News & Press
November 21st, 2017
Thanksgiving is tomorrow. My thoughts turn to food and, in particular, to freshly baked bread. Many people today avoid eating bread because they think it is bad for them, even though bread has been the staff of life since the pharaohs. Perhaps something has changed in the way we make our bread because I don’t think Tutankhamun worried about carbo-loading, gluten sensitivity or leaky gut syndrome.
There was a time when all bread was local, made by hand with natural leavening. Some bakeries still make it this way using only flour, water and salt. Leaven Breads in Somersworth, New Hampshire (www.leavennh.com) makes the kind of traditional three-ingredient bread that most people never experience. Leaven is owned by York resident, Jon Adelson, who once operated Rick’s Restaurant in the Village. When Pigs Fly also produces great breads that often include cider (instead of water) and cane juice on the ingredient list.
Alternatively, you can do what I do and make your own bread. The rewards of doing this are numerous — nutritional and otherwise. Let me tell you some of what I’ve learned from my foray into the bread baker’s art.
The dough. To begin with, sourdough isn’t sour. We don’t think of wine as sour grapes or yogurt as sour milk and we should not think of sourdough as sour either. Sourdough bread is naturally fermented beginning with what the French call levain. I developed my own levain a few years ago and as long as I continue to feed it with water and flour, this starter should continue its bubblingly happy life forever. I sometimes think that to bite into a naturally fermented sourdough is to taste eternity.
The cost. People used to use the word “bread” to mean cash. They still might. One kilo of artisanal bread will run you about $8 — $6 for a 26 ounce loaf. The ingredients in a kilo of my daily bread cost anywhere from $1.25 to $4 depending on the kind of flours I use. To me, the best flours are stone ground whole meal flours. Maine Grains in Skowhegan charges $8.95 for five pounds of their sifted wheat flour. Use good flour if you want to make good bread.
The process. Bread should be made by hand — no bread machines, please. What results from bare handing the dough I cannot say. I don’t know what difference my hands (as opposed to anyone else’s hands) make to the bread, but I do know that handling perfects the dough. Some of my dough is too wet for traditional kneading and has to be slapped and folded into shape. The sound of the dough hitting the board 100 times makes me happy. The dough seems to enjoy it as much as I do.
Time. Bread takes time and because time is worth something, investing time makes bread precious. In reality, however, it really doesn’t take all that long to make bread from scratch. There is a lot more waiting than doing when it come to bread, but time is vital to the health of the sourdough culture because time changes the structure of the flour, making it more universally digestible. Wait. Let it slowly rise. Wait some more.
Companionship. The word “companion” is derived from two Latin words: com (with) and panis (bread). Your companions are those people with whom you break your bread. Ten years ago, a baker from Maine named Kiko Denzer wrote a book about building earth ovens for bread baking. He says that we should always make more bread than we need so we can give some away. I agree. Bake your own bread and give it to your companions.
Love. There are three necessary ingredients in leavened bread but other ingredients make bread great. Denzer says: “If we really want artisan bread, we not only have to assert the value of art, of time, of love — we have to guarantee it, with our own art, our own time, our own love.” This is what makes great bread. Bread baked with indifference is bitter bread and, as Kahlil Gibran has written, such bread feeds only half a person’s hunger. You have to love something in the making of the bread if you want to produce a good loaf.
And what better time than Thanksgiving to lovingly bake real bread? Let me know if you need some starter, I’ve got a world of it on hand. Happy Thanksgiving!
Ron McAllister is a sociologist and writer who lives in York.