I was surprised to read that, in the first step, Poilâne recommends leaving the future levain (50% hydration) to ferment for 48 to 72 hours at 72-75 º F/22-24 ºC, either in a tightly covered bowl or entirely wrapped in a floured towel. After that length of time, it should have grown by 1/4 and be hole-ridden. It is then mixed with flour and water and left to ferment again for 24 to 48 hours. After that, it will have grown by 1/3, have a spongy appearance and be ready to make bread.
Gérard’s method is a tad more involved, to say the least! The second step takes place 22 to 24 hours after the initial build. We took the container down (it had been sitting high on a shelf where the bakery is warmest), opened it and took a long sniff. The contents smelled wheaty and clean. Gérard brushed aside the coarsely milled grain and the disc of starter appeared. It was encrusted with a layer of dry flour and coarsely milled grain and long cracks had formed at the surface (the starter is ready for the second step when these cracks are at least one-inch long). It looked pretty lively:
Gérard folded back the crust and judged its thickness satisfactory:
While the crust was softening in the water, I measured out the salt and the malt and milled the blend of wheat, spelt and rye berries (see formula for exact amounts).
When the crust was soft enough (it took about 15 minutes), Gérard used an immersion blender to mix it with the water.
Then we mixed the starter with the flours and the malt, folded it over and over, added the salt and ended up with a plump ball again.
Then we put it to ferment on top of the shelf again. After about one hour, it had already moved considerably. We sniffed it. It smelled delicious. Two hours later it had more than doubled its size and was nicely domed. Gérard said: “Let’s wait another hour. It should have tripled by then”. So we waited and when I got back to check it, I had a nasty shock.
It had flat-lined on us and its level was noticeable lower than an hour earlier. We opened the bucket. The levain had turned oily. No hole were visible. Completely limp, it poured out like cream. However no weird smell suggested a harmful bacteria was at work and the taste was normal.
Pandemonium ensued as Gérard went into emergency mode. Sorry, no action pictures! First of all I didn’t have the presence of mind to take any, then even if I had thought of it, I couldn’t have as he was giving orders as a captain aboard a sinking ship.
Soon I was running around milling wheat, spelt and rye berries, measuring water temperature and basically doing everything but mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to the ailing levain. In a nutshell, what Gérard decided to do was to feed it only freshly milled whole grains until it started acting normal again. That meant a lot of fresh flour to mill and to sift. Malt needed to be added, etc.
After two such feedings (no specific time-frame: each time, we waited until the levain had more than doubled to feed it again), it looked decidedly better, albeit still on the gooey side.
He had had a delivery of all-purpose flour the day the levain fell ill and he had used this new flour in his dough. Since he had loved the way it handled in the first batch, he had told me to use it for the levain as well. Now he suspected the flour was the culprit. He asked me to check the code number on the bag.
The code was 353, which meant that the flour had been milled on the 353rd day of the year, i.e. on December 28. January 6 was the day of the incident with the levain and the dough. The flour was nine days old! Not old enough to be used for bread-baking if fermentation was to last longer than 4 hours.
The levain had been gorgeous until the four-hour mark, then had slumped. According to Gérard, his batch of dough had been okay because fermentation had lasted three hours. He surmised he would have been in trouble past the four-hour mark.
I would need to do some reading to grasp the science behind what happened. But I remember from my classes at SFBI that flour needs to age for about 3 weeks after milling: the oxydation that occurs during this aging period improves the stability and resistance of the proteins present in the flour. A flour that hasn’t aged properly makes an over-elastic dough which tends to grow “flat” and to stick. Flatness, stickiness and over-elasticity are certainly the right words to describe our levain after we started using the immature flour.
I still find it absolutely striking that a dough that seemed to be literally bursting at the seams and ready to dance out of its container should fall back and slump in the space of an hour. It was nothing short of a spectacular event (for a levain aficionado, I mean, as I don’t think the movie would have won me an Oscar even if I had been at the ready with my camera).
The flour we milled on the spot didn’t have time to mature either but it contained a healthy dose of protein-rich spring wheat to help with tenacity and enough wild yeast to breathe a new life into the dough. The addition of malt meant that the yeast would have enough food during the fermentation process.
I learned from this whole incident that a levain which behaves strangely isn’t sick and ready for the trash as long as it doesn’t smell or taste funny.
I also learned that things are way more interesting when they go wrong…