Last Friday, Chad Robertson came to Village Books in Bellingham, Washington, ninety minutes or so north of Seattle, to talk about his latest book, Tartine Book No. 3. I had been eagerly looking forward to this talk by the owner of Tartine Bakery in San Francisco, California, and maybe the most famous baker in America today. Yet, because Chad is a shining star in the home bakers’ firmament (and home bakers formed a large part of the audience), I also vaguely expected to meet a celebrity bent on promoting both himself and his book. I couldn’t have been more wrong. The evening turned out not to be about Chad or even his book. It was about grain, bakers, millers and farmers and all that goes into the making of a loaf of bread. Chad himself came across as endearingly unassuming. There is something meditative and quietly centered about him and I was reminded of “the solitary baking trance” he alluded to in the introduction to his first bread book when describing his quest for “a certain loaf with an old soul.” The old soul is very possibly Chad’s himself.
Chad hadn’t come alone. He had brought with him Stephen Jones, Director of Western Washington State University Mount Vernon Research and Extension Center and Jonathan McDowell, resident baker at WSU’s Bread Lab. The panel was moderated by film producer JD McLelland, whose documentary The Grain Divide is due for release this summer.
Chad recalled that at the time he was learning his trade, most bakers focused exclusively on fermentation, not grain variety, to achieve flavor. However the master bakers he apprenticed with, both in the United States and in France, were already working with wholegrain flours and using a range of grains and seeds in their quest for taste. When he struck out on his own, his first goal was to achieve the bread he could see and savor in his mind: dark with a blistered crust and an open crumb. Thousands of loaves later, he had streamlined the technique into a single basic recipe relying mostly -but not only- on white flour to achieve the perfect balance of flavor and acidity. This recipe could be adjusted to produce a broad variety of breads. Tartine Bread, published in 2010, aimed to give home bakers the tools they needed to make such bread at home.
But whole grains had remained very much on Chad’s mind and he was eager to see if, using as a springboard what he had learned over the years, he could now take his baking in another direction. He traveled to Northern Europe where he was utterly surprised by the vitality of the food scene and by the close interaction between bakers and farmers. The farmers were bringing back heirloom varieties of wheat and rye, crossing them with new ones, selecting on flavor and baking properties. Invited to bake, he discovered that his techniques worked really well with these grains. He observed the same phenomenon in Germany and in other parts of Europe and came back home discouraged at the thought that the extraordinary variety of grains Danish bakers had at their disposal was unavailable in his own country. Little did he imagine when he decided to come up and visit the Bread Lab two months ago that he would find his Copenhagen in Mt Vernon, Washington.
Steve Jones pointed out that growing wheat in Washington was about both flavor and a sense of place. At the Bread Lab, there is no commodity wheat, no plastic-wrapped bread. The grain comes from local farmers. It has a face. In 2013, bread milled from grain grown north of Lynden, Washington, was served at two White House events. A sound grain economy is part of the process of making nutritious and flavorful bread available to a larger public: the farmer needs to make a living as do the miller and the baker. The role of the Extension Center is to help make this economy viable as well as to look at flavor. Chefs all care about nutrition but they care even more about taste.
JD McLelland remarked that when he set out to make his documentary two years ago, he intended to focus on the grain movement afoot in Arizona and to produce a thirty-minutes video. Then he started looking at what was happening in other states (the Carolinas, California, Vermont, Utah, Massachusetts, New York, Washington, etc.), traveled to the United Kingdom and Denmark, among other countries, and ended up with a much broader understanding of the current search for real and viable solutions to the “grain divide” (separating industrial and heirloom grains). Grain is a very important part of our economy as well as of our diet. The burgeoning grain movement seeks to promote education as a way of reducing the learning curve for farmers sowing the “new” varieties. It also aims to boost taste and nutrition. The people at the Bread Lab are pioneers. They are the only ones doing merging science and art by doing research on seeds and calling on bakers, millers and farmers to collaborate on solutions.
Chad plans to come back to the Bread Lab as often as he can, possibly every few weeks, not only to help facilitate research on texture and flavor but also because he finds the Bread Lab to be a huge source of inspiration in his own work: in the past few days, for instance, he saw Jonathan McDowell, the resident baker, sift some bran out of freshly milled whole wheat flour, soak it to soften it, then incorporate it in the dough during the mixing process. It worked beautifully: the resulting crumb was more open. In the same way, the Bread Lab has started applying beer-brewing techniques to bread-making, notably by malting the grain. Food for thought as Chad is working to take his baking to yet another level. Also the Bread Lab has access to eight different kinds of mills, which makes it easier to figure out how milling affects nutrition, baking properties, etc. In other words, Chad himself can only learn from being closely involved.
A period of questions and answers followed. Someone asked Chad what he meant by “high-hydration bread.” He replied that any dough using 80 to 90 (or more) units of water for 100 units of flour (for instance, 800 to 900 grams of water for 1,000 g of flour) was considered high-hydration. A high hydration facilitates a more active fermentation and when baked, a more thorough gelatinization of the starches, which makes the bread more digestible (according to his mentor Richard Bourdon who liked to say you wouldn’t cook a cup of rice in half-a-cup of water). A wet dough is also easier to hand-mix.
Another home baker asked about the shelf-life of flour. Chad explained that freshly milled flour ferments faster. That’s what he uses at home. At the bakery, the flour is two- to three-week old. But he is hoping to start incorporating a small percentage of freshly milled flour into his breads. Someone like Dave Miller (whom Chad worked for a long time ago) mills and mixes immediately. Working with fresh flours is well worth it.
Jonathan McDowell chimed in that with whole wheat flour, you do have to watch out for rancidity (off-smell and loss of flavor). Bakers come to the Bread Lab from all over the country to do testing. King Arthur bakers had found that freshly milled flour had best flavor but second best performance. One-month old flour performs the best but with skilled hands, you can do better with fresh milled as well. One-to-two-week old flour does not yield satisfactory results. One thing to keep in mind is that the fresher the flour the more nutrients it contains. Refrigeration and freezing help prolong shelf-life (as long as the flour is in an airtight container). White flour is conditioned for a long shelf life.
Samples were past around of Chad’s barley porridge bread (baking with porridge makes it possible to use grains that have little or no gluten and still make bread) and of wholegrain breads made with wheat (Renan and Edison varieties) grown in Washington. All were extraordinarily tasty. The barley bread was almost moist.
Chad said he and his team were already at work on their next book. Book-writing has become an essential creative tool. It motivates bakers and chefs to find new ways to do things and to seek new flavors. The bakery and Bar Tartine, the restaurant, play off each other. The restaurant has its own small bread oven where the chefs have a totally different inspiration from the bakers at the bakery. The synergy and the writing hugely propel creativity. Tartine Book No 3 was two-and-a-half years in the making: it was meant as a continuation of Tartine Breads. The next book will pick up where the last one let off. Good bakeries in the San Francisco area produce ten thousand loaves a day. Tartine Bakery makes two hundred and fifty. Chad’s interest doesn’t lie in volume: it lies in finding other ways to make tasty and nutritious bread available to more people, even if they have to bake it themselves. Judging by the long line of book owners queueing up for his signature, the message is coming across…
Gail Nickel-Kailing says
Thanks so much for giving us a view into the event. I was sooooo sorry I had to miss it, but at a certain age it's not a good idea to drive so late at night to get back from an event like this.
I could give Steve and Jonathan a big hug – they are helping us all understand what we had generations ago and what we can have again!
Hello Gail, so sorry I didn't know you needed a ride! It is indeed a long drive and late at night with pouring rain, it is certainly better to err on the side of caution. Still I wish I had known…
The event organizer said the event would be broadcast on two local radio stations. I wrote to ask which ones but didn't hear back. If I ever find out, I will let you know.
All the best, MC
Il Chicco e la Spiga says
Cara Farine, i tuoi reportage sono sempre estremamente istruttivi, ben scritti e riportanti foto impeccabili.
Volevo porti una domanda da tanto tempo: se lo spettacolare e rinomato pane Americano ti piace così tanto, come hai fatto gentile signora Francese a non sentire la mancanza di un prodotto dalla bontà inimitabile e straordinaria come la Baguette?
Sono tipologie di pane così diverse, estremamente buone entrambe ma, la Baguette è la Baguette!
Ti mando un abbraccio dalla Toscana e dal nostro "Pane sciapo".
A presto anna giordani
Good question! I do love a tasty and crusty baguette. Not a doubt about that. But it could never be my daily bread as I do believe whole grains are more nutritious and more healthful. Tasty too. I love discovering locally grown grains wherever I go. In a nutshell, I love most breads, baguettes included.
Thank you for your kind words on the article!
Thank you so much for this post of the event you attended. I wish I could have been there but as I'm in the DC area, that would have been a very long haul. Your post made me feel as if I WAS there so that's the next best thing I can hope for.
I'm really happy to hear that Chad Robertson is humble and very interested in furthering his education and evolving his craft and I am excited to hear that there's already another book in the works. I am loving baking from Tartine 3 and the last two sets of boules I've made from this book rank as my all-time favorites (semolina sesame with much less fennel seed than called for and the sprouted quinoa-kamut).
I have yet to try baking a porridge bread but I plan to do so later this week.
It would have been a long haul indeed! But I am sure Chad would have loved chatting with you and hearing all about your Tartine 3 loaves. He seems genuinely happy when people are baking from his books and adapting their recipes to their needs, tastes and resources. Let me know which porridge bread you make!
How encouraging to read about Chad's thirst for knowledge and his use of freshly milled whole grains. Just this afternoon I had a conversation with the woman I buy my grain from and she was telling me about a teaching video she had seen that stated adamantly that bread can not be baked with whole wheat flour. How shocking that someone could believe that AND make a video stating that as fact….People do indeed have very strange ideas when it comes to bread.
I can't help but wonder if Chad ever checks into TFL. The themes he seems to be interested in are all discussed on those forums and people around the world chime in all the time with the results they are getting using whole grains and many even use malted grains.
News travels fast and the amateurs now have access to what was once only available to professionals thanks to what you do and share here. Thanks for another peek into the ever changing world of bread. And for the info. on what is happening in your state with the grains being grown….I don't usually think of Wash. state as a wheat growing state so I learned another new thing about agriculture too. 🙂
Hi Janet, thank you for your comment! From what I heard at the various Kneading Conferences West, Washington State actually used to be big on wheat. It took agribusiness and the centralization of wheat culture in the center of the country to bring that to a halt. So what Stephen Jones and the farmers are doing is basically reintroducing former cultivars and crossing them with new varieties as needed to ensure viability while selecting on flavor and baking properties. It is very interesting and I think resident baker Jonathan McDowell at the Bread Lab has one of the most fascinating jobs in the bread world.
As for Chad, you are absolutely right, he sounds as if he doesn't check into TFL. He may not have much time to spend on blogs and forums but he may want to instruct one or more members of his team to keep an eye out…
If you ever meet the woman who doesn't believe in whole-wheat bread, tell her to look at Dave Miller's website (http://www.millersbakehouse.com/)! She's in for a pleasant surprise… 🙂
Thanks for the link.
I know I mentioned Laurel Robertson to you in the past and one would hope that Chad knows about her since she is located just north of San Francisco and, in my opinion, she is the whole wheat queen. She has been baking with ww probably since before Chad was born and her recipes are great. She isn't afraid to put anything into a loaf and her desem will challenge any baker to step up to a totally new level of levain making that most have never hear of. Not for the faint of heart 🙂
I imagine Chad is swamped too with the demands of owning his own business and trying to branch out – continually learning adds excitement but a whole new set of variables to a finished loaf. As a home baker I have the luxury to experiment to my hearts content since no one demands a specific product from me – except my son when he wants a sandwich loaf *^) So much out there that it is hard to keep up and it is all exciting. I am glad I am not a professional!
Joyce Steingold says
Thanks for your very informative account if the Chad Robertson reading. I felt like I was there! I think I will need to own his new book. Your account motivated me to check out if we have any local grain. Rhode Island just has corn, but Massachusetts has some local grain and millers . I think when we go to the kneading conference in Maine I will further explore this, as Maine has plenty of locally grown grain. Anyway, thank you for furthering my "breaducatiin"….I appreciate it mire than you know! Take care, Joyce …….this weekend it's chestnut bread with chocolate nibs !
Hi Joyce! I do think there is a grain revival afoot in Massachusetts and I am sure you will hear about it at the Kneading Conference. It'd be very exciting for you to try local grains. Let me know how the chestnut bread comes out!
I am so glad we had the chance to attend – thank you for writing about this event, and capturing the discussion so well.
It was very interesting to hear everyone speak, and looking forward to seeing JD McLelland's film, at The Grain Gathering in August.
The photos are lovely memories, and the bread … was outstanding.
Chad was very gracious, signing everyone's books, and patiently answering questions.
WSU posted a write-up also, about Chad's visit:
http://mtvernon.wsu.edu/newsAndAwards.html (partway down the page)
Hello breadsong, thanks for stopping by and thanks for the link. These are exciting times, grain-wise!
I am just curious how much you pay in your area for fresh, local flour. We live in NYC, and I do buy it sometimes at the farmer's market, but it's too expensive to use exclusively. Thanks.
Il Chicco e la Spiga says
sono Anna dalla Toscana e ti disturbo soltanto per augurare una serena e conviviale Pasqua a te in particolar modo, ai tuoi familiari e a tutti quelli che passano dalla tua casa virtuale perchè certi di trovare sempre cose ed argomenti straordinari.
Un grande abbraccio ed ancora Auguri.