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…