by Troy Coll
New Orleans has many iconic foodstuffs, from gumbo to étouffée to barbecued shrimp. The one that ties them all together and allows you to hold a po-boy in hand is French bread. The pale, flaky-crusted loaves from Leidenheimer or John Gendusa Bakery are essential members of the city’s culinary pantheon.
From that perspective, Bellegarde Bakery’s Graison Gill is an iconoclast. Gill and his team produce dark-fired, naturally-fermented breads from house-milled grains. But what may seem heretical is, according to Gill, a return to the roots of New Orleans baking.
“French bread was invented in the same period as the Model-T and Wrigley’s gum; it’s an industrial product,” Gill said. “There’s 206 years of precedent and tradition in baking behind that. There’s room for everything, but people need to look at both sides of the coin.”
Bellegarde is named after the first commercial bakery on record in New Orleans. A man named Lemesle arrived from Mobile in 1722, when the French-run government relocated the territory’s capital to New Orleans. “We have power and bake with gas,” Gill said, “but other than that, we’re doing things the way he did them.”
The grain mill that resides in Gill’s bakery is the pivot point for Bellegarde’s mission. Through it, Gill can work directly with regional farmers to grow specific, heirloom grains. He can use that whole, freshly-milled wheat, corn and rye to make maximally delicious and healthful breads. By tapping into the buying power of local chefs, he can rebuild the South’s local grain economy.
“We grow a lot of wheat here in Louisiana, but it’s feed wheat. Texas and Oklahoma grow great wheat. Georgia and North Carolina, beautiful wheat. I can blend a higher-performing wheat with softer, regional wheat and keep that money in the South.”
Bellegarde is a vessel for broader social action. Gill’s goals include making fresh flour available to schools and assisted-living centers; his country loaf is modestly priced to encourage its dissemination.
In order to fully accomplish those goals, Gill knows he needs the support of the city’s chefs. Their cache in the food community is the pathway to his breads gaining a wider audience. “Because chefs have the volume, they control the conversation,” Gill said. Whether that means selling bread, milling corn for grits, or teaching baking techniques, Gill is willing to meet chefs where they are.
“It’s not about going to church seven days a week. Start on Sunday.”
Spending time with Gill at the Crescent City Farmer’s Market, one sees a passionate man on the vanguard of a slow food movement. A sample board sits at the head of the table, hoping to demystify Bellegarde’s bread through direct experience. Customers, initially intimidated by loaves that look transported from the 18th century, are drawn in by the toothsome crust and surprisingly sweet crumb.
“The entire system is one big conversation,” Gill said. By situating his bakery at the junction of agriculture, politics and cuisine, he prevents Bellegarde breads from becoming boutique or inaccessible. “My prerogative is to democratize it further and further.”
Troy Coll is a New Orleans-born, Mississippi-raised explorer of all things wild and wondrous. Follow him across social media @TacoHole.