au pair work for us since my twin daughters were born nearly five years ago. All French, and very deliberately so. At the time they were an absolute necessity and most certainly saved me from checking myself into a sleep clinic! On reflection, almost a year since we’ve had any live-in help, those girls were not just a convenient way for me to keep up my French and have the kids immersed in it, but that time with them living in our home and eating our meals really shaped my curiosity about French food and culture. Nearly all of them, very politely, turned up their nose to our Australian bread – and rightly so. I now know that some of the flour produced in Australia, by comparison, is absolute rubbish.
I’ve always been someone who loves her bread and pastries … but I had to really limit it because I suffered bloating as a result. Sound familiar? There’s no denying us Australians are amidst a “gluten-intolerant” epidemic. So why is this so common in my generation? Twenty years ago it was barely heard of.
About eighteen months ago on my quest for answers to my twin daughters’ constant tummy troubles, I came across a naturopath whose wife is gluten intolerant. He shared with me that when they traveled through France, she found she could eat bread without any nasty side effects. He now sells French flour through his clinic and since that day it’s all you’ll find in my pantry.
My passion for this product has led me to have many conversations (in French and English!) with anyone who knows anything about French flour. I’ve tracked down bakers in Brisbane and as far as Perth who use the flour, and I’ve scoured pages of the internet in search of more information about the quality of French flour. I really feel like it’s important to be educated about the food we eat and hopefully once you’ve finished reading this article, you’ll not only be keen to try your own homemade bread using French flour, but you’ll be much more aware of Australian wheat and flour practices.
There are three main points to cover in understanding the differences … how the wheat is grown, how it’s processed and how the bread is made.
There are several factors that come into play when you start asking about how wheat varieties are grown in this country – our weather conditions are drastically different to France and the nutrients in the soil are far richer in France due to common practice of complementary planting. This means that crops are rotated so as not to deplete the soil of the same nutrients every time a crop is harvested. I visited a regional area of the South of France earlier this year and noted that my backyard was a rye field but that six months before that I would have looked out my bedroom window to a crop of sunflowers.
In my opinion, the most significant difference is how Australians “over-process” wheat. In our supermarkets, we find our basic plain flour and self-raising flour as almost our only options. Self-raising is only so because of the additives and it doesn’t even exist in France. I’m still learning about this, but for some reason, Australian mills take out some really crucial enzymes that exist in a certain part of the wheat head that enables our bodies to digest the gluten more effectively. The French leave these all in the product and as a result, they produce breads that are naturally lower in gluten as a percentage but that still provide all the enzymes nature intended us to have to aid in digestion. Makes sense right? I suspect it must cost far less to mill the way us Aussies do.
There are over six types of flour that are used daily in French boulangeries. Traditional baguettes use T55 or T65. T45 or T80 will be used for pastries, cakes or brioche (you may also be familiar with the Italian type 00 flour which is similar). T130 is a rye, T150 is similar to what we know as whole wheat and T110 is a flour that offers colouring half way between white and brown. These numbers refer to the ash content per 10mg of flour. The gluten content as a percentage is lower (9-11%) in the softer wheats (T45) and higher (11-13%) in the harder wheats (particularly wheat harvested in Spring) like T65.
For me, all these confusing numbers come down to one thing: I buy T55 flour from Basic Ingredients to make my family’s bread four times a week. It takes me two minutes to prepare, I leave it for an hour to prove and I cook it for 40 minutes. I do two loaves at a time and freeze what we’re not eating straight away. And the bottom line is that we have noticed drastic changes in our tummy health throughout the family. It tastes better, costs no more than spelt flour, my house smells amazing and the kids notice the difference when they eat commercial bread elsewhere.
My next test was to ask a friend who is highly gluten-intolerant to try the bread. I really had to twist her arm. She had avoided gluten for years and was not excited about the possibility of gut ache again. I am very excited to tell you that she too now buys the flour to bake her own bread and she can once again enjoy a wheat product without the angst of side effects.
France Gourmet imports the flour into Australia, and there are French-trained artisan bakers in Australia who won’t use anything else. Rob Howard of Harvest Boulangerie in Perth, is one such boulanger. He was on the Australian Baking Team with Brett Noy in 2010 (Italy) and 2011 (China) and came third both times in the Coup du Monde. Pretty impressive considering the tough European competition.
He explained to me that most bakers will use 1-2% yeast and often a bread improver to oxidise the dough. This is a chemical additive to speed up the process and sell bread faster. He prefers to engage in long, slow fermentation stages using no chemicals at all – just salt. This is what he was taught in Paris. Fermentation is a natural process that breaks down the starches and even the gluten to a point, and this can take up to twenty-four hours. The results speaks for itself: Rob sells between sixty and eighty baguettes a day in his Scarborough bakery.
He also highlights that the flour industry in Australia is not regulated the way it used to be. Wholemeal flours for example used to require a minimum of 90% whole wheat but these days, no one checks! It’s pretty easy to see why there are myriad reasons why our tummies are suffering at the hand of inferior flour produced in Australia.
In Brisbane, Sebastien Pisasale of Crust and Co Artisan Baking, uses a mixture of Australian and French wheat for consistency. And what he says is so true – unless the customer demands a superior product, it’s just not commercially viable for bakers to import all their flours. So once again folks, it’s up to us to take responsibility for our own health, get educated and seek better options. I’m going to go and live in the country that produces healthier, tastier breads, but if that option is a little drastic for you, I really encourage you to try making the bread yourself using French flour. I have no commercial ties to Basic Ingredients (wish I did!) but so far it’s the only retailer I have found who supplies it in small enough quantities for household use (I buy 5kg bags at a time). Give it a try, your tummy – and taste buds – will thank you!
Homemade French Bread
This quantity will make 2 baguettes or 1 loaf of bread. I use the Thermomix to knead the bread, but you could use a bread maker, KitchenAid or get some exercise and use those arms!
500gms Imported French Flour
300gms warm filtered water
1 packet dry yeast
1-2 tsp sea salt
20gms extra virgin olive oil
Mix your warm water with the yeast, salt and olive oil. Add the flour and combine on speed 6 for 8 seconds. Knead on interval speed for two minutes.
Rest on a bread mat in a warm spot for at least 30 minutes. I have left dough for up to 24 hours to encourage further fermentation. Just depends how much time you have before the kids demand toast for breaky.
Shape the dough into baguettes or a free form loaf (or you can even place in a large loaf tin) and bake on a large baking tray lined with baking paper. Mark the top of your bread with a sharp knife as per the picture below. Spray the top with water for a golden crust. You may wish to repeat this half way through the cooking time.
Place in a cold oven and cook at 220 degrees for 30 minutes. Check the crust is hard and golden. Depending on the size of your loaf, it may need an extra 5 or 10 minutes. If you’ve baked it in a tin, I recommend removing it from the tin and baking for a final 5 minutes out of it’s tin.
Now if you’ve made two like I do, allow one to cool completely, slice and freeze in a plastic bag. The other loaf must be tested whilst still warm with lashings of butter!