bread and books
The first time I read A Year in Provence I was ten years old.
I didn’t get it.
The wine, the British humor, more wine, the descriptions of provincial, Provencal life, yet more wine. The idiosyncrasies of the French, the mushroom hunting. The pastis and the goat races, the quite frankly alarming amount of kissing. None of it made sense.
To be entirely fair, at that point in my life, I still considered The Hardy Boys to be great literature. They never waxed poetic about anything but motorcycles and their chums. The only loving descriptions were given to car chases. In short, I was overwhelmed by the lack of punches and creaking stairways.
Six years passed before I tried it again, and in those six years I had developed an appreciation for the French from The Life of the Spider and The Scarlet Pimpernel. Alcoholic beverages seemed a bit more tantalizing after three readings of The Lord of the Rings. Through various means, including Doctor Who, Jane Austen, C.S. Lewis and much too much BBC, English humor had become my bread and butter. Barbara Kingsolver had opened my eyes to mushrooms in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. And by sixteen, kissing, especially the French variety, had become an object of interest.
Yes, I was ready to tackle the book.
My memories were not far off course. Peter Mayle still took up a disproportionate chunk of the book describing wine, something I still hadn’t developed a taste for. The English humor was as gloriously dry as ever, and descriptions of the entirely unique life of Provence were still as lovingly detailed as I recalled.
But there was something I hadn’t remembered: the food. Peter Mayle was as in love with the pâté as he was with the pastures. He soliloquized over goat cheese, dripped with enthusiasm over a roast rack of lamb, and went into exquisite detail over the bread. Oh, the bread.
He walked you arm-in-arm through the bakeries, introducing you to passionate bakers whose dough ruled their imaginations and palates. He evoked the warmth of a robust peasant loaf, the spine-tingling crackle of a baguette’s crust.
He made you weep for gluten.
But where to find such marvelous breads in America? Our idea of a baguette is more closely related to a policeman’s truncheon than a loaf of bread. Our rolls are tough, our crusts are limp.
There was nothing for it. If I could not go to a Provencal bakery, then I would bloody well make my own.
But breadmaking, as I soon learned, wasn’t nearly as easy as it looks. At least, not until I read Jim Lahey’s My Bread, a brilliant work that teaches you the art of easy breadmaking. No kneading. No fancy equipment. Just the simplest ingredients, stirred together and left to rise to an unbelievable height and tenderness.
At first, I was astounded by the ease of preparing it.
And when it emerged from the oven, the smell was precisely what I had imagined from A Year in Provence.
But it wasn’t until I had sliced a wedge from the loaf that I understood that this was bread. Everything I had ever eaten before was a substitute, something to fill my time until Provence came and found me.
Basic No-Knead Bread
3 cups bread flour
1 1/3 cups water
1/4 teaspoon yeast
1 1/4 teaspoon salt
extra flour, wheat bran, or cornmeal (for dusting)Equipment:
medium mixing bowl
4 1/2-5 1/2 quart pot with lid (Pyrex glass, Le Creuset cast iron, or ceramic Lodge)
Mix all of the dry ingredients in a medium bowl. Add water and incorporate by hand or with a wooden spoon or your hands until you have a wet, sticky dough, about 30 seconds. Make sure it’s really sticky to the touch. Cover the bowl with a plate, tea towel or plastic wrap and let sit at rom temperature, out of direct sunlight, until the surface is dotted with bubbles and the dough is more than doubled in size. This will take a minimum of 12 hours, an optimum time of 18 hours. This slow rise–fermentation–is the key to flavor.
When the 18 hours is up, generously dust a work surface (a cutting board works) with flour. Use a bowl scraper or spatula to scrape the dough onto the board in one piece. When you begin to pull the dough away from the bowl, it will cling in long, thin strands and will be quite loose and sticky. Next, shape the dough into ball with floured hands.
Generously coat a cotton towel (don’t use terry cloth, as it leaves imprints and lint in the dough) with flour, wheat bran, or cornmeal; place the dough seam side down on the towel and dust with flour. Fold the ends of the towel loosely over the dough to cover it and place it in a warm, draft-free place to rise for 1-2 hours The dough is ready when it is almost doubled in size.
Half an hour before the end of the second rise, transfer the rack to the lower third position, preheat the oven to 425, and place the covered pot to heat.
After thirty minutes, carefully remove the pot from the oven. Unfold the tea towel, lightly dust the dough with flour, bran or cornmeal and quickly but gently invert the dough, seam side up, into the pot. Cover the pot and bake for 30 minutes. Then remove the lid and bake 15-30 minutes uncovered, until the loaf is nicely browned.
Wait an hour for it to cool thoroughly before slicing or tearing into your artisan loaf.
We ate it in wedges, slathered with butter, alongside chunks of braided mozzarella, slices of herbed salami and a bowl of olives.
C’est bon, mon ami.