Gérard sees pure levain (as he likes to call his starter) as the only way for a baker to truly personalize his bread: if he conducts his fermentation skillfully, no one will ever be able to reproduce the exact same taste. (I say “he” for short but Gérard counts many women bakers among his students and greatly admires them for their energy and resolve, and he is obviously talking about bakers in general).
The fact that a pure levain, defined by Gérard as “a culture of freshly ground organic grains, organic sea salt, and pure well water, patiently tended over several days”, cannot be exactly copied is what makes baking an art and the artisan baker a true artist. Every baker can and should experiment freely to find the aromas that will constitute his signature and Gérard takes great pride and delight in explaining how.
From a technical point of view, pure levain is not harder to make than a poolish for instance (a poolish being a mixture of 50% flour and 50% water fermented with commercial yeast in an amount which is inversely proportional to the duration of the fermentation). It is even easier because it is firmer. The wetter a ferment, the greater the risk to overshoot the acid threshold. To be able to control the type of acids one is looking for, the hydration rate cannot go over 50 to 60%. [Temperature is Gérard’s bakery hovers between 77 and 79ºF/26-27ºC]
I was curious to see if I could create and maintain a levain “à la Gérard” and as I was back in Vermont to work with him on a different project, he offered to show me how to start.
Frankly I was expecting the process to be exacting but a no-brainer since I would be working with an expert. But things never turn out the way we expect them to, do they? And I actually was in for a surprise (at step 3)… So was Gérard. But more on that in another post.
Gérard uses 30% of freshly milled flour (a blend of spring and winter wheat, spelt and rye) both in his final dough and in his levain. So in order to build a levain his way, you need to have access either to a small manual mill or to an electric one. Although he has a big electric mill for large amounts of grains, he prefers to use a small hand mill for the levain as the resulting flour is not only finer but also less hot (which means that more nutrients are preserved):
(Can be found online at Lehman’s Hardware – ref. 30347120, about $50)
For the levain formula, please click here.
To start making a levain à la Gérard, assemble all the ingredients (all-purpose flour, grain blend, salt, malt) and utensils (plastic scraper, parchment paper for weighed ingredients, thermometer, mill, bowl, plastic dough bucket, paper tape, pen), then weigh and aerate the all-purpose flour (unbleached) so that it is later more readily suffused with water:
Mill the grain blend (for proportions, again please refer to the formula). Gérard insists on the importance of waiting until the last possible minute to mill the grains, in order to preserve the maximum number of wild yeast cells present in the grain. These cells are very volatile and disappear fast.
Take the temperature of the room and of the two flours and calculate the required water temperature, the desired temperature for the starter being 80 to 81ºF/27ºC:
In this clip, Gérard says the temperature of the freshly-milled whole-grain flour is 3 degrees warmer than that of the white flour. He doesn’t seem concerned, so I assume it’s fine.
Now comes the time to mix the flours and the malt (not the salt which is added after about one minute of mixing):
The flours are combined…
…and water is added:
Mixing begins and salt is added:
Gérard explains that a tension must be created on the skin of the starter.
Gérard says that the starter is ready when it begins to shine and becomes tacky.
…then place in a plastic container on a mixture of whole grains (again wheat, spelt and rye), coarsely milled to prevent light and air from filtering through.
Cover with another layer of the same mixture (the disc of starter must be entirely buried), close the lid tightly, stick a paper tape on it and jot down the date, the time and the temperature of the starter.