What Is It About Bread?
On August 7, 1999, on a drizzly, chilly day typical to the region, thousands of pilgrims flooded a four-block area of southwest Portland, Oregon, in a park near Portland State University. They didn't come for religious reasons but to venerate with religious zeal their newly emerged passion for the world's most symbolically evocative foodstuff: bread. Not just bread, but good-as-it-gets bread, made by artisans of the Pacific Northwest using techniques discovered either accidentally or from the dissemination of arcane knowledge brought to this country only recently by European bakers through the Bread Bakers Guild of America, itself a throwback to days of yore. The Summer Loaf Festival, as it is called, is one of the first of what may soon be a nationwide parade of tributes to the hottest food trend since, well, sliced bread. (Note: The Summer Loaf Festival is not the actual first bread festival, which occurred two years earlier in Sonoma County, California, and was called, cleverly, the Grainaissance Fair.)
The French call it simply pain ordinaire, "ordinary bread." What the new, young American bakers have discovered, and what they proudly displayed in dozens of booths at Summer Loaf, is that there are many layers of flavor hidden within the four ingredients of flour, water, salt, and yeast that are the sole components of true French bread. They have taken up the timeless baker's challenge of evoking from the wheat its fullest potential, finding ways of unraveling the tasteless starchmolecules that comprise the bulk of a loaf by attempting to spring free the simple sugars that are woven within the complex but unassailable carbohydrates. When they successfully accomplish this, using bakers' tricks that are both ancient and modern, layers of flavor emerge as if from one of those magic-eye, three-dimensional, there-it-is, wait-where-did-it-go paintings. Flavors slowly come into focus as the palate, with its five flavor zones, aided by the chewing process and the release of salivic enzymes, encounters it first in the sweet zone, eliciting an "ahhh, this is nice," reaction. Then the salty zone kicks in, an "oohhh," followed by another level of either sweetness or sourness (depending on the bread), along the sides of the tongue, calling forth a "hmnnn, whoaa...." Finally, just at the swallowing point, the mouth floods in the umami, or rich zone in the back central region, with a nutlike flavor that perfumes its way into the sinuses, where it lingers for as long as fifteen to thirty minutes, re-creating with every inhalation the inimitable finish of a proper, world-class breadthe inevitable "yessss!" (accompanied by appropriate arm pumping, in rare instances). This flavor joy is in addition to the various auditory pleasures of the sound of crust, crackling and crumbling under the pressure of the chew, and the visual satisfaction caused by both the rich, dusty, reddish gold caramelization of crust and the blooming of the loaf along the slash marks. The blooming produces what the French call the grigne, an ear of crisp crust that neatly separates from the loaf like a proudly curled lip. Bread this good must also be beautiful; after all, in our culinary schools it is taught that we eat first with our eyes.
I teach bread baking in a large culinary school. My students are mostly young wannabe and soon-to-be pastry chefs and bakers, and I have less than five weeks to teach them everything, or nearly everything I know about bread. What I'd like to do is first send them to Summer Loaf and Grainaissance festivals, or to Paris with its two hundred and fifty bread shops, so they can be swept into the romance of the bread revolution as I have been. Instead, what I am required to do is teach them formulas and how to safely work the ovens and use stationary and spiral mixers, powerful tools that will rip off their hands if they get too anxious and prematurely feel their dough. Since feeling the dough is really where the magic begins, I rapidly make my way through the boring but necessary safety requirements to get to the stuff of which baker's dreams are made. Usually somewhere around the third or fourth week, itthe magichappens for most of my students.
In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, a book that came out, coincidentally, around the same time as the Tassajara Bakery began selling bread made by American Zen Buddhist students in San Francisco, Robert Pirsig wrote of two kinds of motorcycle riders. Some like to tinker with their bikes, making sure they are tooled just right, and the others just like to ride and feel the wind against their cheeks. Bread bakers are like that, too. The more technical and mechanical bakers often go to Manhattan, Kansas, where there is a superb school called the American Institute of Baking. There they learn all about the properties of wheat and the effect of multitudinous sugars upon various strains of yeast. They learn dough formulas, and they learn about equipment options and methodologies. Graduates of this program become valuable technical bakers, usually for large companies, and earn good salaries, troubleshooting problems and guaranteeing consistency in operations that may produce forty thousand or more loaves a day.
The other type of baker, the wind-on-cheek baker, often opens a small bakeshop and makes what has become known as artisan bread, the term artisan having been driven, sadly, to near meaninglessness by its recent ubiquity. These are the bakers who tend to rhapsodize about their loaves. ("They are loaves, please don't call them products.") Many of them travel to Europe, making pilgrimages to the house of Poilâne or Ganachaud, and gather at bread bakers' guildhall meetings, held whimsically throughout the year, to discuss the merits of various baguette-shaping techniques or the hydration potential of their latest experimental ciabatta. They philosophize, read and write books, and argue about the ever-shifting line between the true artisan and the mass producer or the merits of supporting small-scale wheat farmers who grow heirloom strains. These bakers get very excited every time they learn a new technique or hear that the French professor Raymond Calvel might be coming to town. (That's not very likely these days, as the bread teacher of bread teachers is in his late eighties and has already committed his knowledge to a superb series of videos he made with the Bread Bakers Guild of America in 1994.) When they go to France, Germany, or anywhere where good bread might be found, they come back with new ideas and add ever more dialogue to the still-building buzz.
My students, being younger than these entrepreneurial bakers who have now changed the American bread paradigm, may become either technical or romantic bakers, or a hybrid of the two, or they may never get grabbed by the bread-geist. Many of them initially view my class as a necessary prerequisite to get them to the plated-dessert or wedding-cake class, but then find themselves inexplicably falling under the spell of pain au levain, ciabatta al funghi, or pain à l'ancienne. Some fight against the discipline of repetitive drills, shaping baguette after baguettenot a simple matterand trying in vain to match their slashes, or scoring cuts, in a consistent pattern. I never know on the first day who of my twenty or so students will emerge on the twenty-second day as bread revolutionaries, but I know some of them will. It usually happens before they taste the pain a l'ancienne, but if it hasn't happened by then, that is the bread that seduces them. If it still doesn't happen, I pray, having taken my best shot, that they will discover their culinary awakening in the chocolate or cake class.
Many of my former students have long since graduated and are working in the field, sending e-mails or dropping in from time to time to share their "war" stories. A number of them tell me it was the pain à l'ancienne that first grabbed hold of their imagination, and now that they are out and exposed to even more varieties, they can't seem to get bread out of their systems, even if they have become pastry chefs rather than bakers.
I learned about pain à l'ancienne in Paris in 1996, when I went over to collect on my prize for winning the James Beard National Bread Competition in 1995. I won with a simple sourdough, a country boule (ball), made with an unusually high proportion of sourdough starter. I baked my winning loaves at Amy's Breads on the west side of Manhattan, rushing them straight from Amy's many-thousand-dollar Bongard steam-injected oven into the trunk of my friend Joel's car. He's a locksmith and thus knows the fastest ways through town, and he safely delivered me and the bread to the James Beard House in Greenwich Village.
The Beard House is one of the meccas of the American food scene. When James Beard, the rotund food writer and America's most famous gourmand, died in 1982, a group of his friends and colleagues started a foundation in his memory to perpetuate interest in the burgeoning American culinary explosion. They eventually paid off the mortgage on his house and turned it into a sort of museum and dining showcase for upcoming and seminal chefs, regularly hosting theme meals prepared by various culinary artists brought to town for the occasion. They also bestow prestigious cookbook awards and honor the top American chefs every year at their gala, an Oscar-like ceremony aptly called the James Beard Awards.
The bread competition was organized for the Beard Foundation by author and teacher Nick Malgieri, the head baking instructor at the Peter Kump's New York Cooking School and a onetime acquaintance of the late James Beard. Prior to the finals, Nick traveled around the United States staging regional competitions, inviting the eight regional winners to New York for the final bake-off in January 1995.
I had won the California regional in October by unexpectedly defeating Craig Ponsford, who a few months later would win the world championship of breads at the Coupe du Monde de la Boulangerie competition in Paris, the so-called Bread Olympics. I believe the California regional Beard competition was the only time Craig ever lost a head-to-head competition. When I, in false modesty, whispered to him after my name was announced, "I can't believe it," he understandably responded, "Me neither." His loaves were a multigrain sourdough, perfectly formed, loaded with complex flavors, made at Artisan Bakers, his bakery in Sonoma. My two large sourdough boules, made from a starter I'd been cultivating for about three months, were baked at home on a pizza stone and spritzed with water from a plant mister. It was an experimental dough, using a ratio of about 80 percent starter to flour, very unusual as most sourdoughs use only about 25 to 35 percent starter to flour. The loaves came out of the oven somewhat misshapen, having spread sideways and upward. The cuts were okay but not particularly attractive, blooming to form only a slight grigne but without creating any ears. The crust had a wonderful golden glow and was blistered from the long overnight proofing in my refrigerator. By true French standards this would not have been a winning bread, but on that particular day, with those particular judges, the rustic quality and the bold sour flavors gave it a small edge over Craig's perfect, but less rustic, loaves. I happily collected my regional prize, which was a free trip to New York City to compete in the finals, knowing I would have to do better to stand any chance of winning the real prize: a week in Paris to study with the boulanger of my choice.
There is a huge difference between baking bread in a real bread oven and a home oven, but even the best oven cannot produce great bread if the dough itself is not fermented properly. Fermentation is the key to world-class bread, assuming that the flour and other ingredients are good. I was able to win the regional event because I had great dough going into the less-than-great electric oven in my home. Compensating for a lack of real steam with plant misters and other oven tricks to simulate the blast of steam a good Bongard, Tibbouletti, or Werner-Pfleiderer hearth oven produces was an audacious, but successful, attempt to prove a point. In my opinion, the quality of the dough is responsible for at least 80 percent of the finished product, while the oven is worth only about 20 percent. When I got to Amy's Breads, I was able to create an even better dough than my regional batch, having had three months of practice to refine my formula and mixing times.
Copyright © 2001 by Peter Reinhart