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Pain de campagne is known in English as country bread. Recipes for this type of bread come from areas throughout France, and there are many variations. Traditionally, pain de campagne is made with wheat flour and shaped into a round or oval loaf. This bread is relatively simple to make and requires few ingredients.
Historically, pain de campagne dough was brought into towns by people in the French countryside on days designated as baking days. The loaves would be placed into a large, communal oven and then redistributed to each family. Traditionally, pain de campagne loaves were quite large, weighing up to 12 pounds (5.4 kilograms), and could last a family a week or more. The availability of different ingredients in different regions of the French countryside led to many variations on this basic type of bread, incorporating rye, wheat, or other grains when they were available and utilizing a number of different varieties of yeast.
Flour, water, and yeast are all that is needed to make a loaf of pain de campagne. In most cases, the bread is started the night before baking in order to add flavor. The starter is composed of water, half of the flour or less, and a measure of yeast. It is allowed to ferment in a dark, cool area until morning, when it is mixed with the remaining flour, water, and yeast. Many bakeries keep a starter on hand, which can lend a distinctive flavor to the bread coming out of each bakery.
Once the dough is mixed together, it must be allowed to rise before it can be baked. Pain de campagne takes a few hours to rise completely, and is usually left in a draft free, cool area to do so. The yeast added to the flour and water needs this time to consume sugars and to release gases that make the bread airy and light. Dough that does not rise fully will be much denser than dough that is given ample time to rise.
Baking pain de campagne generally takes about an hour. A hot oven with consistent heat throughout is needed for the bread to come out at its best. This type of bread is usually shaped into a round or semi-round shape and then placed on a stone or slab to bake. The bread continues to rise in the oven, so loaves require some space between them while baking.