My bread tastes great. Everyone tells me so. It's an old fashioned sourdough so different from standard white bread that it might as well be from another world, or at least an older one. It takes days to make. The crust is hard. The crumb is dense. Chewing a piece is gratifying. But I don't bake bread just for the taste.
A dozen bakers in this town pull a more consistently delicious loaf from their commercial brick ovens than I get from my small gas stove. What their loaves can't give me is a house filled with the heady aromas of toasted flour and natural yeasts. They can't recreate that wonderful feeling I get when I walk through the front door and smell my loaf, just out of the oven.
Even a lousy loaf, one that lacks conviction because it doesn't rise well or it has too much salt or is undercooked, even a lousy loaf smells great. The truth is that I turn out enough loaves that lack conviction to convince me that I'll never master the baker's art. Instead, I approach my bread making with the diligence of a pilgrim divining Mecca and I look for small epiphanies along the way.
My bread has three ingredients: flour, water, and salt. The first step is to let the sourdough create its own yeasts. A cup or so of water and flour ferment together for several days. The mixture is let to stand in a small bowl and covered with a damp cloth. The yeasts are there when the glop has a strong winey smell. If you are fortunate, you will only have to do this step once.
This unattractive mess is then mixed with a half cup of water and more flour. It is briefly kneaded into a wet dough until it has the consistency of putty. This is put into a bowl, covered, and put to the side of the kitchen for a day or two until the dough bubbles up.
Sometimes the dough rises in the middle of the night and sinks back to the bottom of the bowl by morning. Sometimes you have to trust that it didn't die.
The longer you leave it, the sourer the dough gets; but certainly after two days it is ready to be made into bread. A tablespoon of salt is mixed into this pudding with another cup and a half of water. Flour is progressively added until the dough can be turned out and kneaded, adding more flour to keep it from sticking to the board.
I do not use a bread machine and I keep my utensils basic. There are a couple of ceramic bowls, a wooden spatula, and a favourite split ash basket for that final rise. I enjoy using these tools. Good bread is a complex food that starts simply. Working this way, slowly and methodically, forces me to appreciate each step.
I knead by hand, pulling the dough out and rolling it over. Kneading ends when I start to perspire. I put the dough into a large bowl and cover it.
When the dough doubles, I tear of a piece the size of an egg, put that in a covered dish, and stash it in the refrigerator. This nugget will replace the gruel of fermented flour and water next time I make bread.
I punch the rest of the dough down, knead it quickly, and flour it. I put the loaf in the basket, cover it with a thick dry cloth, and let it double again. I turn the bread onto a hot stone in a preheated oven, slash the top, and hope it will rise evenly. It bakes until the bottom sounds hollow when thumped.
If you are like me, telling you all this is worthless. There are chefs and there are cooks. Cooks can read recipes. Chefs create them. I could no more figure out how to boil an egg from a recipe than I could tell you how Moses parted the Red Sea. In both cases, I'd like to watch someone do it. That's the way I learn.
Three days of work for a loaf of bread may seem ridiculous; but it was three years until I got the first one right.
For three years, I read books about making sourdough bread. During that time, I diligently fermented water and flour. I put loaves into the oven and took out unleavened bricks. I religiously saved a portion of the dough and made something equally inedible the following week. I was convinced that sheer orneriness would make the damn things rise.
Then we went to Paris. I had been to Paris before, of course; but I had never visited Paris with a subliminal need to bake bread. I wandered through boulangeries with the fervor of an art student at the Louvre. I ate baguettes and croissants. I nosed the baskets of bread vendors at the outdoor market in our local arrondissement. On almost the last day of our visit, I happened by 8 Rue de Cherche-Midi, the home of Pain Poilâne.
Lionel Poilâne has practically, by himself, revived country-style, home-made bread baking in France. His thick round loves are dense, chewy and invariably inconsistent. The weather, the moisture content of the flour, the temperature in the kitchen, all of these affect the rise of the loaf and its final taste and texture; but the smell of this wonderful bread is always the same. At Poilâne, I stood surrounded by shelves of dark brown wheels of bread and the aroma of sourdough enveloped me.
A typical Poilâne loaf is about 14 inches round. I know this because we brought two home. One was bread. The other was a Poilâne pillow that is next to me now and still looks exactly like a loaf. We kept the two of them side by side for a couple of days after we came back from Paris. Then we ate the loaf. Then I baked my own. At last I knew what I was trying to achieve.
Here was bread with a thick crust and a heavy dark body with large, irregular air holes. After several days, it was still moist and chewy. The flavour was slightly acid and nutty.
It was like biting into the genus of bread, from which all future species would eventually emerge. From this course peasant loaf, they would all come: the French baguette, the English muffin, the Rumanian bagel, the Viennese croissant, the pumpernickel, the rye, the biscuit, the bun, even air-injected North American supermarket white sandwich bread perfect for sopping up gravy.
To eat a chunk torn from this impossibly large loaf was to taste the essence of that first primal bread, the staff of life, and the one for which all of us yearn, at least once.
My bread does not come cheap. So far it has cost me the price of several books on baking and a trip to Paris. However, with each loaf, I come a little bit closer to un vrai pain Poilâne. Even on those days when both myself and my bread fall by the way, the evanescent aroma from a home made sourdough loaf lifts me toward the sublime. >> Go to Barry's Sourdough Basic Recipe