L'Atelier Vert - Everything French Gardening
French home and garden products Weekly musings from an American gardener in Paris Take a garden walk and meet French gardeners This week's seasonal gardening tips Old World gardening techniques In the French kitchen garden This week's French Garden recipes Discover French heirlooms and new continental introductions Studio Green Visit my Bookshelf
Past Postcards
May 21 - Tree woman April 02 - Gardening in a Warmer World July 24 - La Boucherie J.-C. Malavard June 13 - The Unsung Muse of Istanbul May 02 - Potager passion 2013 January 30 - Wounds and Wildflowers September 27 - Coq Story March 29 - The joyous lavender farmer March 27 - Consulting the oracle February 15 - Abdullah's olives November 10 - The living willow fence--one year later October 25 - Ode to crème fraîche September 08 - Le Grand Mechoui at Revest-des-Brousses May 10 - An island of serenity March 23 - Blood and guts February 10 - Birdie! January 13 - Planting a living fence November 25 - The clay connection June 09 - Bee story April 21 - Of dandelions and Camembert March 12 - The secret shops of the Palais Royale. February 01 - The pleasures of winter September 30 - Pigeon September 10 - Health care à la française June 11 - La Ferme aux Escargots June 04 - Nest of flowers April 10 - Potager passion March 25 - Pépette II--The sequel January 27 - Meditations on mustard January 14 - Provence wears it well...snow, that is. November 20 - Our part-time dog November 11 - A new university for the 21st century October 14 - Mushroom madness September 04 - Road trip with Paula Wolfert June 18 - The Pottery of Sampigny June 02 - Le Temps des Cerises May 20 - It's that intoxicating time again... April 23 - Where la vigne is queen March 27 - The joys of la cueillette February 14 - Bringing in the blue January 16 - Bonne année 2008! November 07 - Fire at the heart of the home October 19 - Manna from heaven... September 19 - My neighbor's lamb July 26 - The way to a woman's heart... June 18 - Guinée rocks the rue de Logelbach May 15 - A passion for farigoule April 16 - Sowing the seeds of content April 04 - Bruno's world March 14 - Putting down roots February 14 - La Fête de la Truffe December 20 - An olive branch November 30 - Happiness is a hot chestnut. October 31 - Uncovering the soul of a mas October 02 - High horsepower September 21 - The magic of Moustiers June 21 - The cencibelles of Cliousclat May 22 - In possession of a potager... April 26 - A spring morning amble through Aix-en-Provence March 20 - The staff of life en pays Berbère March 08 - Why I love my quincaillerie February 22 - Le pays de Forcalquier February 14 - Valentine surprise in Verona February 06 - La Truffe December 20 - 12/20/2005. La Source December 01 - 12/01/2005. The pool at the Club Waou November 26 - 11/26/2005. Fall Trilogy III--Le Chemin de Randonnée November 23 - 11/23/2005. Fall trilogy II November 21 - 11/21/2005. Fall Trilogy I November 15 - 11/15/2005. Jammin' November 09 - 11/09/2005. Civil unrest in France October 31 - 10/31/2005. Flu season October 10 - 10/10/2005. Our own little piece of Provence October 04 - 10/04/2005. China--a window on the future? July 26 - 7/26/2005. Elegy for a potager July 07 - 7/7/2005. La Bonne Etape June 27 - 6/27/2005. Our royal tourne-broche June 22 - 6/22/2005. La dermite des prés June 13 - 6/13/2005. A spring foray in the Pyrenees May 16 - 5/16/2005. Lights, camera, action! April 28 - 4/28/2005. April in Paris April 06 - 4/6/2005. Vinegar porn March 06 - 3/6/2005. The miraculous monarch February 16 - 2/16/2005. Valise de rêve December 15 - 12/15/2004. Diversity for all December 09 - 12/9/2004. Fécamp--Destination gourmande November 24 - L'Ostau de Baumanière November 16 - Rice, bulls, and gypsy caravans November 15 - 11/15/2004. And the winner is... October 27 - 10/27/2004. Lunch heaven October 13 - 10/13/2004. Oh-so-French pharmacies October 05 - 10/5/2004. Vézelay--la colline éternelle September 07 - 9/7/2004. Where in the world... July 15 - 7/15/2004. Road trip through Auvergne June 02 - 6/2/2004. La fête du pain normand April 26 - 4/26/2004. A sun-drenched weekend in Collioure April 14 - 4/14/2004. Denis' Easter card April 01 - Lights, camera, action! March 29 - My life as an enzyme March 18 - Life in a food-crazed nation March 05 - Marabout February 26 - Tale of two towers February 23 - La Fête des Violettes February 05 - My precious levain January 28 - Surviving the salon January 13 - La Poste and I December 01 - Home alone November 19 - Those dirty French! November 03 - Three years at 10 rue de Logelbach October 20 - A Paris weekend September 16 - Paris on wheels September 03 - The sleepy magic of the marais Poitevin July 29 - Dejeuner sur la (mauvaise) herbe July 23 - Blue is the color... July 10 - My famous hat June 10 - 06/10/2003. Dr. Death and the Giant Lobster June 04 - 6/4/2003. Summer in a skillet May 13 - 5/12/2003. Oysters for Breakfast. April 29 - 4/29/2003 Dateline Dakar March 27 - 3/27/2003. Le Moulin d'Arbalète March 17 - 3/17/2003. A spring day in the Pays de Caux February 26 - 2/26/2003. Residents of Nice take to the streets... February 14 - Some winter violets for turbulent times February 03 - Ramblings on the week's news from l'Hôtel de Ville January 20 - The mother of all vinegars January 07 - "Brrrrr...Il fait froid!" December 11 - La crise de foie November 20 - War of the waters November 13 - The weekend of three tails October 30 - Gender issues September 18 - Figs, green walnuts, and pêches de vigne September 18 - La rentrée August 01 - Paris in August July 25 - The Gymnase Club July 15 - French ads June 27 - Sojourn to Ardèche May 23 - France ushers in spring with muguet des bois. May 23 - The Concours Lépine--or the French at their most eccentric April 19 - Going to the polls in Paris April 08 - The bounty of Belleville March 28 - First the poubelle, now the tri... March 15 - For women only March 07 - French Country comes to Paris February 21 - Paris underground February 15 - Everything's on soldes! January 31 - A breath of spring January 25 - Paris...the soul of discretion January 16 - Winter rolling toward spring January 03 - Bonne Année!! December 10 - Christmas roses November 28 - Wild mushroom season in Paris November 16 - Leaving home November 06 - The Camondo cuisine October 23 - Paris, Post-September 11 October 17 - 10/17/2001. Paris Mayor Says NO to Doggie Turds October 05 - 10/05/2001. What am I doing here? October 05 - Why I love my butcher October 04 - A dog's life in Paris.

This Week's Postcard

Join Mailing List

My precious levain

When I moved to France, I didn't do a mammoth intercontinental move like some people. I mean, I didn't ship my furniture, my rugs, or--much more important--even my kitchen equipment. This decision had everything to do with the fact that I was paying for my move. I didn't have a job with a powerful multinational corporation who was going to move me lock, stock, and barrel at their expense.

I decided to make do by paying for two extra pieces of luggage on my flight over. That was going to have to be it for my relocation expenses. What--besides my clothes and pictures of my kids--did I decide to take? Why, my sourdough starter, of course.

Now, before we go any further, you need to learn the French word for "sourdough starter." "Sourdough starter" is such a dowdy term, and it has negative connotations of spoilage ("sour"), insipidness ("dough"), and inexperience ("starter"). This magnificent, complex, and mysterious substance is better accommodated by the French word levain, whose relation to the English "leaven" is obvious. You can look up the pronunciation of levain in a French-English dictionary, because you're not going to see any of those inaccurate, dopey, so-called phonetic pronunciations (say, luh-van) on this website.

But, to get back to my saga, I was so covetous of my levain that I actually put some in a small mason jar, screwed the lid on very firmly, wrapped it in bubble wrap, and put it in my carry-on luggage. That's right, I wasn't going to take any chances on lost luggage.

Now, those of you who have worked with levains of your own know that this was a procedure not without some risk. No, I don't mean I was risking getting my jar confiscated by security goons as a "terror" weapon. But a healthy levain is a living, breathing thing. That's right, levains produce gas. That's how they make your bread rise!!! So that there would be no risk of having sticky levain exploded all over the inside of my carry-on bag, I had to induce a soporific state in my levain before packing it into my luggage. I accomplished this by starving it for a while before the trip.

Now, why on earth, you're asking yourself, would I take a jar of levain to France, for pity's sake? France, as you have read in these pages, is according to me a bastion of the world's best food, including of course the famous French BREAD. Isn't traveling to France with a levain a bit like pouring salt in the sea?

Well, let me explain. You see, my levain and I go way back. Until moving to France, I baked all my family's bread. Period. I lived my childhood during the age of Wonderbread. Fortunately, I have a Swiss mother, who taught me that those square white pads of chemical foam aren't worthy of the name "bread." In our family, Wonderbread was known as "cottonbread," directly translated from my Swiss grandmother's German exclamation the first time she touched the stuff.

My mother didn't bake bread, except for an occasional challah. But at least she sought out the at that time elite and rare Pepperidge Farm line of whole grain breads and relatively palatable brown-in-oven "French" rolls.

I left home just in time to ride the wave of back-to-the-earth enthusiasm sweeping the generation coming of age in the early 70's. I started experimenting with bread baking just about as soon as I started testing my fledgling culinary wings at the age of 18. My first breads were from self-righteous Adele Davis recipes and were of course leavened with ordinary baker's yeast.

While these first experiments were certainly on the heavy side and--were I to produce them today--would be sneered at by me in my mature Bread Snob stage, at the time their wheatiness and the fact that they could be devoured warm from the oven made them a damned sight better than any other bread available.


I soon developed a fascination for the transformative process of making bread, and I began to look for ways to broaden my bread horizons. My search received an invaluable boost when my mother presented me with a book called The Breads of France by Bernard Clayton. I believe this was in the late 70's. Mr. Clayton, incredibly, was a fellow Hoosier (that's a resident of Indiana, for the uninitiate)--a professor of journalism at my own alma mater Indiana University. Was his book ever precocious, and a precursor of things to come! In the seventies, Mr. Clayton traveled all over France visiting great bakers and getting them to divulge their recipes (which undoubtedly had to be adapted for home use). Imagine, a professor from a midwestern backwater discovering the great Max Poilane in the seventies. It's one of the few things that makes me proud to be a Hoosier.

This book, with it's bleu-blanc-rouge dust jacket, was my bible for years. I baked my way straight through it, and the pain de Honfleur from its pages became the staple bread for my family for the better part of ten or 15 years. The pages of this dear book became warped with kitchen humidity, and innumerable grains of various flours became embedded between its pages. It is still in family possession, now in the trusted hands of my son.

It was Bernard Clayton's book that initiated me into the mysteries of baking with levain. What is a levain and where do you get one? Ah, well, justement, that is the rub. For--despite "sourdough cultures" available in some health food stores, a good levain must be created by the baker--or borrowed from someone who already has a good one going.

But, creating a levain which will in turn create lustily rising loaves of excellent flavor and keeping quality is not as easy as simply following a recipe. The ingredients--it's true--couldn't be simpler: flour and water. But the magic elixir that makes the levain spring to life--where do you get that?

The life force of a levain comes from a mixture of wild yeasts and bacteria which ferment the starches and sugars in the flour, producing, in the process, the gases that make the bread rise and the acids that give a good levain bread its distinctive bouquet of aromas and flavors as well as its excellent keeping qualities.

Now, the question is, where are these yeasts and bacteria going to come from in your first levain? One approach is to mix up some flour and water in the correct proportions and leave the mixture open to the air for a certain period--say overnight--before covering the bowl to keep moisture in and allow fermentation to continue. In theory, wild yeasts and bacteria will fall from the air into their new home, thus breathing life into your levain, in a process reminiscent of that old theory of spontaneous generation. This works, meaning your mixture will definitely ferment. But the character of this fermentation may turn out to be less desirable than you hoped.

There are countless ways a new levain may go awry. You may end up with a mixture of too many or too large a proportion of acid-forming bacteria, which will turn the dough so sour that further fermentation is inhibited without sufficient gas being produced. Since the variety of yeasts and bacteria and their possible combinations is virtually endless, and since each contributes its unique aroma to the brew, you also stand a chance of ending up with a levain that simply does not have a pleasant flavor. Or, in the worst case scenario, your nascent levain may develop a sickening green scum or sprout evil-looking black, spore-bearing hairs. People entering your home may sniff and look at you quizzically. Any of these outcomes is cause to dump your experiment, sterilize your equipment, and start over.

One of the easiest ways to avoid these pitfalls is to spike your first batch with some organic, unpeeled fruit. Fruit skins just happen to be loaded with wild yeasts and bacteria, often in happy combination for levain development. Of course, you don't want to load your levain with pesticide residues, therefore, use organic fruit. Grapes and apples both work well. I, however, used organic Montmorency cherries from my own orchard to make the most successful and aromatic of my legendary levains. This heavenly brew was so robust that it made my breads rise faster than commercial yeast. And the flavor of the resulting bread was redolent of ripe fruit with walnut overtones. And yes, I realize that I am now waxing as ridiculous as a wine writer.

A levain is made more active each time you use it. This is because when you use your levain to start a batch of bread, you always save back a little of it, mixing it into a fresh batch of flour and water to "renew" it. By giving a small number of yeasts and bacteria (the inoculum) a huge dose of fresh food, you stimulate rapid growth and fermentation, hallmarks of the active starter. Of course, the corollary is that a levain left in the refrigerator without being used or renewed for weeks or even months will become somnolent, then soporific, and finally nearly inert. Nearly, mind you, because a good levain NEVER DIES!

Starved by you of fresh nutrition, the levain goes into a state of suspended animation. In the neglected hinterlands of your refrigerator, it separates into a thick sludge covered by a dead-looking, grayish serum. It shows no signs of bubbling life but lies sullenly at the bottom of its jar. Yet, miraculously, all that is necessary to revive it is a couple to numerous "passes" through the cycle of renewal, and your trusty levain will be back to its old frothy self. Finally, a levain is more forgiving than any other kitchen adventure you may launch yourself on.

You can imagine, then, how unforgiving I felt to the person who threw out my levain while I was on vacation last summer!! My levain--who had lived with me for 15 years through so many of my foolhardy adventures, even accompanying me to France! My levain, who probably thought that this long dark hiatus in the refrigerator was just another neglectful spell I was going through. My oh-so-trustworthy, my innocent levain was rudely jerked from the sleepy dark depths of my August-in-Paris refrigerator, peered at with disgust down the length of someone's arrogant nose, and thrown out without a moment''s hesitation.

Who was that person? I don't really know whether it was my housekeeper or my friend to whom we loaned the apartment while we were away. Or some vaporous levain thief that roamed the streets of Paris during the heat wave, vaporizing innocently sleeping levains with a puff of his evil breath. I prefer not to know. I can't begin to describe my sense of growing despair as I searched for that jar upon my return. That person had unwittingly thrown out a piece of my history, a piece of my very self! Yes, we're all better off not knowing whodunnit.

Needless to say, I was faced with the existence of an enormous void in my life. (What a strange sentence that is, a sort of hidden double negative. Would it be better to say the absence of an enormous presence?) When I tearfully told the news to Denis, he felt sorry for me, but clearly not sorry enough. To whom could I turn in my bereft hour?

After pondering my situation through a haze of funk for several days, I realized who would really understand the towering proportions of the disaster I'd been dealt. This realization was simultaneously coupled to a ray of hope. The only person who could really appreciate my predicament was the same person who could rescue me from it--or at least restore me to a semblance of my former levain-possessing self. My baker!

"My baker" is not in Paris. I have still to find my baker in Paris. My baker is Dominique Duclos, the owner and master of the Boulangerie Duclos in the town of Yvetot, about 20 minutes' drive from our house in Normandy. Mr. Duclos bakes the best breads I've ever tasted; I haven't found anyone in Paris who comes even close. He uses local flours, he has a perfect understanding of the mysteries of levain, and he has dedicated his life to baking real bread in the finest artisanal fashion. (For more about the great Dominique Duclos, read my article on him at http://www.bonjourparis.com/pages/articles.php?articleId=108&page=1)

Remember when I said that there were two ways to get a levain--one was to start one yourself and the other was to get a start from someone who has a good one going? Well, you can see where I'm going with this story. My cherished hope was that my bread idol, Mr. Duclos, would, upon hearing my tale of woe, take pity on my and offer me a start of his own precious levain. A piece of the rock, as it were. Because Dominique Duclos' levain was one of the few in the world that I would accept as a replacement for my own that was now no more.

I suffered incredible trepidation about presenting my dilemma to Mr. Duclos. No one appreciates better than I the mystery and proprietary nature of a good levain. I could understand perfectly if Mr. Duclos failed to offer me a piece of his--but I would be so disappointed. Also, I did not want to impose on Mr. Duclos any feeling of obligation. As we pulled up in front of the Duclos bakery one dark and dismal Friday evening last fall, as is our habit in order to pick up great bread for the weekend in the country, I turned to Denis. For probably the tenth time, I asked him, "Do you think I should tell Mr. Duclos about my lost levain?" Denis understood that this was tantamount to asking for some of Mr. Duclos' own levain.

But he also thought it was--as we say in the States--a "no-brainer." "Yes, go!" he said, exasperated by my anxiety. "Il va t'en donner sans problème," he reassured me a bit more kindly, seeing how really crucial this moment was to me. "He'll give you some--no problem."

And of course, he did. I didn't even have to ask. Mr. Duclos is such a kind and humble man that I realize in retrospect how absurd my anxieties were. Would I like a solid or a liquid levain? he asked me, and it was produced forthwith, a foamy blob safely enclosed for the moment in a plastic carry-out container, its bubbles plastered against the sides of the container like a children's faces pressed against a window. "You'll need to put it in something larger...," he cautioned. "I know," I acknowledged happily, feeling snugly within the pale once more. After several listless, anxious months, I was once more a member of the privileged community of levain stewards.



Right about now (or several windy paragraphs ago, more likely), you're understanding the photo at the head of this story. Never again will I leave my levain jar in the refrigerator unlabeled and unprotected, defenseless against predators. My levain jar now bears triple warnings somewhat in the spirit of that bumper sticker adage, You toucha my car and I breaka your face. (Italian Americans, forgive me for my bad taste.)

As an added backup measure, I have installed a country cousin of my levain at the Normandy house, where the dough it ferments is not ashamed to rise in a chamber pot (photo above).



My adventures in bread-baking continue unabated, as intuitive handling of levain-leavened doughs is a skill that is honed by experience. Recently, I've been experimenting with chestnut flour (photo left), inspired by the delicious pain aux chataîgnes (food for the gods!) that appears in Mr. Duclos' bakery in the fall. For you see, even when you live in the French bread capital of the world, home-baked pain au levain has irresistable charm. I'm not sure that even my greeting him at the door dressed in nothing but my sexiest Aubade underwear would excite Denis as much as the presence of still-warm, crusty loaves on our evening dinner table.



Share


About Paris Postcard
Here's where I share the frustrations, humor, and sometimes almost heartbreaking beauty of daily life from the perspective of an American expatriate living in Paris. I'm writing to you exactly as I write to my family and friends, so what you read here is usually not about gardening. Rather, these weekly postcards are a way for you to get to know me, and I hope, to occasionally laugh out loud--both with me, and sometimes at me. Barbara Wilde
   
© 2014 L'Atelier Vert - - Everything French Gardening® | Trademark statement | Terms and Conditions | Privacy Policy
This site is operated by L'E-Commerce LLC DBA L'Atelier Vert. | Website by Pallasart Austin Texas Web Design