Time has come for a return visit to the bakery on the hill and to the maestro whose life’s work is to charm wild yeasts out of plain bags of flour and grains and choreograph them into intricate ballets of flavors and aromas.
Save for the colors of the season, the landscape hasn’t changed: the pond still stares at the sky, the girl still dances on her bluff and the trees are as watchful as ever.
The dogs romp in the meadow, there is enough wood near the house to feed the oven for months on end… No, not much has changed indeed since my last visit to this corner of northern Vermont.
But the baker himself, ah, the baker remains a moving target. What he is seeking in his endless quest no one can really tell, maybe not even himself.
In the three years I have known Gérard (only three years and yet I feel as if I had known him all my life), he has changed almost everything in his formula, changed his levain, changed his methods, changed his timeline. The bread is indeed better than it ever was but that’s incidental. He will never get where he’s going but that’s fine. If he did, all light would fade away from life.
In this seemingly changeless environment, what keeps the baker going is change. Not change for change’s sake, mind you! Change because nothing actually ever stays the same: temperature and humidity go up and down, protein and enzymes differ from one bag of flour to the next, customers call and ask for big holes in the crumb, others request a denser crumb (“I don’t want to wear a bib when I eat my toast and marmalade”), others yet follow variations in the taste of the levain as sports fans follow a favorite team (“What did you do to your bread? I love it, keep it that way!” or “I liked last week’s better”), they ask for more whole grains, for less whole grains. They are a vocal bunch and bread to them is definitely not the squishy stuff that comes in a plastic bag on the supermarket shelf. Their bread carries Gérard’s signature and they like it that way. They queue up at the stores. Peter, the man in charge of the deliveries, says people wait in the parking lot for his van. They follow him into the store and wait while a price label is affixed to the bag, then they make their move.
The breads on the left haven’t been bagged yet as they are still too warm. They will be before they get to the store.
Gérard could sell much more bread that he currently does, except that he can’t because it would be physically impossible for him to bake much more than 150 loaves a day five days a week. He learned that lesson from the stroke that left him temporarily paralyzed and permanently disabled six years ago (he used to bake seven days a week). But as he sees it, the most important part of a baker’s job is making good bread every day for local customers (his “friends and neighbors” as he calls them). Never mind expanding…
Fame knocks at his door now and then but he sends it on its way. Gérard’s bread was recently featured in Saveur magazine’s round-up of the best breads in America and when I saw a picture of one of his loaves in the print version of the article (the online version is a crumb shot and I have no clue whether or not it is indeed his), I gasped and picked up the phone: “Gérard, what happened? The bread looks awful!” He chuckled: “Yes, they requested that bread be sent to them for a photoshoot but it arrived too late. The shots were done. So they asked my permission to use just any bread picture and I said, fine. I don’t care, I am not selling bread across America. My neighbors are whom I bake for and they know my bread”…
What you’ll find below is a snapshot of Gérard’s current process and the thinking behind it. Consider it as a moment frozen in time. It will have changed again by the time I go back.
- Gérard currently uses 12% freshly milled whole-grain flours in his everyday bread (as opposed to close to about 30% when I first met him). He says his customers have asked for a less rustic crumb
- This whole grain consists entirely of spelt right now but he will switch to half-spelt and half- hard red winter wheat when the harvest is in and he can get Warthog wheat again from Vermont farmer Jack Lazor as the flavor of that wheat is simply extraordinary*
- Gérard originally creates his levain from 50% wheat and 50% rye. After the very first feeding, he only uses all-purpose flour (AP)
- He switched to an all-white levain because he wanted more elasticity. He had had some issues with his previous levain tearing and decided to give priority to texture over taste (not that the taste is any less complex and marvelous, just different)
- He keeps it at 57% hydration
- The smallest amount Gérard ever mixes (his old Hobart doesn’t take less) is: 700 g AP flour, 400 g water, 300 g levain and 6 g salt. That is the first build, always
- Feeding a levain again as soon as it doubles helps create anywhere from 15 to 30% more wild yeast cells. In Gérard’s experience, the first time, the levain doubles in four hours, the second time 20 to 30 minutes faster and the third time, 40 minutes to one hour faster than the first time. That’s when the levain is at its peak
- With such a levain, it is possible to make croissant dough with very little butter using whole grains
- Currently the levain‘s schedule is as follows: first feed at 8:30 PM, second feed at 5:00 AM, third feed at 3:40 PM (for a 9:30 PM autolyse and a 10:15 PM mixing)
- A baker who normally feeds his or her levain a percentage of whole grains must put it on an all-white diet before storing it in the fridge or it might ferment too much and develop unwanted acids
- Uses all of the water in formula
- Duration: 30 minutes at least and up to 6 hours if desired/necessary
- Takes place at room temperature which, in Gérard’s case, is usually in the high 70’s
- It takes a while to calculate dough hydration taking the texture of the levain into account. A levain that is too flexible will result in a dough that will need one or two folds to be strong enough
- A six-hour autolyse only reduces later fermentation time by about 40 minutes but makes the dough silkier. An added benefit is that the dough can be mixed right away when the baker arrives at the bakery. Of course in a professional setting, it usually only works for the first batch as the mixer is needed for other doughs
- Flour and water should be mixed for less than 3 minutes (first speed). Don’t mix until the dough becomes homogenous: you want unaggregated lumps that will not hamper gluten formation. The resulting crumb will be softer
- Gluten will develop by itself over time. The baker’s role is to make sure that a maximum of water hydrates the amount of flour in the formula. Once the flour is hydrated, the mixing must stop immediately
- If the levain is flexible enough, it should incorporate in no time
- Once the levain is fully incorporated and dough turns shiny (it takes less than 3 minutes), add the salt
- Mixing is always done in first speed (Gérard has disabled the second speed on his mixer to make sure it wouldn’t be used)
- 3 minutes maximum for the autolyse
- 3 minutes maximum to incorporate the levain
- 3 minutes maximum to incorporate the salt
- Ideally these times should be further reduced if possible
- Once the levain and the salt are incorporated, the dough is transferred to the wooden fermentation box where it remains for a minimum of 4.5 hours (room temp: about 78°F)
- Generally speaking Gérard only does one fold and it happens post-bulk fermentation after transferring the dough to his worktable (and if possible without overlapping the folds)
- The exception is when the baker has over hydrated the dough thinking the flour was very high in protein when in fact the protein level was inferior or the quality of the protein poor. The resulting dough is runny and folding is a way of strengthening it
- Gérard starts dividing the first batch at 3:30 AM
- He scales at 800 g
- He pre-shapes the divided dough and lets fermentation start again by allowing the dough to rest for at least 30 minutes and up to one hour (if room temperature is cool)
- Gérard likes to keep the dough in its pre-shaped form for at least 45 minutes: he finds it easier to work with afterwards and gets better results
- If room temperature is around 78 to 80°F, the ideal is to allow the pre-shaped dough to rest for one hour
- This lengthy rest enables the baker to give the dough any shape he or she wants afterwards. It works better if the dough hasn’t been pre-shaped as a boule however: in boule form, fermentation would go too fast
- A lengthy pre-shaped rest enables the baker to decrease proofing time
- After a 40-minute rest, Gérard gives the dough its final shape
- The shaped dough is transferred to flour-dusted couches
- Proofing is the third stage in the fermentation process (levain + bulk + proofing)
- A good way of knowing when proofing is done is to apply two fingers on the dough (with very little pressure). If the imprint of the fingers doesn’t bounce back and remains on the dough, proofing is done. If the imprint disappears right away, proofing isn’t over
- Total fermentation time depends on the liveliness of the levain and the amount used in the formula: the less levain in the dough, the longer the total fermentation time. For a dough containing 25 to 30% levain, proofing lasts about two hours (the longer the dough rests in its pre-shaped form, the shorter the proofing)
- Gérard no longer retard the proofing loaves (as he started doing last time I was there). He says he prefers to stay away from newfangled methods of making bread as the traditional way has always worked for him. Switching trays of bread from a warm room to a cold room and back to warm is also too physically demanding to make it worthwhile: Gérard currently has no help in the middle of the night. Peter only comes in in the morning to carry the trays of bread to the oven and back and to take care of bagging and delivering
- The first batch of bread goes into the oven at 8:00-8:30 AM
- Oven temperature is between 485 and 525°F
- Gérard “power washes” the sole of the oven with water before he starts loading (in the winter when air is very dry he also adds steam). But his oven has no venting system and the thirty-six breads he bakes together lose 10 to 12% of their weight when baking, thus providing enough humidity
- Gérard scores his bread holding his lame at a 30° angle. His cuts are very shallow and he never lifts the skin of the dough. What he’s shooting for is a very thin crust with hardly a grigne (grigne is French for an ear in the crust)
- For an 800 g bread (raw dough), baking time is 35 minutes.