Excavating a Mozambique cave in 2007, archaeologists were surprised to find stone tools covered in a starchy grain’s residue.
Human reliance on grain had been estimated at around 20,000 years old, according to the journal Science, but this find showed our ancestors were grinding sorghum as many as 105,000 years back.
“It’s no wonder that the story of wheat breeding reads like the biblical passages of who begat whom, from the earliest wild wheat to the most modern varieties. It’s one long lineage of seed selected, saved, bred, and passed on until the oldest, original varieties are largely lost to time,” journalist and baker Samuel Fromartz writes in his new book, “In Search of the Perfect Loaf: A Home Baker’s Odyssey.”
Most of the world relies on some form of bread for a good slice of daily caloric intake.
Bread-baking as a craft is within reach for nearly anyone with an oven, or as Fromartz discovered, a dug-out spot on a beach just large enough for flaming driftwood and a pizza stone.
But often when a novice baker picks up 5 pounds of flour at the supermarket, the bread he has in mind is technically out of his reach. The baguette, for instance. Seems simple enough.
“Many novices start out with this iconic loaf. And that’s where the trouble begins, because it’s the equivalent of wanting to knock out a Beethoven sonata when you sit down at the piano for the first time.”
To fortify that warning, Fromartz adds this note after his baguette recipe: “To start baking bread with this recipe is like jumping into calculus after third-grade math.” Got it; it’s hard.
Fromartz didn’t intend to write about bread, but on a particularly dark day during the recession, he lost three-fourths of his income — right before Christmas.
He’d been baking bread at home for more than a decade, so when he had a lead on freelance work that would send him abroad to write about food, he quickly suggested a trip to Paris so he could work in a boulangerie, i.e. bakery. Not only would he be satisfying his curiosity about baking a baguette, but he’d generate some income.
Once Fromartz begins exploring the art of baking bread and attempting to apply his lessons-learned to home baking, he’s hooked. Over the course of this book he travels to France and Germany, as well as several states. He speaks with bakers, farmers and scientists.
The deeper he sinks his hands into the dough, so to speak, the more he wants to know; the subject proves almost bottomless. “I wanted to get beyond the façade of ‘flour,’” he writes, “which makes one bag seemingly indistinguishable from the next and obscures plants and seeds that create this staple.”
Every kind of grain is unique. It turns out even the same variety of grain can vary from harvest to harvest. In the kitchen, that translates into varying levels of proteins and glutens, among other things.
Fromartz writes that “recipes were at best a faint map of the process,” and this variance among grains is one reason. He learns in his travels that professional bread-bakers follow guidelines, not recipes. One day the flour calls for more water. Another day the dough needs to rise a little longer.
And what’s up with rising and resting dough anyway? Roland Feuillas, a baker in Cucugnan, France, explains: “We say the young children are joining hands and in the middle is the levain, the salt, the air, and just the flour and water. Then we let the children rest so they can make stronger bonds, and then add more water. If you add all the water at once, the children can never make a strong bond.”
For the uninitiated, levain translates as sourdough starter. Fromartz devotes a lot of counter space to this topic.
If you’ve experimented with bread-baking, you’re likely to have been exposed to a dialogue about someone’s ancient sourdough starter impressively passed down for generations from an immigrant ancestor, the only living thing that remained after a shipwreck, or from the queen’s own baker.
While it’s true that bakers share starters, and some tenacious souls may have even kept one going for decades, Fromartz writes that “unless all the conditions mirror the original, it is unlikely to harbor the same combination of yeast and bacteria.”
He references Pliny the Elder’s descriptions of grain fermentation in his “Natural History.” Pliny found grapes, “at time of vintage,” an essential ingredient in creating sourdoughs.
Pliny specifies grapes at their time of vintage because the wasps that swarm the ripe fruit transfer their intestinal yeasts to the grapes as they enjoy the juices, as borne out by a study in Tuscany.
“So, the wasps, grapes, bread, and wine of Tuscany were part of a singular yeast ecology that varied seasonally. … Each fruit can add between 10 million and 100 million organisms to a starter.”
We haven’t even discussed the rye bread in Berlin!
Fromartz’s “Odyssey” is just that; he has stoked every coal when it comes to bread.
Though this isn’t a cookbook by any means, he does include nine recipes, perhaps he would call them guidelines, all graded by difficulty and annotated so that it’s like having an expert at your side.
Does he find the perfect loaf? He finds a lot more than that.
Reach Anne Kniggendorf at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In Search of the Perfect Loaf: A Home Baker’s Odyssey, by Samuel Fromartz (320 pages; Viking; 26.95)