Bread is a constant lesson on transformation, and this month I’ve learned a lot. I had an opportunity to study the classic French breads (miche, pain au levain, and baguette) with expert bakers and teachers Jeffrey Hamelman and James MacGuire last week. These are breads that require some time and practice, but have very few ingredients. As a result, how you treat the ingredients makes a huge difference. The levain (or sourdough starter) needs to be fed regularly and kept at a comfortable temperature to keep the yeast and the acid in balance. The flour and water need to be mixed gently to preserve the color and flavor the grain. The dough needs to rest long enough to develop flavor and structure. It needs to be shaped with intention and baked under the watchful eye of someone who recognizes how it should smell, sound and feel when it comes out of the oven. Ultimately, when you take care of your dough those simple ingredients become something new. Each of the baguettes in the pictures above contained the same basic ingredients, but how they were mixed, folded, rested and baked made them each different. Flour, water, salt and yeast alone are not foods we can live on, but combine them and care for them and they can become an endless variety of bread. To study the history of bread is to study the history of human community, because bread requires community just as much as a community requires bread. Often communities shared one mill, one oven. A family baker might have made one huge loaf of bread called a “miche”, or country whole grain bread, slashing the top with her own unique pattern so that it could be recognized among all the other loaves in the oven. The natural leavening, stone ground and bolted flour (which contains more of the actual grain), and slow fermentation of the dough created a loaf that could feed a family for two weeks. I slashed and baked the loaf below (that is master baker Jeffrey Hamelman taking loaves from his gorgeous oven at King Arthur) and my family ate slices of it toasted for ten days. It just got better with time.
I learned a lot about how to bake better bread last week, but I also learned a lot about why to bake better bread. Because baking bread is about building community. It’s about making sure everyone has enough to eat. It’s about developing the full potential of the grains, but also of people. Because people need to be cared for just as carefully as as a loaf of bread if they are going to achieve their full potential. I’ll be sharing some of this history and the recipe for the baguettes made by hand in a series of classes on “How and Why to Bake a Loaf of Bread” this spring. This first series of classes is full, but stay tuned for additional class offerings this summer. I look forward to baking and breaking bread with you.