In his Four Quartets, T.S. Eliot wrote a quartet of lines that captures one elemental truth about the human journey, about how the only true personal transformation that matters is to understand there isn't one, that all there is to life is yourself and that around yourself:
"We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time."
Before both of Gordon Ramsay's restaurants opened in New York City, the restaurants' executive chef, Neil Ferguson, and I would sit around, often past midnight sitting on hotel function-room chairs, talking about food. Specifically, bread.
Ferguson, a soft-spoken, elven man with noticeably British teeth, used to run the pastry department at L'Arpège, a three-Michelin-starred restaurant known for serving the most expensive menu in Paris, and it's mostly buttered vegetables on discus-sized, art-deco plates.
Like me, he loved bread, and at Arpège they made a rustic miche in-house (at the time, as Alain Passard, the owner and chef, has since worked with two separate artisan bakers to develop a house loaf). I, of course, used this conversation to try and reverse-engineer their method and formula, and, at one point while I mentioned something in French, Neil's eyes lit up. He often speaks while drawing an inward lisp of air through his teeth, and over the saliva on his tongue: His eyes had lit up at the word alveole, as he began to remember many instances of a crazed Passard fanatically hovering over, jamming his index finger at the oven doors where, just inside, freshly-loaded breads began to puff up at the sudden increase in temperature. Les alveoles!, he remembered Passard screaming, happily, verbally projecting his wish for huge, irregular holes to worm throughout the bread's insides.
Coincidentally, Passard also seemed to yell the same sort of thing for souffles, millefeuilles, and pretty much anything else that rises during baking.
Bread stands out for me because, no matter what job I have had and no matter what circumstances life has thrown me, it has always been in my life as a constant. If working as a pastry chef, I would always somehow figure out a way to take over the bread program, and, if one did not exist, one would magically be created. Same if I've worked as a chef: restaurants that didn't need a bread program suddenly got a bread program. Even when I first started working in the hospitality industry as a barista, well, breads would somehow appear.
I love bread. It is my favourite food. It has been this way since I was a child. Upon hearing prisoners were only fed a diet of water and bread, I surmised that jail must be kind of cool.
I was raised in Texas, eating what most good bakers would call bad bread: Wonder Bread, Popeye’s buttermilk biscuits, Lender’s Frozen Bagels, Sam’s Club bulk croissants, Little Caeser’s Crazy Bread, glazed doughnuts before church every Sunday morning; basically, Houston during the 1980’s.
Some time ago I hopped across the equator, and landed in Australia. I have always wanted to live some place where all the ingredients I needed for bread and pizza grew around me. I have ended up in such a place, a place I chose to settle down for bread alone. Now there are other, wonderful circumstances tying me here (children that talk funny), but I am very lucky to have found my place in the world.
I would like to think that I always return to bread, but this isn't the case. Bread always stays with me. Literally. I'm referring to a bacterium funnily named Lactobacillus sanfranciscensis, as it was first isolated and thought to be characteristic of San Francisco and its famed sourdough.
Researchers still scratch their heads over its origins, as it has never been isolated outside of an environment other than properly-maintained sourdoughs. But, as we will later learn on this blog, just by making and eating this kind of bread, a baker engages in a relationship that likely dates back tens of thousands of years, a tradition that can only be carried forward if we, as a species, continue to bake and then eat this kind of bread.
That is bread's existential Catch-22: it cannot and would not exist apart from us, as humans. This sort of paradox is often forgotten by those who talk about foods that are natural. Terroir is only terroir because of the human element; if we are taken away from the equation, you end up with wild grapes.
This blog is for anybody and everybody who wants to make and eat bread.
The content of this blog will be diverse, but most if it follows a general rubric.
For understanding bread specifically, as something we bake and eat, there will be two considerations that will be explored over time: the in's and out's of breads, or, in baker's terms, a dough's fermentation and rheology. Within each of these there will be an exploration of all the significant parameters that affect both a dough's fermentation and/or rheology. These will be each then be sub-divided into methods and materials, along with an understanding of their impacts during processing on the categories above them.
The other elements of this blog will be to answer the sorts of questions I have never seen answered in any bread or baking book, all based upon the latest cereal- and baking-sciences to date; extensive how-to's, practical tips, tricks and guides; interviews with a wide-variety of bakers, from professional to home-based; and, lastly, the development of an online model that can hopefully be transformed into a universal bread-engine, where every formula and possible parameter can be input, stored and eventually interpreted so that we, as bakers, can begin to build a more in-depth understanding of bread's how's and why's, hopefully all at our fingertips, digitally-accessible, and as quick to predict an input outcome as a calculator. This last consideration is also the biggest hurdle, as nothing of its kind exists. Of course, as a former pastry chef, too, I would love to create a universal bakepedia, of the sort described above but capable of mapping, describing and predicting an outcome for all baked goods.
Danny Meyer, owner of my favourite restaurant in New York, once said: "All boats rise with the tide."
I believe in sharing as much as possible.
The only way I have become, and continue to become, a better baker is through other people sharing their knowledge and time. I hope this project, one dedicated to the art of breadmaking, becomes bigger than just one person and one kind of bread.
Because, quite literally, I love all bread. This does not mean there will not be a limit of scope to this blog's content. It will, in the beginning, concern itself with two methods of fermentation (alcoholic- and lactic-acid-) and two types of tall-grasses, wheat and rye, as these are responsible for what I consider to be the best kind of bread there is, and, also, I have to start somewhere.
I hope you all have a crumby day.