It's hotly debated whether the best part is the smell or the taste. But for baker Lorenzo Richard, fresh-baked bread is about family, tradition and culture.
By noon, the loaves are lined in rows like kernels of Indian corn. The crisp brown crust varies in shades of golden brown to mahogany. To do the bread justice, it should be cut thick while still warm, then slathered with butter and molasses. It's been hotly debated whether the best part is the aroma, the taste or the remembrance of kitchens past. With a history as old as civilized culture, any bread in its purest, simplest form has the power to evoke vivid memories. But this isn't just any bread. This is pain du collège, and it is as much a part of Memramcook, NB, culture as is the village's moniker-the Cradle of New Acadia. And the Baker of Memramcook, the man who safeguarded a century-old recipe, isn't just any baker.
Every workday for the past 50 years, at precisely 4 a.m., Lorenzo Richard would quietly rise, donning a pair of white pants and a white shirt. After drinking a glass of water, he would slip from the house and cross the street to go to work. By 4:10 a.m., he was pouring tepid water into pails, then rubbing a pound of yeast cake between his hands, crumbling it into each pail to soak. Flour, salt, sugar and shortening were added later, after the yeast began to bubble. Someone driving by for an early shift in Moncton, some 20 minutes away, might notice the light beaming from the windows of the bakery and smile at the familiar sight, knowing that continuity creates comfort. By 5 a.m., with pliable mounds of warm dough rising in large tubs, Lorenzo's habit was to crawl back in bed, remaining there until 6:15, when the dough would be ready to cut, shape and put into pans. An hour later, staves of spruce snapping and hissing in a brick-lined oven, Lorenzo was bent over a scarred and pitted table. Not just any table; its long birch boards and painted legs are as old and cherished as the bread recipe itself, and the three-baker, bread and table-are inextricably linked. Only after rolling and cutting the dough, expertly shaping and slapping 200 to 300 loaves into charred pans for the second rise, would Lorenzo stop for a slice of day-old bread and a bowl of peaches or pears. At 10 a.m., wood coals glowing inside the oven, it was time for Lorenzo to heft his paddle and slide the pans into the oven-not just any oven, but one that Lorenzo designed himself. It holds 300 loaves at one time.
The ingredient measurements varied with the seasons and weather, but the routine remained the same. Even now, after retirement in 2006, then a stroke in 2007, Lorenzo still rises at 5 a.m. and spends a few hours each day helping the bakery's new owner, former employee Clarence LeBlanc. Most folks in the Memramcook Valley might be hard-pressed to name the man who sold them their bread all these years. Known only as "Baker," Lorenzo is as much a part of the history of this Acadian village as the college where he learned his trade.
Founded in 1864, the Collège Saint-Joseph was the first French language university in Atlantic Canada. For nearly 100 years, it was home to live-in students and priests. Bread for the residents came from the college bakery; any loaves left over were sold in the community.
Lorenzo went to work in the bakery when he was 16. "The baker at the college-Vital Belliveau-taught me to make bread in the old wood oven," he says. Vital, a First World War veteran who determined the right temperature of the oven by placing his hand inside, reasoned that the young lad should learn the same way he had-by taste and touch, sight and smell. "I forgot the salt and yeast the first time," recalls Lorenzo. "He let me make the mistake. He was just standing there watching, arms folded." When the college closed its doors in 1966 and relocated its students to the new Université de Moncton, the young man with the Grade 8 education decided to try baking on his own. "I wanted my independence," he says. He left the college with an important piece of history-the worn birch table used to knead and cut thousands of loaves of bread, and the knowledge and intuition required for wood oven baking. On June 1, 1966, Boulangerie Pain du Collège opened its doors for business. Back then, a loaf of white bread sold for 25 cents. Lorenzo continued to make a living using that same recipe until his retirement. He made one small concession to change-a whole-wheat batch every fourth Wednesday. While Clarence has added such Acadian favourites as poutine râpée, pet de soeur, pâté râpée, tourtière, chicken fricot and molasses pie to the bakery's offerings, he shares the same commitment to continuity. They are all traditional family recipes. The pain du collège and pain des prêtres (priests' bread) remain unchanged, but now share the shelf with raisin bread, multi-grain and baguettes. "It's very important to keep the heritage," he says.
"It was more than just making money for us," reflects Lorenzo's wife, Diana. "It was making bread for the people. It was something to safeguard because it is part of the Acadian culture. There's an appreciation for history here. It's part of their stories, part of the fabric of their lives."
It was certainly the fabric of her family's life. As soon as they could cross the highway, Jolene, Serge and Monique Richard made the bakery an extension of their home. On cold winter mornings they waited for the school bus inside the warm building, carrying the smell of yeast and wood smoke with them to class. After school, Lorenzo remembers Serge dashing into the bakery, grabbing two rolls and then heading for the peanut butter jar. Monique, now a social worker with a daughter of her own, says, "I was always the Baker's Daughter-la fille de Baker. I still am." She pauses, searching for images. "I remember hiding under the big table, watching him make bread. My grandfather worked there too; I can see them at the big wood oven. It was family. Even now, if I pass a bakery, the smell brings back memories of home." She and her siblings also worked there, earning money for university and learning respect for people and the honour of hard work.
People didn't come just to buy, they came to debate baseball teams or to complain about the weather. Monique laughs. "Me and my mom used to watch him and say, 'He's not going to let them go home!'" Some of the most loyal customers are former college students and priests-the bread ties them to their past. The baker knew each customer's preferences by heart. "Some like the crust light, others like it dark. Some say 'I want the blackest loaf you have!' I remember one old priest at the college, he used to sit by the stove and wait for the bread to come out. He always wanted the last loaf. He'd say, 'first one in, last one out-that is the best one.'"
When Lorenzo is asked if there was ever a time he wanted to do something else, the quiet man, who for 50 years dressed in the plain white shirt and pants of a baker, shrugs. "What else would I do?"