First book in a long time to make me me laugh out loud! William Alexander makes the quest for the perfect crust (crumb, actually, since he spends the better part of one year trying to get holes in his bread) sound both like the single-minded obsession of a slightly demented home baker (when he isn’t baking, Alexander is director of technology at a research institute) and a somewhat comical endeavor which ends up involving the whole family one way or another.
Having heard that the secret to authentic French bread is authentic French spring water, he goes out and buys a bottle of Evian, “delivered straight from the French Alps,” fully expecting that his bread, “once liberated from its chlorinated, acidic manacles, would rise in the oven like a soufflé, tasting of the Alps, evoking the character of Jean-Paul Belmondo and the eroticism of Brigitte Bardot.” But even if it had done so (and it hadn’t), it wouldn’t have satisfied him. Carbon footprint aside, “I wanted my bread to have that terrroir, the taste of the land, and when the Hudson Valley wheat growing in my garden matured, I wanted to bake it with Hudson Valley water.”
Yes, growing in his garden, you read that correctly. Not satisfied with flour that could be bought at the supermarket, Alexander had decided to grow his own wheat (from scratch, literally) and, with the help of his wife, Anne, a medical doctor, planted four beds of winter wheat.
Discovering how he and his family dealt with the harvesting (“after a few useless swings with my old, rusty scythe – essentially a sickle on a long pole – I went into the basement and emerged with my not-quite-as-rusty hedge shears,”) the threshing (first with an old broom, then with a shovel, then with a mallet), the winnowing (first relying on the wind to separate the wheat from the chaff, then resorting to more technologically advanced solutions) and the milling (using an Indian artifact grindstone), not to mention the efforts which went into building a brick-oven, makes for fun and instructive reading.
Along the way, the author reviews the history of bread, learns about the various types of flour, reflects on the link between bread and religion, researches the origin of pellagra, a mystery disease that has disappeared in our part of the world thanks to the systematic addition of niacin to white flour, muses about modern milling, deals a swift blow to bread machines (they seem “to have been designed to reproduce not artisan bread but commercial bread, the cellophane-wrapped kind”) and has with levain an encounter that changes his life. He actually becomes so attached to his that he takes it with him to France: his description of how he gets it through security at JFK is most entertaining. My only reservation about the book has to do with the frequent asides about the author’s libido which, I suspect, were put in to make the book more appealing to a general public perceived as having voyeuristic tendencies (although I don’t know that voyeurs would rush to purchase a book entitled 52 loaves).
When the book begins, Alexander’s loaves are so dense his kids refuse to slice them themselves, “it was so difficult – not to mention hazardous,” but they eat them anyway and say they are pretty good, unwittingly irritating their Dad who deems them “lousy” (the loaves, not his kids!). Deeply unsatisfied with his bread, he resolves to take a scientific approach, to read books and to talk to bakers.
He thus discovers preferments, learns the merits of gently folding the dough instead of punching it down à la Julia Child, visits yeast factories, goes to baking school in Paris (at the Ritz, no less), flies from Paris to Morocco to bake his bread in a communal oven (Alexander’s description of his stay in Asilah is both hilarious and moving) and, last but not least, spends a few days at Saint-Wandrille Abbey in Normandy where he has been asked to teach the monks the forgotten art of bread-baking.
I love the author’s description of all things French, from the quirky way general strikes operate (they start the evening before the declared date) to the invariably cheerful tone used by hotel clerks to deny a tourist’s legitimate requests. Of course, being French, I don’t get the cheerful tone when in France, just the un-helpfulness, so, unbeknownst to him, he actually has it better than the natives! (Just kidding, readers!)
Alexander fares better with the monks than with hotel clerks. Not being particularly religious himself (“Would you call yourself an atheist, Dad?” asks his teenage daughter. “Not as long as Grandma’s alive”, replies the author as he kneads), he expected his experience at the Abbey to be one of an outsider looking in but it turns out quite different.
After the first bake, he goes for a long walk: “I had been out for two hours, and not once had I encountered another living soul. The thoughts occurred to me that I was more likely to encounter God. Not that I really expected to, but it did, for the first and only time in my life, seem possible in this ancient , otherwordly place to realize some kind of divine experience: a vision, a voice, an epiphany. I stayed on my toes, alert to His presence, but all I could see were the timeless ruins, the sparkling stream, flowers and herbs, fruit trees heavy with ripe apples and pears, birds chirping in the trees, church bells ringing in the distance, all of it drenched in that incredible Norman sunshine, and, above all, perfect, transcendental solitude.”
He devises for the monks a bread that can be made without compromising their attendance at the seven daily offices, the performance of their tasks and their participation in study groups, the “pain de l’Abbaye Saint-Wandrille“.