The recipe for this bread was devised by William Alexander during his stay at Saint-Wandrille Abbey in Normandy. As related in his book, 52 loaves, the monks had been baking their own bread for ages but their baker had left two years earlier and since none of the remaining monks possessed the necessary skills, they were happy to have a baker come and make "un peu de pain pour la communauté" (some bread for the community). They wrote that they would also be grateful if their helpful guest could show one of them how to make bread.
Not feeling qualified enough, Alexander almost wrote back to say he couldn't possibly live up to the monks' expectations but then he reflected: "I wasn't just being asked to train a monk or to bake some bread; I was being asked to repair a broken thirteen-hundred-year old chain, to return fresh bread to this abbey, to reignite a tradition what had tragically been extinguished. It was an opportunity to repay a debt, to do for this abbey what the abbeys of Europe once did for the rest of us - keep knowledge alive during dark times...." You've got to love a man who thinks like that!
Once at the Abbey, he discovered the monks were reluctant to commit to the rigorous feeding schedule of a levain (although I wonder why... What did the monks use in the old days but levain?). They agreed however to feed the one he had brought them on the nights preceding baking days. Alexander didn't argue, he adapted his recipe for fresh yeast (with a bit of levain thrown it for flavor) and, two years later, at the writing of the book, the monks were still baking his bread three days a week and hadn't gone back to the local baker. They even asked for brioche and croissant recipes!
If their village baker made bread that was anything like the one we sampled last year in France near Bourg-en-Bresse, I fully understand why the monks were calling for help. We had stopped for breakfast in a tiny village on our way to visit an old mill. The owner of the café told us that she didn't have any bread but that we could cross the street and buy some from the bakery and that she would happily provide us with butter and jam.
So I went to the bakery where I observed with amazement voluminous loaves which looked like oval balloons: the label said they weighed 1-kg but they were gigantic. Logically they should have weighed much more. I bought a half-baguette which I brought back to the café. We tried it. It was very white and bland and its texture recalled that of cotton candy. Apparently the village baker had mastered the dubious art of producing the worst possible kind of French bread by using no preferment and mixing the dough at high speed.
The café owner saw our faces and she said: "Well, now you understand why I don't have any bread to offer you. Not only is the bread pretty bad but it goes stale so fast that if I buy it before 9 AM, I have to go back to the bakery before lunch hour begins and still my customers complain! Unfortunately we are stuck with it as he is the only baker in the village."
Well, the monks were lucky enough to have all necessary (albeit rather old-fashioned) baking equipment on the premises and their determination to go back to "real" bread paid off. The "pain de l'Abbaye" is of the quiet variety (just like them) but it delivers. It has lovely rustic undertones, thanks to the addition of whole wheat and whole rye, and the combination of poolish and levain gives it a satisfying complexity. It rises beautifully in the oven and bakes to a ruddy burnish.
I baked a big batch as I needed bread to give away, to bring to a party and to freeze and I had fun with the shaping and the stenciling.
Alexander reports that the monks insisted on a blunt-end cylinder shape with no points "so that everyone gets the same-size piece". I guess the monks are nothing but egalitarian! I didn't have the same concern (some of us - meaning myself - love the pointy ends while some others - meaning my significant other - don't - how lucky is that!), so the blunt shape wasn't a requirement. I tried however to make my ends as rounded as possible. I had to make my loaves shorter than the monks' as my oven is rather small and they ended up stubbier.
As it is, I settled on 7 680-g loaves (raw weight): 4 short and fat bâtards and 3 boules (one of the boules weighed a tad more, 710 g, I think). Only six loaves can be seen on the photos as one was given away while still warm from the oven. The last loaf was rather overproofed even though I had tried to delay things by putting the dough to ferment in the cool basement. The day was pretty hot and incipient summer weather does make a huge difference in fermentation time.
William Alexander has kindly allowed me to post the original recipe (which is in the book but not on his website). The recipe you'll find below is my adaptation. I used all organic flours and grains.(I used King Arthur's)
267 g high-extraction flour (I used La Milanaise's sifted flour)
111 g freshly milled whole wheat flour (red hard winter)
56 g freshly milled rye flour
834 g water
15 g fresh yeast
1,433 g all-purpose flour
223 g freshly milled whole wheat flour
112 g freshly milled rye flour
154 g high-extraction flour
1,012 g water
334 g mature levain (100% hydration) (originally a 42% whole-grain firm levain based on a mixture of wheat, spelt and rye, changed into a liquid levain and fed once with high-extraction flour the night before the bake)
all of the poolish
31 g fresh yeast
54 g sea salt
- I pretty much followed the indications given by Alexander in the original recipe, except that I did the autolyse before adding the salt (salt tightens the gluten networks, slowing down their development, which is the opposite of what the autolyse is supposed to achieve. See Hamelman's Bread, page 9). Alexander may have the monks add it earlier so that they don't forget it later (as happened to him once).
- I also did one fold after one hour and another one 30 minutes later. I also baked at 475 F instead of 500 as my oven gets really hot and at 500 F, the bread turns dark before it is fully baked.