Do you sometimes wish you could eat the landscape? I do. Like babies, I need to taste the world to apprehend it. If that means I am stuck at a pretty archaic stage of personality development, well, so be it! I will readily grant you that I am the oral type. My grandfather probably had a lot to do with it: he had had two sons, one of whom, my uncle, had tragically died of tuberculosis at age 19. My father gave him three grandsons and one granddaughter. My grandfather had never had a little girl in his life before. He fell hard for me.
To be closer to us (we lived in Paris), he and my grandmother moved from Southwestern France (where they were born and had lived all their lives) to Normandy. We went and visited them every weekend, all year-round and in all kinds of weather. Which means that they saw a great deal of us and often while my brothers were playing war games in the wonderfully half-tamed garden, he took me walking. He had made a little wooden basket for me and when we were not looking for eggs in the chicken coop, we wandered the nearby woods and meadows. But we never walked just for exercise or leisure.
Our neighbor, the farmer, had given us access to the land across the road where he pastured his cows and there was a wood at the end of the bramble-hedged lane that went up the hill: I learned to gather baby dandelions (so utterly delicious in a salad that I still yearn for them almost six decades later) and button-mushrooms in the fields, chanterelles and boleti in the forest, blackberries, wild apples, hazelnuts and walnuts on the way back. I can still recall the puckering taste of sloes and the black stain the walnuts left on my hands. And then of course, there were the fruit and vegetables my grandfather grew, the chickens and the rabbits that he raised and the ducks we bought from the farmer, not to mention the milk we went to get every evening in metal milk pans.
The only thing I didn’t really care for was the bread which we bought from a baker who made his rounds in an old van. On the baker’s days off, my grandfather (who by then was already over 80) rode his Solex (a motorized bicycle) three miles away to another village to get it. It wasn’t good either (I guess I was born and raised at the time bread in France took a precipitous turn for the worse).
Well, these days are long gone but for the past couple of months, they were somehow brought back as I wandered the lanes around our new home enjoying the sun (yes, summer can be gorgeous in the Northwest) and picking blackberries. The blackberries were nothing like the ones I remembered from my childhood though. For a start they were generally sweeter (maybe because August had been so sunny) but also, of course, this being America, they were twice the size. But I filled buckets after buckets. I also ate a lot of them.
Walking, eating and picking and fighting my way out of countless thorny grips, I was listening to a French recorded book on my iPod. That book is one of my favorites. I have read it (in print) over and over to the point that I can often guess what is coming at any given moment. It was written in the early years of the 20th century and the action (such as it is) takes place mostly in and around Paris. The writing is gorgeously descriptive and listening to its music along these brambly lanes in the Pacific Northwest had the strange effect of knitting together the past and the present for me. The cadences of the language and the fragrance of the blackberries slowly wove themselves into a new whole and that’s when I knew with absolute certainty that moving here had been the right call.
Just as I can recall with uncanny precision the exact taste of my childhood, I started to yearn for the taste of the landscape around our new home. We joined a CSA where, wonderfully, part and parcel of the weekly share is the freedom to go to the fields and pick the greens, herbs and flowers we want (out came the little wooden basket which I had cherished but not used all these years). We visit farmers’ markets around our home and recently, as you know if you read my previous post, I went to the Kneading Conference West 2011 where I met local bakers, farmers and millers. I bought local organic all-purpose flour from Fairhaven Mill. Having attended Leslie Mackie and Andrew Ross‘ inspiring presentation on baking with barley, I also purchased local organic barley flour.
I was at the farmers’ market the other day when the sight of gorgeous hazelnuts gave me the idea of baking the flavors of the surrounding landscape into what I love best, bread. I purchased some hazelnuts as well as a quart of honeycrisp unpasteurized cider and I went home. I had previously bought delicately flavored blackberry honey from a local beekeeper who sells through the CSA but I decided against caramelizing the hazelnuts with it. I didn’t want a sweet bread. I wanted a clean-tasting loaf where the soul of the levain would soar to the accompanying music of the roasted hazelnuts and the tang of the cider. I wanted a bread, not a dessert. And that’s what I got.
The fermented taste is mysterious and almost inebriating in its complexity. The flavors of the barley and the cider do not really shine through but they definitely contribute to the whole as by themselves, wheat and hazelnuts would never have yielded such aromas.
I imagine there are endless variations on the theme of the local loaf and I might look for others as the seasons change. I’d love to know which ones you would come up with to define your own landscape if you felt so inclined and didn’t mind sharing.
Meanwhile I am sitting by the fire staring at the rain which has finally come and thinking of the many ways in which my corner of the Pacific Northwest reminds me of Normandy. As for the blackberry honey, it is incomparably delicious on a slice of the landscape…
Ingredients (for 2 loaves):
- 585 g all-purpose flour
- 60 g barley flour
- 387 g water
- 97 g unpasteurized honeycrisp cider (*see note below)
- 194 g liquid levain (at 100% hydration)
- 100 g hazelnuts (roasted for 10 minutes, rubbed together to remove skins and roughly chopped)
- 13 g sea salt
- * Note: what this farmer calls cider is basically apple juice. It has no alcoholic contents whatsoever. What I did though was to keep it unopened in the refrigerator for a week before using it. By then it had reached the stage where, with the boost of the levain fermentation during the slow rising of the dough, it started fermenting in earnest. At least that’s how I explain the slightly boozy taste of this bread. Maybe a scientist would see it differently…
- Mix flours and water until combined and let rest for 45 minutes (autolyse)
- Add levain and salt and mix until medium soft consistency is achieved
- Add cider and mix until absorbed (I had to put the dough into the mixer at that stage and mix on high for a couple of minutes until the dough came off the sides of the bowl)
- Add the hazelnuts and mix on slow for a few minutes until combined
- Set the dough to ferment for as long as it takes for it to stop springing back quickly when poked with a finger
- Divide the dough in two, pre-shape as boules, shape and score as desired (I did one boule, one batard)
- Pre-heat oven to 470°F/243°C
- When loaves are fully proofed (the dough no longer springs back quickly when poked), bake at 470°F/243°C with steam for 10 minutes, lower temperature to 450°F/232°C, bake another 10 minutes, turn the loaves around if necessary and bake another 12 to 15 minutes or until their internal temperature reaches about 210°F/99°C
- Cool on a rack.