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GOOD BREAD IS BACK A contemporary history of French bread, the way it is made, and the people who make it
By STEVEN LAURENCE KAPLAN
Duke University Press Copyright © 2006 Duke University Press
All right reserved.
Chapter One Good Bread: Practices and Discourses
Let us go into the narrow, oppressive space of an eighteenth-century baking room. In Paris, this probably means heading down into an ill-ventilated basement, lit by the few candles grudgingly granted by the owner's wife, who kept the accounts. Even though the conditions may have already been less difficult in her day, George Sand did not find the expression "dark dungeon" too strong. The work was hard and often mind-numbing. Someone had to prepare wood for the fire, then light it, draw water, handle bags of flour weighing nearly 150 kilos, then knead 100 kilos or more with his hands and sometimes his feet. The baker's boy responsible for the kneading was called le geindre, the groaner, because of the sounds he made while he worked: "A kind of painful cry," Sand called it, "you'd think you were witnessing the final scene of a murder." From the worker's standpoint, this "forced labor" came under the heading of criminal behavior: "Night, a time of rest, is a time of torture for us," bakers' "boys"-journeymen-complained in 1715, and the refrain was echoed throughout the nineteenth century byothers protesting this "nocturnal slavery," this morally and physically destructive "captivity."
In the mid-eighteenth century, bakers' assistants working for Mistress Lapareillé began their day at 11:30 P.M.; those working for Masters Marreux and Barré started at midnight. Another master worked with his compagnons, or journeymen, almost without interruption from 8:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m. Constantly on the job, obliged to stop the bread making process and start it up again, tormented by a powerful need to rest that they could satisfy only sporadically, the assistants usually slept in the bakeries, as did journeyman Martin Macadrez, who went to bed at 7:00 a.m. "above the oven." This was the hellish rhythm of a society that lived on bread, that could not get along without it for a moment.
The air in the bakery was heavy, sometimes thick with flour dust and sometimes suffocatingly humid. When the oven was in use, the heat was overwhelming. Apprentices worked in rough underclothing (often made of old flour sacks) and dripped with sweat, enriching (or infecting) the dough. Before baking began, especially in winter, the bakery was damp and freezing cold. The environment was as unhealthy as the work was exhausting. Louis-Sébastien Mercier, a chronicler of eighteenth-century Parisian ways, was struck by the contrast between butchers' boys, who were sturdy, ruddy fellows, and bakers' boys, who could be seen in shop doorways looking wretched, haggard, and pale, like flour-drenched scarecrows. The baking room was usually cluttered with tools, work surfaces, and supplies. There was just enough room to maneuver and carry out the simplest operations. Sometimes the workers could barely stand upright.
Let us visit the bakery of Master Briquelot, on Rue Saint-Martin, around 1730, in a house he rented for the tidy sum of 850 pounds per year. This was a tiny, dilapidated, windowless room made smaller still by ad hoc repairs. The ceiling had had to be reinforced by an improvised trellis made of planks and poles: "As the plank is very low," a police officer noted, "it is very hard to work without bumping one's head; the workers have to limit their movements and bend over in order to knead."
Today, a baker's work is only rarely a "prison," and bakers do not die as Master Philibert Rouget did in the middle of the night, "worn out" at the age of forty. Still, while it is no longer "hell," now as then the bakery is located behind the shop or in the basement, although a growing number of enterprising craftsmen have installed part of their workspace in the shop itself in order to create both a sense of transparency and a theatrical atmosphere. But many bakers still remain flour-coated cave dwellers, working in the sort of underground baking room that Antoine-Augustin Parmentier deplored at the end of the eighteenth century, a space so narrow that you can hardly manipulate the paddle, so hot that the dough melts as it rises, so dark that you can't see much of anything, so suffocating that you can hardly breathe. Room for storing flour is still a problem, although today's bakers no longer need a place to bolt and mix, for these tasks are now done by millers. Certain eighteenth-century master bakers already practiced some of the sophisticated channeling systems in use today for stocking flour and bringing it to the kneading trough. No baker can get along without a kneading trough and an oven. Today's versions are mechanized and modernized, but they remain recognizable as kneading troughs and ovens. The dividing machines, shaping machines, resting compartments, and refrigeration units would be more astonishing to workers of the Old Regime. But paddles, wicker trays, canvas carpets, spatulas, pastrycutters, knives, and brushes belong to bakeries of all eras.
Defining bread is a concern for modern specialists, not for consumers, who let themselves be guided by their practical sense of things. In the eighteenth century, even for experts, the problem was not how to define bread but how to make it properly. Foreign travelers and local commentators all praised Parisian bread as the best in the world. But the scientists who were beginning to be interested in this staple asserted, to the great displeasure of bakers, that "their art [was] still in the cradle." While a self-taught but imaginative practitioner such as César Bucquet instinctively felt that "a Baker would have to be really inept if he couldn't make good bread with good ingredients," Parmentier, as a laboratory scientist, deplored the cruel want of an "enlightened work force," which counted for "infinitely more than the quality of the raw materials used." It fell to men of science to teach bakers to make bread. "Making bread from wheat is a chemical operation that has to be explained by chemists; blind routines denature the process," Mercier notes. The "popular errors" and "blind routines" that Parmentier and Cadet de Vaux, his collaborator in the creation of a school for bakers, intended to stamp out were no less than "trade secrets passed along from father to son," the basis of the wisdom of the profession.
At the dawn of the twentieth century, French people generally had faith in bakers and their way of working. But to protect the public and codify breadmaking practices for the benefit of the profession, the experts proposed a quasi-legal definition of bread during the International Congress for the Suppression of Fraud (1908-1909): "The word bread, without any other qualifier, is exclusively reserved for the product resulting from cooking dough made with a mixture of wheat flour, sourdough culture or yeast (made from beer or grain), drinking water, and salt."
Half a century later, under the aegis of the French National Center for Coordination of Studies and Research on Food and Nutrition (CNERNA), one of the largest groups of experts ever gathered together to talk about bread took another look at this definition. This time, the goal was less to suppress fraud than to take stock of technological innovations in milling and baking and to reassure consumers, who had been shaken as much by the shadow of doubt that various critics had cast over bread's healthfulness and quality as by their own experience of the very bad bread available during World War II. Torn between science and public relations, participants worried, for example, about the growing rumor that bread was contaminated and adulterated by toxic or even cancer-causing substances, in particular so-called chemical yeast, which was either demonized in itself or confused with baking powder. "People shouldn't think that when we put a package of yeast in the kneading trough we are adding something forbidden," a participant warned, "whereas if we just put in a 'natural' leavening agent the operation is legal." Speakers suggested referring to a "fermenting agent" (sourdough culture and/or yeast) in the revised definition, although another expert feared that for an uninformed public the idea of "fermentation" might be "very dangerous." Someone else suggested using the term "living yeast" rather than evoking an anxiety-producing fermentation process.
CNERNA's work continued almost to the end of the 1970s. According to Le recueil des usages concernant les pains en France, a code of customs surrounding bread that was included in the proceedings of a 1977 colloquium,
the word "bread" without any other qualifier is reserved for the product that results from cooking the dough obtained by kneading a mixture of wheat flours intended for breadmaking, and corresponding to an officially defined type; drinking water; cooking salt; and a fermenting agent. This mixture may include certain adjuvants and/or additives of which limited use is authorized in the fabrication of bread for ordinary consumption.
While the Direction générale de la concurrence, de la consommation et de la répression des fraudes (a government agency dealing with competition, consumption, and the suppression of fraud) has added clarifications here and there, this definition is still the standard one today.
From Defining to Producing: Fermentation Is the Key
Like the definition of bread, the process of breadmaking itself has not evolved very much in its fundamentals. Even if they have modified working procedures, altered methods, and introduced mechanical equipment, good bakers today can relate to the environment in which bread was made in the past and to the principal steps in the process. Michel Perrier, a virtuoso baker in Dordogne, used to maintain that "the baker's real skill lies in the way he manages fermentation." Parmentier spoke of this much earlier as "the soul of breadmaking." In other words, the quality of the bread produced depends in large part on the fermentation process. Fermentation offers ongoing proof that bread is literally a living thing, impossible to reproduce exactly, difficult to master without demonstrated knowledge and skill. While the great French microbiologist Louis Pasteur discovered the micro-organisms that induce fermentation, we know about fermentation of bread in allegorical terms in particular through the story of the ancient Hebrews, who discovered by accident that a bit of dough left behind in a container had produced a light bread that tasted good. Dough that remains exposed to the air is transformed: it swells up and becomes somewhat sour, like milk that takes on flavor when it is left to age, or crushed grape juice, which tastes sweet and sour at the same time. The same process of fermentation lies behind a large number of foodstuffs: certain cheeses, yogurt, wine, beer, cider, and vinegar. These organic bodies all contain carbon, which mixes with oxygen during fermentation and forms carbon dioxide, a particularly crucial factor in the fermentation of bread dough.
The bread of the Hebrews began to ferment because the flour contained an enzyme-a biochemical catalyst of protein origin-called amylase, which acts on the starch in the flour and transforms it into a sugar called maltose. In the breadmaking we know, about 5 percent of the starch granules are damaged in the grinding process; these tend to decompose rapidly and are then converted into sugar. The fermentation that takes place in the bakery occurs when the maltose and other sugars naturally present in flour break down and are converted into carbon dioxide and alcohol. The action of the micro-organisms called yeasts-yeast being one kind of fermenting agent-can accelerate this natural transformation, which is rather slow, either wild yeasts (which are found in air, soil, grain, and flour) or yeasts developed from beer (the eighteenth-century approach), grains (nineteenth century), or molasses (twentieth century). The sugars already in the flour (no more than 1 to 2 percent of its weight) are transformed by enzymes contained in the yeasts, especially zymase, which quickly breaks down all the simple sugars at the same time that the starch in the flour is being converted into simple sugars, a fairly complex chain reaction initiated by the amylases when they are activated by contact with water in the kneading trough. The nature of the flour (which is highly variable in its enzymatic strength), the temperature, the quantity of water, and the length of fermentation all condition the work of the amylases. The fermenting agents-the yeasts-can only create the carbon dioxide that causes the dough to rise when they are nourished by the simple sugars (glucose, for example) produced by these multiple decompositions.
During fermentation, the dough swells (puffs up) and develops. Along with the kneading that precedes and the baking that follows, fermentation gives the dough its characteristic physical structure, owing to the release of carbon dioxide, in the form of a supple alveolate crumb surrounded by crust. During kneading, carbon dioxide seeks to escape but is held back by gluten, an elastic substance in the protein family. Ordinary breadmaking flour contains 8 to 14 percent gluten; an astute baker tries to get a flour that has good gluten content and thus adequate gas-retaining power. During fermentation, the physical qualities of the dough evolve. The glutinous mesh formed during kneading undergoes modifications. The baker tries to find the right balance between the dough's elasticity (its capacity to expand enough to retain and store carbon dioxide)-which is gradually diminishing-and its tenacity (its resistance to deformation, the property that keeps the dough from tearing under the pressure of the gas)-which is gradually increasing. The baker tries to maintain both suppleness and body, good resistance in the dough and good tolerance: the dough should be able to withstand all the accidents and manipulations (by machines and hands alike) that occur in this extremely delicate process. The baker wants fermentation to produce the right volume of carbon dioxide to generate a strong gaseous impulse (spring) when the bread first starts to bake. During baking, the gluten will coagulate, imprisoning the air and the carbon dioxide, and the grains of starch will swell up, burst, and harden, forming a starchy substance (the crumb). By rising at the same time that it takes shape as a solid, the dough, transmuted into bread, will definitively maintain the alveolated structure-marked by uneven cavities engraved into the crumb, the memory sites of fermentation-that it was given by pressure from the expanding carbon dioxide within. Beautiful to the eye, well developed and properly baked, bread should also be able to boast of its goodness, for when fermentation takes place as it should, it generates organic acids that inscribe aromas in the dough, enriching its taste and even determining its flavor.
Working Methods: Using Sourdough Culture (Levain)
Fermentation may be handled in a number of different ways. The baker's choice determines the recipe, or, more broadly speaking, the procedure, the way in which the work is organized. The direct method, a relatively recent approach, is the one most commonly used today. It is the simplest of the fermentation techniques, requiring no advance preparation. The baker seeds the dough directly with a suitable amount of industrial yeast (known as baker's yeast), equivalent to 1-3 percent of the weight of the flour. The time needed for fermentation is governed both by the amount of yeast used and the temperature of the dough. The chief advantage of the direct method is that each batch can be handled independently; this offers considerable flexibility for the organization of tasks in the baking room. Associated with the modernization of the breadmaking industry, the direct method is implicitly defined in opposition to the canonical approach to breadmaking-the only legitimate one in the eyes of someone like Parmentier-in which the procedure is based on a sourdough culture and each batch depends intimately on an earlier one.
Sourdough is dough that does not require the injection of baker's yeast in order to begin the fermentation process. Fermentation takes place owing to the presence of wild yeasts and bacteria in the raw materials used or in the baking room environment. The sourdough is perpetuated by systematic and successive refreshments (or enrichments) that ensure the selection and reproduction of the flora, which are essentially constituted by a symbiotic association of sourdough's acidifying bacteria (lactic and acetic) and its own yeasts. The dough rises less than a dough made with baker's yeast and also more slowly. Its crust is thicker. It keeps significantly longer. It has greater nutritional value, partly because it is richer in certain vitamins and enzymes that are by-products of lactic fermentation, and it contains less phytic acid, which blocks mineral absorption. Sourdough bread tastes robust, rustic, slightly but agreeably acidic, sometimes with an aftertaste-depending on the baker's technique-hinting at the fruit that triggered the fermentation process.
Today, the baker who wants to begin producing sourdough bread has to create a starter culture (levain chef); in a batch of dough mixed from flour and water alone, fermentation originates from bacteria in the flour or in the baking room. The baker renews this matrix over a period of several days, kneading part of the sourdough with flour and water each time. Bakers do this only when a new starter has to be made from scratch. In practice, the chef is usually taken from an existing batch of dough that has been seeded in the same way from an earlier batch, and so on. Beyond the burden of the work itself, the sourdough method imposes an extremely heavy constraint: since each batch depends on a previous one, any defects in the dough are inevitably reproduced.
Excerpted from GOOD BREAD IS BACK by STEVEN LAURENCE KAPLAN Copyright © 2006 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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