The smell of freshly baked bread and cakes is utterly scrumptious and mouth-wateringly delicious as I arrive at the Moulin de Renty in Renty, near Fauquembergues, Pas de Calais, northern France. I am here in search of the very best bread in France – the north at any rate, and this tiny bakery at a centuries old mill is officially where the best baker in the north resides says Janine Marsh…
In the boulangerie, Monsieur Lesenne the baker is pulling bread from the oven and the shop has a queue. I can’t help but mention it and one of the customers says “this is nothing” you should see it on a Sunday – the queue is round the courtyard at seven o’clock in the morning! You have to order in advance or it’s all gone by nine o’clock”. I ask her what she thinks is best, “without a doubt the bread” she says smiling. Another customer interrupts “non, non it is the cramiques” and then a general discussion ensues about the baguettes, croissants and pastries. What’s a cramique I ask and am told “it’s the richest, eggiest brioche ever with sugar crystals”. Monsieur Lesenne carries on piling fresh bread on the rack from the huge wood oven in the shop right in front of us. People are buying sack loads of long slim loaves and I wonder what on earth they are going to do with them all – surely they can’t eat that much? “They are buying for their friends and family” explains Madame Lesenne as she fills bags rapidly.
So what is it about the tiny bakery that is luring clients from far and wide to this little town in the rural French countryside of northern France?
The Moulin de Renty has only been open since 2013 but it has gained a fantastic reputation as the best bakery in the north of France. Eric Lesenne is the winner of the title “Best Regional Baker in France” from the French M6 TV series and he is passionate about baking. He works flat out for 60 hours virtually non-stop and opens the bakery from Friday morning to Sunday morning during which time he bakes 700 loaves, 1000 brioches and many hundreds of croissants, cakes and other pastries. His delightful wife Veronique works alongside him in the shop, though she confesses that she does sometimes get a bit of sleep while Eric and his assistant are busy kneading dough and baking when the shop is closed.
After working in bakeries in the south of France and in Lille, Monsieur Lesenne admits he loved life in the Gorges du Verdon, but he returned to his roots in the north to be near family – and he has never looked back. He bought with him the baking know-how of the south and married it to the experience of the north and came up with an award winning baguette that is unique to the Moulin de Renty, he calls it “le pain barre” (the bread bar). It doesn’t look like any baguette I’ve seen before, flatish, very crispy on the outside and lots of air holes on the inside which is cream-coloured. He watches my face keenly as I try it. “Magnifique” I exclaim, and it’s true, this bread is absolutely delicious, gently salty and very tasty.
“In the north the bread is more dense” Monsieur Lesenne declares, “In the south they like their bread light. I put these two things together, use the best organic flour, bake it over wood and this is what we have”. It’s genius I tell him and he smiles. When I say I can imagine this with a wedge of goat’s cheese from the farm down the road he tells me you need nothing with this bread, it’s good on its own. All the customers who have been watching this exchange intently nod in agreement… and then the oven beeps, the next batch of bread is ready and they turn eagerly to get their daily bread fix.
As if tasting quite possibly the best bread I have ever had isn’t enough, Madame Lesenne asks me if I’d like to come into the house and see the gardens. She tells me that at the Moulin de Renty they also makes pizzas and they let customers sit in the lovely bakery gardens and have an al fresco meal, you just have to reserve when you order your pizza.
I follow her into the old millhouse which is opened to the public twice a year for heritage and patrimonie days. When the Lesenne family bought the property it had been empty for several years but the mill had been in use right up until 1971. Built in 1797, just four years after the French Revolution, the family have kept the huge mill wheel going and it takes pride of place in the kitchen. Madame welcomes more than 300 people into her home on open days she tells me before leading me out into the garden where there are benches and tables for customers to enjoy their pizzas.
As I leave, the baker pops his head out to wave goodbye and call out “You can eat it in a second, but the memory lasts forever”. He’s not wrong, though luckily for me, I don’t have to remember, I live close enough to go back so I guess I’ll be joining those Sunday morning queues!