Quebec baker hangs up his apron

Christinne Muschi/For The Globe and Mail

Rigaud, Que. — Special to The Globe and Mail, Apr. 07, 2015

Jean-Guy Boucher never considered switching to a digital scale from the cast-iron double-pan balance scale he has always used. But after a lifetime of baking, the 87-year-old and his scale are preparing to retire for good.

“This is it,” he says. “This is my last day.”

The kitchen tool, now a museum-worthy relic, was handed down to him by his father. It remains perched in front of a picture window with a panoramic view of a stunning century-old maple-tree grove in Rigaud, Que.

Boucher places his final batch of rustic bread in the dome-shaped wood-fired oven – the centrepiece of the log cabin on the property of Sucrerie de la Montagne. The Quebec heritage site draws an astounding 35,000 visitors this time of year to celebrate the flow of maple sap and its transformation into pure maple syrup – the beloved tradition known as sugaring-off. Setting it apart from all of the other pancake-breakfast cabanes is the scent of bread and maple-glazed cinnamon rolls emerging from a stone oven.

Boucher, a joyful and fit octogenarian who worked 14-hour days well into his 70s, remembers his father showing him, at the age of 5, how to slide the scale’s metal ball notch-by-notch to measure out precisely 16 ounces of dough for a crusty loaf. From such humble beginnings, he could never have imagined that this bread would one day take him around the world.

He was the only one of the seven brothers who wanted to work in the family bakery. Boucher and his father started mixing dough at 4 a.m., and delivered the round loaves door-to-door by truck in Vaudreuil, Que., charging seven cents each.

After the bakery was sold in 1947, he continued to work as a baker at a supermarket in Laval until he retired – the first time – at the age of 67. But retirement didn’t agree with him and he responded to an ad placed by Pierre Faucher, the owner of Sucrerie, who was looking for a baker. Boucher was hired on the spot and began baking his father’s recipe once again. He was soon invited to travel as Faucher’s kitchen assistant to France, Italy and Japan. For the next 16 years, the men would transport the Sugar Shack experience abroad on behalf of the province’s tourism commission.

Faucher, who calls Boucher “a wild man” and “a very hard worker,” once joked with him that he should put more than four raisins in the raisin bread. “My father taught me never to waste,” says Boucher, “He was very rough with us but he was a good teacher. He showed us the right thing.”

After so many years immersed in flour and dough, Boucher is surprisingly unsentimental about hanging up his apron. But when he speaks about his father, his voice softens. “He said being a baker is like being a doctor and bread is like your patients,” says Boucher. “You love them, and you try to give them the best.”

His father had a name for the bread that turns out flat and without flavour – dough malade, sick dough. It’s a natural consequence of baking in an extremely cold climate, he says. “If the temperature of the flour is too cold, you add hot water, but if you add too much water, the dough is porridge,” he says, “You check, check, check. Your finger is a thermometer.”

When asked if he has a baking book or manual that he referred to when he ran into trouble with a batch of dough, he says it’s all committed to memory. “You have all the pages in your head.”

“I don’t like getting old,” he says, “you can’t turn the page any more.”


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