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!
With grace and gusto,
July 30, 2014 at 12:01 pm
That bread looks so amazing. I’m really inspired to do this. I’m really tired of the processed bread we buy at the shops. I love your free form bread loaf. I’m gonna go buy some of the flour now. So when baking cakes etch, do you add bicarb or baking soda to make them rise?
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July 30, 2014 at 3:47 pm
Hi Allana, yes any recipes that call for SR flour, I just adapt by adding 1 tsp baking powder per cup of flour. Easy peasy! I even use the flour to make my own pasta. It is divine x
July 30, 2014 at 12:06 pm
Do you have recipes for you own crackers for cheese or dip?
July 30, 2014 at 3:48 pm
No I don’t specifically but have often thought about playing around with them. Do you? Please share – would love to hear if anyone has had any success with making their own crackers. kpx
July 30, 2014 at 12:28 pm
very interesting article! After reading it I went straight to have a look at the Basic Ingredients website. Have you ever tried their “french crusty white mix”? If yes, is that any good? thanks! 🙂
July 30, 2014 at 1:21 pm
Hi Isabelle, no I haven’t tried it – I stick to the French stuff 🙂 let me know if you do and what you think.
July 30, 2014 at 3:46 pm
Hi again Isabelle, I just re-read your question without kids hanging off me so I could concentrate 🙂 Sorry my reply wouldn’t have made much sense! So, no I haven’t tried it and I probably wouldn’t because it’s actually full of additives and emulsifiers and my guess is that it’s not actually french flour (although I have put in a call to Virgil at BI to check) but just a mix made up to create a crusty french-like baguette. Hope that makes more sense. If Virgil advises me otherwise, I will let you know. All the best, Kate
July 31, 2014 at 9:36 am
Thank you Kate! Your first repply wasn t as detailed as the 2nd one, but still “understandable’! 😉
I think I will stick to the french flour first and hopefully I will find a difference when making my own bread ( Ihave tried so many different flours!). Being French I am dying to be able to make a crusty baguette: maybe this is it! Thanks again Kate for letting us know about BI! 🙂
July 31, 2014 at 9:48 am
Oh fantastic Isabelle – didn’t realise you were French. You will be the perfect critic 🙂 let me know what you think! Are you based in Brisbane?
July 31, 2014 at 9:51 am
Yes I am…for the last 16 years!! What about you: are you going to move to France?
July 31, 2014 at 9:58 am
Oh cool .. yep we’re moving in December to the South near Carcassonne. My email is email@example.com if you want to chat off public 🙂 would love to chat more!
August 2, 2014 at 7:58 pm
I just bought some French flour = D. I am so hanging out to make it. I think I do have a cracker recipe somewhere. I will try and find it and give it a whirl. If it’s any good I’ll let you know = D
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August 7, 2014 at 9:08 pm
I made this bread today and it was so easy and so amazing (I made it by hand and it was still easy). My husband LOVED it soooo much and the kids. It completely disappeared. I think for our family the above measurements makes 1 loaf that would replace what we would normally buy at the shops. I found myself making another loaf (Measurements as above) for us to have tomorrow. It’s all sliced and frozen and ready for breakfast and for the lunch boxes tomorrow. I really want to use this instead of buying bread from now on, it is so worth it for the taste, texture and knowing what goes into the bread. I love that their is no sugar, it still tasted so sweet still. Thank you sooooo much = D
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August 7, 2014 at 9:10 pm
Yay! That is music to my ears. I’m so pleased you love it as much as we do x
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February 27, 2015 at 8:22 pm
Here is the thing… until you taste a real French baguette you will not get the difference. I now only use French T65 AND French yeast to make my Baguettes. MMM reminder of St Germaine
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August 25, 2015 at 9:20 am
I’m an American with a similar obsession with French flour as I have noticed the same things with regard to “gluten sensitivity”, taste, and texture. I believe American agriculture and milling practices are probably similar to Australian. I am continuing to research, like you are, what the differences may be. I suspect one problem may be pesticides or herbicides.
September 1, 2015 at 6:19 am
Hi Alex, Sorry thought I replied earlier … I agree with you on pesticides … there are many factors at play. Now that I’m living here in France I can see history and family pride also plays a role, as well as the french regulations. There’s so much competition that they wouldn’t dare stray from the basic four ingredients and there are more wheat producers with smaller land that what we’re used to in Australia – it means they have more control over their crop. I don’t know how I will go back to bread in Australia … I think I just won’t eat it! Good luck with your ongoing research!
August 31, 2015 at 5:57 pm
Thank you for all of your research efforts, I have been lamenting the fact that my rustic baguettes are continual disappointments. I have been researching the flour and have found 2 suppliers so far in Brisbane – Basic Ingredient will be my preferred option for the same reason – 5kg bags. I am so excited I will go crazy once the flour arrives!!! I eat very little local bread, but, my concession has been my Scandinavian rye that I have learnt to make; this has been a success.
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September 1, 2015 at 6:21 am
Hi deekay! Glad it has been a help … getting the flour right is a big step in the right direction. Also try spraying your baguette with water just before you bake it and make sure your oven is really hot – around 220-250 degrees. You can also finish it off a tray just on your oven rack for the last 5 mins or so to crisp up the outside depending on how crusty you like it … good luck!
September 16, 2015 at 2:07 pm
This has been my experience also. In Australia, I am gluten intolerant, so I avoid flour based products. I am in Paris right now, eating baguette after baguette, croissant after croissant, and no issue whatsoever – zero! Funnily enough, I have the same experience with French wine.
I found your article after googling about buying French flour in Perth. Great to have my experience validated by someone else.
Interestingly, today I am hosting a lunch in our apartment on Ile Saint Louis, cooking French food for the French – wich me luck!
September 16, 2015 at 5:19 pm
Rob – good luck! Cooking for the french is always a humbling experience 🙂 So great to hear yet another story supporting the merits of French Flour – it’s such a shame we have such a different product in Australia. Hopefully having flour shipped from Basic Ingredients to Perth is cost effective for you – but if you do find a supplier closer to you, please let me know who it is! Enjoy the City of Lights!! Cheers, Kate
P.S I have just moved my blog to http://www.katesplates.com.au where I’ll be doing follow up articles on French Flour while I’m still in France.