Bread is definitely in the midst of a renaissance period. Artisan bakers are pushing the envelope in regards to their craft… relying on wild yeasts, using long fermentation times and sourcing heirloom wheat varieties and grains to craft their breads And, as with any period of intense focus and rapid change, enlightened breakthroughs can run concomitant with opposition and even fear of the explored element at hand.
Bread exemplifies this dichotomy taking place today. While culinary luminaries such as master baker Chad Robertson of Tartine Bakery in San Francisco and former Microsoft chief technology officer Nathan Myrvold now founder-in-chief of Modernist Cuisine dive headlong into the art and science of bread to divine the perfect loaf, bread in general is reeling from an onslaught of health concerns, some very real for a small percentage of the population, but many still fuzzy and unclear due to lack of concrete scientific evidence. Join Food Routes in a look into the oven of opinion along with profiles of two of South Africa’s best bakers!
I remember as a child driving into the nearby industrial city from the newly forming suburbs being carved out from small family farms. Cruising down the highway with car windows opened, the country air soon gave way to the smells of the soot spewed from the myriad of smokestacks silhouetted against the gray sky.
There was a brief moment, a tiny sweet spot along that stenchy stretch where a fresh, delightful aroma punched through the synthetic smells and permeated the air. It was bread being baked in a large commercial bakery. The experience was fleeting, but the yeasty sweet scent perfumed the air only to vanish as the car passed through this olfactory oasis and back into the stinky city atmosphere. I always will remember that smell, the spot and how it made me feel…surprised, joyful and contented. Something seemed alive, good and wholesome floating ephemerally between the grit and the grime. But as it would turn out, a good part of all that was an an illusion, fermented in my imagination by the modern day food industry.
As a child of the fifties and sixties, commercially-made white bread was the preferred choice. A fortified bread known as Wonder Bread was the best seller in the United States. Almost every American, from adult to child, knew the slogan of the most popular brand; Wonder Bread – Helps build strong bodies 12 ways. The 12 ways referred to the number of added nutrients to the bread. It was the sandwich bread and was a resident of almost every lunchbox in America. No one ever thought to ask, “If bread was supposed to be such a nutritious food in its own right, why did it need to be enriched?” However, a new understanding of bread would soon begin to rise just over the horizon.
The late 60’s and 70’s ushered in the “health food” movement and Wonder Bread no longer held the baby boomer generation’s affection or trust. Whole grain breads were the choice of the gurus of wholesome daily grub. Nutritious as these breads may have been, most were as heavy and tasteless. The late comedian Robin Williams quipped about his first encounter with the new counter-culture staple, "The first time I ate organic whole-grain bread I swear it tasted like roofing material." Many shared the sentiment, but remained silent, hiding behind a maxim from childhood that what was good for you often did not equate with pleasure. And this coming from a generation enthralled with the search for gratification in all things!
But these baby boomers, in launching the largest invasion of Europe since WWII, came to experience the handcrafted breads of the old world and learned that healthy bread could be divinely delicious. Backpacking through Europe tasting brioche and pain d’ordinaire (the daily bread baguette) from France, ciabatta and focaccia from Italy, pretzels to pumpernickel in Germany; a new generation was hooked on the variety and tastes to be found in bread. Just as yeast is the catalyst that initiates the creation of bread from the simple ingredients of flour, water and salt, so did these hipsters on their backpacking “grand tours” of Europe inoculate their generation and those to follow with a quest to create unique and better tasting food. Bread was no longer the mundane member of the meal, but was transformed into a mythic morsel. The mission was on to create the perfect loaf, a culinary quest analogous to the search for the Holy Grail.
Not all of the breads of Europe were wonderful. Many also lacked character and quality, but there still existed a repository of knowledge, skills and masters of the art of bread-making. The new acolytes, like sorcerer’s apprentices gleaned this knowledge, carried it home; and especially in the United States a bread renaissance began which sparked the interest in artisan breads worldwide.
Bread is a conundrum. Out of four simple and basic ingredients, flour, water, yeast and salt, complex reactions take place during the mixing, fermentation and the baking of the bread. Each step in the process must be carefully attended to and executed in a balanced manner in order for bread to transcend its humble ingredients. When all goes well, the perfect specimen emerges from the oven…a beautiful brown caramelized crust providing a delicious contrast between the loaf’s crispy and crackly exterior and its tender interior comprised of an open texture stippled with large holes. Bread making is a classical fusion between art and science. In fact, so much so that Nathan Myrhvold, the former chief of technology for Microsoft and the author of the five volume award-winning Modernist Cuisine has assembled a crackerjack team to produce the definitive book on bread as his next project! But until this magnum opus on all things crust and crumb hits the shelves, let’s take a look at a bit of the history about bread and where we are today.
Bread is viewed by many anthropologists, archeologists and historians as a cornerstone in the birth of agriculture and civilization. The use of wild grasses and
About 23,000 years ago man was collecting a wild version of einkorn wheat called Triticum monococcum boeticum in what is today southeastern Turkey.
Wheat is the product of a cross between three different grass species which is reputed to have happened about 10,000 B.C.
The ability to sow and reap cereals may be one of the chief causes which led man to dwell in communities, rather than to live a wandering life hunting and herding cattle.
Around 5,000 B.C., the Egyptians were the first to produce risen loaves using yeast, probably by accident when beer was used to mix dough instead of water.
By 200 B.C., the Romans were using animal power to grind wheat. Around 168 B.C. Bakers were elevated to the status of free men and were not considered slaves as were other craftsman.
1400-1600 A.D. Crop rotation was implemented thus improving the soil and crop yields. Bread making established itself as a business and a trade.
1700-1800 The Industrial Revolution spurred migration from villages to cities and tools such as Jethro Tull’s mechanical seed drill allowed the planting of wheat on a much larger scale.
1850-1900 To meet the demands of the growing population, long-lasting flour was needed. Those elements that spoiled the flour, the outer bran and germ layer, were taken out. Unfortunately, these contained most of the wheat’s nutrients.
From 1900 onwards – Two varieties of wheat came to dominate the market. Modern industrialization of the baked goods industry came to produce breads loaded with a multitude of processed and chemical ingredients. Near the end of the 20th century concerns over a lack of nutrition, flavor and health began to spur an artisanal bread movement utilizing whole grains & basic ingredients. Today bakers, scientists, chefs, farmers, millers and consumers are working together to re-introduce heirloom grain varieties along with the nutrients, flavors and variety they provide back into the culinary world.
wheat as a food source led to the discovery of natural crosses that provided varieties that held onto their seeds. This allowed most of the harvest to be gathered rather than have it lost to the vagaries of timing and weather. The seeds of these sturdier varieties were selected and planted thus ushering in an agrarian component to the existing hunter-gatherer system. The planting and mastering of grain accomplished more than just rooting people to a place. It was a pre-eminent catalyst to population growth, the creation of cities, increased life span especially in regards to infants and the elderly and technological innovations that allowed man to more readily plant, harvest and process this critical food.
Evidence indicates that the earliest method of using both the wild and domesticated wheat was in the form of a gruel-like porridge. Eventually, these porridges were thickened and cooked on hot, flat rocks and were the forbearers to the flatbreads we observe today in cultures across the globe. From Egypt comes the first evidence of risen loaves due to the use of yeast. Some authorities surmise this was an accidental discovery when beer may have been used to mix dough instead of water. But why did Egypt become the first to embrace this process?
There’s a very unique theory in that other cultures were extremely wary and afraid of new discoveries that surprised and mystified them. Imagine viewing the process of dough fermenting and rising for the first time. Something inert and lifeless one moment now was filled with the spirit of life and growing! No wonder bread became the symbol of life and resurrection throughout the ages. Egyptian culture and their beliefs embraced and honored the “magic” they experienced in the world around them. The process was not looked upon in fear but in wonder and reverence. Bread was an essential item placed in tombs for the dead to consume in the afterlife.
Rome certainly wasn’t built in a day, but the empire and its political power was maintained by Rome’s ability to feed the masses with bread being the main food staple. The Roman poet and satirist Juvenal made note of this in his play, Satire X.
The first bread guilds were established by the Romans and unlike other craftsmen, bakers were accorded the status of freemen not slaves. The Romans were the first to use animals to mill the grain and invented two types of ovens in which to bake bread.
Over the centuries, advances in agriculture and technology were spurred on by the demand for bread to feed an increasingly populated world. Mills were invented that harnessed the power of wind and water to process the grain into flour. Agricultural practices such as crop rotation were introduced. Planting and harvesting tools were created, thus allowing the growing of wheat on a much larger scale with increased yields. Bread was on a roll, but issues loomed on the horizon.
White bread became the bread of choice, the bread of the affluent. With such an increase in demand, bread flour had to be produced that was longer lasting. This resulted in the removal of the outer bran and germ layer which have a short shelf life and tended to spoil quickly. However, these were also the most nutritious components of the wheat kernel. Furthermore, bleaching processes were used to create the desired white color and additives were introduced that also assisted in the preservation and maintenance of its soft texture. The wheat’s naturally occurring essential vitamins and minerals removed by the milling process now had to be added back artificially to the flour prior to baking. A loaf of bread that once had been made using only four ingredients – flour, yeast, salt and water – might now list 30 various ingredients on its back label, most of which were unrecognizable to the average consumer. Another disturbing aspect was that the world’s flour production was dependent upon two varieties of wheat; duram wheat [Triticum turgid] which is used mainly in the production of pastas and bread wheat [Triticum aestivu] which is the most grown type in the world today.
Two of the most important aspects of bread were being lost…nutrition and flavor. As well, a disturbing trend of more people experiencing wheat related illnesses such as celiac disease and gluten intolerance were being reported. While celiac disease is a verifiable and serious condition for a small percentage of the population, the jury is still out on whether gluten (the protein formed during the making of wheat dough) is the culprit in these illnesses or are other factors the cause such as additives and FODMAPS (an acronym for fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols) which consist of foods high in fructose An excellent piece on the debate recently appeared online in the November 3rd issue of The New Yorker magazine. http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/11/03/grain
What’s of import in all of this is that we inform ourselves as consumers and do not get caught up in the hype and marketing that surrounds this “hot button” topic. There is a movement afoot of producing nutritious, additive-free wholesome artisan breads made from carefully grown and milled grains. Artisan bakers, chefs, scientists, plant breeders, millers and farmers are banding together to bring back heirloom grains that are bursting with nutrients and full delicious flavors. To condemn a grain like wheat in such broad strokes before the evidence is in is foolhardy and short-sighted. These ardent advocates for better bread deserve our support.
For those interested in delving deeper into the subject, a unique documentary produced in the United States called The Grain Divide is set to be released by the end of 2014. Addressing many of the issues and concerns over the lack of diversity and quality in today’s grains, this documentary explores the history, the facts/fiction and future of grain and how even the Farm to Table movement has forgotten one of the basic foundations of our food – grains. For a sneak preview visit http://vimeo.com/104358546
Here in the Western Cape we have a growing contingency of superb artisan bakers. Two of Food Routes favorites are Marcus Farbinger of isle de pain in Knysna, a pioneer in South Africa’s artisan bread movement and fairly recent newcomer, Karen Pretorius of Babylonstoren.
MARKUS FARBINGER of
I’ll always remember how I came to visit ile de pain for the first time in 2003. I was visiting the small holding my husband and I had purchased the year before in the Klaasvoogds area just outside of Robertson. I happened to mention to my former neighbor Mario Motti, (the sorely missed original chef and co-creator/owner of Fraai Uitzicht) that I was going to visit Knysna for a few days. Immediately he said that he was going to place an order for bread from ile de pain and would I be so kind as to pick it up on the morning of my return. Of course I said yes and my love affair with the breads of Markus Farbinger began.
Upon walking into the shop early that morning I was hit with the feelings I had experienced during those childhood car rides into the city mentioned earlier in this blog posting. However, there was so much more in the air! The bakery was over-the-top with the aromas of what bread should evoke. Caramelized, smokiness with a crackling crunch from the crisp crust along with a fresh yeasty perfume wafted from the slices being cut from loaves not long out of the wood-burning oven. This was bread with a capital B! Outside of some artisan breads experienced in San Francisco, nothing had caught my attention as much as these.
But this is not surprising, considering Farbinger’s bread and pastry pedigree. Growing up in a small town in Austria, he began working at the age of ten in his father’s bakery. At 14 he entered into an apprenticeship as a baker and pastry chef. Further work and studies – in Copenhagen for pastry and Switzerland for chocolate – prepared him for landing a position at the age of 21 in the pastry kitchen of the world renowned Le Cirque restaurant in New York City.
Farbinger left that position when he was accepted into one of the world’s most prestigious pastry schools – the Bundesfachschule fur das Konditoren Handwerk [the School for Bakery Handwork] located in Germany. After his studies there, he returned at the ripe old age of 23 to Le Cirque as the pastry chef. He went on to become a Master Teacher at the Culinary Institute of America in New York state and baked for the late Julia Child on her eponymous and fabled cooking show all by the time he was in his early thirties!
Near Christmas in 1987, an article in the New York Times profiling him when he was at Le Cirque asked what would be on his future Christmas wish list. Farbinger replied it would his own pastry shop and café where “people can take the time to enjoy life”. He also mentioned at that time he had not decided whether he would realize his dream and continue the family tradition in Austria or America. Thankfully for us here in South, while working in the U.S. he met his partner, South African Liezie Mulder who is the creative force behind ile de pain’s delectable food offerings. Deciding upon South Africa as the place to fulfill this Christmas wish, they built the first wood-fired bread oven in South Africa and have blazed their way to fame and a faithful following since 2002.
To his credit, Farbinger is not interested in fame based on flash and fad. Foodie fandom is not his cup of tea. His mission is taking ingredients of the highest quality, crafting them with knowledge honed over years of experience into edible epiphanies of pure enjoyment for his customers. He and Liezie must be doing something right. For after 12 years, the fans are still flocking to their isle of bread!!!
For more information on ile de pain visit the website at www.iledepain.co.za
KAREN PRETORIUS of Babylonstoren
A self-taught baker and chef, it is evident by the pictures of her edible creations that Karen Pretorius has the soul and passion of an artist. The beauty of her breads first presented themselves to me and Food Routes co- creator/owner Stefane Kruger at this year’s Eat Out Produce Awards. Winning the baked goods category with her imaginative, stunningly visual and delicious cabernet mosbolletjies, Pretorius has put herself on the map as a baker to watch.
Working at the famed Babylonstoren farm estate, Pretorius oversees the baking and deli offerings for the Tasting Room. The staff at Babylonstoren is blessed with the support and considerable financial backing of owners Karen Roos and Koos Becker to be able to push the proverbial envelope when it comes to creative culinary endeavors. Recently she travelled to Italy to study cheesmaking and it skills to add to her culinary repertoire.
The farm is dedicated to sustainability and organic practices at all stages of food production and preparation. Here, Pretorius has access to organic wheat, rye and barley grown, harvested and ground on the farm. She bakes her bread in a wood-fired oven that is fueled by wood from invasive alien species. Thoughtfulness and a responsibility to the environment is baked into each and every loaf.
Pretorius’ breads are truly works of art; savory and succulent sculptures. They are so visually stunning that one hesitates to break into them. But once you do you can’t help but devour their deliciousness and experience her artistic flair with flavors she paints upon your palate. To fully appreciate these amazing breads, a trip to Babylonstoren should be at the top of your bucket list. Website: www.babylonstoren.com
THE EDIBLE ART OF KAREN PRETORIUS