Invited to the home of Alain Coumont, founder of Le Pain Quotidien in Montpellier, Chloe learns all about the man, Le Pain Quotidien and his love of local produce, simple cooking and provenance.
As a young chef in Brussels, Alain Coumont wanted to be able to be able to find produce that lived up to the standard of food from his childhood. This is where his love of baking began, to create the perfect bread for his restaurant.
In 1990 he opened Le Pain Quotidien, starting with a small shop and making only sour dough bread. As the shop became more popular he invested in a long ex-seamstress’ table, which is where Le Pain Quotidien’s long-table ethos comes from today. After a while, his coffee supplier gave him an old coffee machine, and a beer supplier gave him a fridge so he could begin making coffee and serving beer, cheese and ham alongside his freshly baked bread. It was a very simple, but effective set up.
Soon, a local magazine visited and wrote a great review. This lead to a huge jump in customers and, before Alain knew it, he had queues around the corner, leading to the expansion of Le Pain Quotidien. Within a few months, 10 more locations had opened and, after seven years a flagship bakery was opened on Madison Avenue in New York City. Now there are 269 shops in 20 countries, including Belgium, France, the US and the UK.
When we first arrived at Alain’s we were treated to pizzas made in Alain’s own pizza van, using cured meats and a selection of perfectly ripe cheeses, along with some of Alain’s homemade wine.
Once that was devoured, it was on to picking grapes. Alain has a small but beautiful vineyard which, given a perfect row to people ratio, naturally lead to a grape-picking race. It turned out, however, as non-experienced grape pickers we were quick but not very good – leaving the experienced pickers to follow behind us.
We then visited the winery to sample the wine at all the different stages of fermentation. The first stage of the fermentation process creates a very cloudy ‘wine’, which has quite a fruity sharp taste, not unlike a cloudy cider.
The second stage of the fermentation is very sweet, similar to a dessert wine and not quite up my street. From that point on however, you could taste the wine becoming more like the finished product with every sip until, at the final stage, we were sipping a very fine wine. And, lucky for us, Alain’s homemade wine is available in UK Le Pain Quotidien stores as the house wine.
For dinner, Alain wanted to show us what he could create with simple, local, seasonal produce, and we were in for a real treat. The first thing we noticed was Alain’s communal table philosophy is apparent in his house just as much as in his cafes. It was one of the most beautifully set tables I’ve ever seen, which led into a kitchen that held the most fantastic collection of pots, pans and even a meat cutter.
We started with foie gras served with a homemade fig ‘chutney’. The bread it was served with was made with einkorn, a traditional grain with no mutation that has been used to create bread for thousands of years. The use of ancient grains is something Alain is passionate about introducing into Le Pain Quotidien stores and, starting in January, it will be rolled out across the Paris shops.
Alain has noticed too that as more people look to have a gluten-free diet, bread sales are decreasing. However, ancient grains have a much lower gluten content. Although this makes them much harder to make into breads, due to the lower elasticity content, it is much easier for people to digest. Alain is working with local farmers to multiply the seeds so they can create enough to be able to stock stores worldwide, and begin an education campaign introducing people to these breads.
Next, shrimp ceviche served with chilli and tomato salsa, avocado and a lime wedge. Fresh and delicious. This was followed by slow cooked lamb wrapped in courgette and aubergine with lentils. This dish had a faintly Moroccan heritage and, had been cooked in the hot pizza van that we had our lunch from. Again, showcasing how modest ingredients cooked in the right way can taste divine.
Finally, dessert – possible the best-tasting homemade vanilla ice cream I’ve ever had, accompanied by figs caramelised in sugar. Again, the straightforwardness of the dessert shone through.
The next day I was woken up by the beautiful French sunshine, something I really wish I didn’t have to leave behind. Breakfast was a very French affair – homemade jams and spreads, cheeses and foie gras left from the night before, all served with strong black coffee and orange juice.
Minus the foie gras and the warming French sun, this is very similar to a breakfast you can enjoy in Le Pain Quotidiens nationwide – something I plan to take advantage of from now on.
We then took a wander around the rest of Alain’s ‘gardens’, including his new greenhouse where Alain is constantly trying to grow ancient and interesting versions of well-loved fruits and vegetables, to produce the best flavours possible. We were treated to kaffir limes, bananas and, from just outside, sun-ripened freshly picked tomatoes that you can’t help but eat straight away.
When first invited down to Montpellier, I wasn’t sure what the outcome would be. Although I knew visiting the home of Alain would be a unique and special opportunity, I wasn’t sure how it would relate to the Le Pain Quotidien stores in the UK. However, I was wrong.
After visiting Alain’s home, and speaking to him, I discovered that Alain’s love and passion for simple, local, seasonal produce well prepared, and his desire to bring back ancient grains and encourage people to live a healthy, balanced lifestyle does translate into Le Pain Quotidien shops.
He influences the menus, and keeps produce in the UK at around 60/65% organic – a percentage that is regularly increasing.
I’ll make sure to visit Le Pain Quotidien stores for a French pick-me-up much more frequently, especially now I’ve seen behind the scenes.