By Annick Dournes & Frédéric de Poligny
Every age has its pleasures and one of my childhood’s bests undoubtedly is the Brioche Vendéenne. This light and fluffy brioche has been my number one delight for years, linked with happy memories of sunny holidays on the long sandy beaches of the French Atlantic coast. Actually it has so many lovers that the iconic culinary speciality of Vendée aims to be declared part of the Intangible Heritage List of the UNESCO in 2021.
Such as the Neapolitan pizza, the Croatian gingerbread or the Belgian beer that have recently been listed by UNESCO, the Brioche Vendéenne is the fruit of a long tradition and precious savoir-faire. Traditionally served at Easter time it was then called “paquaude”. Later it became the local wedding cake. The bride’s godmother and godfather offered a big brioche (up to 10 kilos) and all the guests did the “dance of the brioche” circling around it. This tradition still is quite vivid in Vendée. When tourists started coming to Vendée in the 19th century this festive cake became more and more popular and local bakers took advantage of this growing success, baking it all year long.
The Brioche Vendéenne already has a Protected Geographical Indication. It means that it has a limited area of production and a demanding making process. This label guarantees that the brioche is only made with local quality products. Milk, butter, eggs, flour and even salt are locally sourced. Only one “exotic” ingredient such as vanilla, orange-flower water or rum can be used in addition to these simple basic ingredients. To make it totally local some bakers use Cognac instead of rum.
Whether handcrafted by master bakers or made in industrial bakeries the PGI imposes strict rules ensuring the quality of each brioche bearing the name “Brioche Vendéenne”. The dough goes through two different slow fermentations, one with leaven and a second one with baker’s yeast. This double fermentation gives the brioche a unique flavour, an unmistakable lightness as well as an optimum preserving. The dough rises for 5 to 24 hours and if you wish to make your own brioche the best way is to leave it to rest overnight. Next the dough is braided with two or three strands and placed in a cake tin that can be round, oval but mostly rectangular. It comes out of the oven nicely glazed, ready to fulfil all gourmets!
Since going to Vendée is not possible at the moment and since, willingly or not, the new lockdown leave us idle once again, you may feel like baking your own “brioche Vendéenne” at home. The making process is quite different from what you are used to but the final result is so rewarding! All it takes is patience, time and good quality ingredients.
18 ounces flour
5 ounces sugar
5 ounces butter
3,5 fluid ounces milk
Active baker’s yeast (the same amount you would use for a big loaf of bread)
A pinch of salt and a drop of vanilla extract or rum or any flavour you like
Start preparing some leaven in early afternoon by mixing the cold milk with the baker’s yeast, then, add some flour until you get a soft and non-sticky dough. Leave it to rest for 2 to 3 hours. Don’t put salt into your leaven, it would kill the yeast!
You can then add the rest of the flour, the eggs and butter. Mix well before adding sugar and salt (adding sugar too early would “burn” the eggs). Once again leave the dough to rest for 2 to 3 hours.
The fermentation has begun and the dough should begin to rise. Knead the dough once again for 10 minutes and leave it to rise overnight (6 to 12 hours). It’s better to put a dump cloth over it to prevent dryness.
Knead the dough once again for 10 minutes, cut it into three pieces and roll them into three strands and loosely braid them before placing them in a rectangular cake tin. Leave it to rise once again for 2 to 3 hours under a dump cloth.
Preheat oven to 350°F (180°C) and bake your brioche for about 30 minutes. (Check cooking by stinking in a needle, which should come out warm and dry).
There you are! All your efforts are now rewarded as a delicious smell invades your kitchen attracting the whole family in. Congratulations!
Text ©Annick Dournes
Photos courtesy of « Les Marinières » et « Vendée Qualité »