LeJeune's Bakery - Jeanerette, Louisiana

I am Eli Margot.  Growling is my blog.  This is my story about LeJeune's Bakery.

"Baking the same French bread since 1884" reads the parchment package of LeJeune's French bread, and ever since developing an affection for it, I've wondered how it could be possible to stand by that incredulous statement in the 21st century.  On a recent trip to the historic bakery I was pleasantly surprised at just how true that declaration is.

When I arrive at the bakery, it’s early morning and dark out.  The streets still slick from the cool, moist air, and for the most part Jeanerette, Louisiana is  asleep.  Matt LeJeune, the 5th generation owner, greets me at the door.  A humble man who looks every bit the baker, he tells me that I’ve arrived just in time.  The loaves are proofed and ready for the brilliant heat of the oven.  The bakery is primitive; somewhat European in its minimalism and lackluster.  Had I entered a polished and shiny, stainless steel, commercial bakery, I think some of the character and charisma I’ve come to appreciate in LeJeune’s bread would’ve been lost.  The entire staff of three take a time-out to introduce themselves to me and Matt instructs them to carry on as normal.  “Just pretend he’s not here; okay?”  The air is thick with the smell of yeast, flour, and hearth – all those aromas one would expect of a bakery on the National Historic Register.

If you’re a lover of LeJeune’s bread, you're aware that no two loaves look the same.  Despite their lack of uniform shape, the flavor, crumb, and texture are always consistent and indisputably delicious.  For several years, a fascination for bread-making has been rising within me, and more recently I’ve attempted to bake a decent French bread in my own kitchen.  An effort to achieve a crispy outer crust and a tender inner crumb with  irregular holes that let you know you’ve mastered the science of bringing yeast and dough to life.  It’s something that can humble the most skilled of cooks.  It’s something that Matt and his small crew accomplish on a daily basis.

Aside from their extraordinary French bread, LeJeune’s also produces a ginger cake using a recipe just as founded and aged as the family's formula for bread.  Dense and chewy, the cake isn’t overly sweet, allowing you to pick up the caramel notes of cane syrup in each bite.  It’s a meal in itself and I often find myself picking one up for a long road trip to fill my appetite along the way.

Transferring the risen loaves, three at a time, from their coffin-like proofing boxes into the oven, Matt shows me the ones he’s rolled out as he slits their tops with his razor-sharp lame – the double-edged tool used for scoring.  “Mine are more pointed on the ends, the others more rounded.  We all roll the dough a little differently.”  It wasn’t until he made that statement that I turned and examined the bakery a bit more closely – more acute – and noticed just how much of a hands-on operation this was.  Aside from a stand mixer and dough tumbler, there’s no modern machinery here.  None of the comforts or shortcuts that technology provides.  Baking done – just as the generations that have preceded Matt have done it for more than a century – with skill, patience, and hands.

Today he’s preparing about 400 loaves in this single-oven operation and, by my calculations, he’s able to bake about 100 loaves at a time.  The pull of a lever rotates the next empty rack up and moves the newly placed loaves further into the heated abyss.  About twenty minutes later, the time the first rack comes full-circle, they’re ready.

I ask Matt if there’s another LeJeune in line to continue the bakery once he retires, and to this he’s a bit uncertain and somewhat melancholy.  “There’s just not much money in baking.  We sell the majority to locally owned grocery stores.  We do a little business with major supermarkets, but there’s not a lot of profit in it.”  What they bake each day is what they sell.  There’s no storeroom adjoined for keeping day-old loaves to ship cross-country.  “Right now, we’ve got all the business we can handle,” Matt says.  Anymore would require a more mechanized operation, and that sort of volume could compromise the quality of the bread that has been the foundation of respect for LeJeune’s Bakery.

He pulls out the first round of baked loaves, again, three at a time; their blistery crusts crackling as he places a few on a wooden baking table and wraps them up for me, warm and steaming.  The sun is rising as I have a sip of strong, black coffee and gently tear off a piece of my fresh loaf for breakfast.  As Matt walks me out, he turns on a bright, red light perched next to the hand-painted sign out front; a beacon proclaiming to all within its reach that there’s warm, freshly baked French bread inside.  

More about LeJeune's Bakery.


1 comment :

  1. After reading this article, I really want a LeJeune's French bread. I'm from Jeanerette and grew up with it and that red light...
    Stacie Landry LeBlanc