Is the Bread Terroir Code crackable?
The recent flurry of chatter about SFSD, Larraburu Bros and Galal et al. highlights curious issues about the terroir of bread. It occurs to me that bread has a staggeringly more extreme element thereof than wine, cheese or olive oil. Forgive me if this is obvious and widely acknowledged. These are new(ish), or at least somehow suddenly more deeply considered, ideas for me.
Whereas it almost takes a bonafide Supertaster to distinguish olive oils from adjacent Ligurian communes, or wines from neighboring Côtes de Rhone estates, almost anyone could distinguish my bread from that made from the same formula and process by my next door neighbor. Why is this so? Why is it that bread baking constitutes such a complex nexus of powerful intersecting and interacting factors dictating its outcome as to render each of our products as unique as our respective human genotypes? I'd wager that even the gentlest nudges of nuture would prevent identical twins from producing indistinguishable breads in a single kitchen. There's also the inevitable stochastic fuzziness inherent in any bread formula and process not executed by precison-tuned robots.
The utter personal uniqueness of our baked products is manifest every day in the TFL bread browser. It fascinates me that, from the images, I can pick out a dabrownman, isand66, Danni3ll3, David Snyder, Alfanso or Elsie_Lu bread without having to click the link. Ok, part of that arises from my conditioning vis a vis the same lighting and cameras in use. But our breads are like our fingerprints or signatures - no two alike. It'd be the same as my handing identical pens and paper to all the above bakers and asking them to forge Floyd's scribble of "The Fresh Loaf". Each would be utterly distinguishable. Add time, temperature, microbial, ingredient and equipment variation to that and reproducibility flies right out the window. Are we hopelessly trying to "forge" Larraburu bread? :-)
Danny's community bakes are another example of 1000 flowers blooming from clonal seeds. Granted, everyone there is really encouraged to express her/his own personal take on a common formula, not to reproduce an ideal to the letter. It's more an exercise of "lets all explore this space", which is the fun and flavorful fascination of it (thank you Danny!). Yet it would be an interesting variation if everyone was actually encouraged, in a future community bake, NOT to stray from a strictly prescribed formula and process. I don't have to tell you the outcome(s!) we could expect.
One upshot of this line of thought is the utter futility of trying to accurately reproduce the character of Larraburu's legendary holey :-) grail. Please don't get me wrong. I'm not writing this to troll or diss the efforts eliciting the lively discussion and investigations currently @TFL. On the contrary. Just publicly ruminating about it. We all bake (and braise and grill and stew) guided by a vision, often derived from an image in a cookbook or on a website or TV show. The memory of a cherished bygone flavor is a powerful and worthy windmill for our personal tiltings. I certainly do. We all do. Go for it.
But given the above musings about the utterly uniquely personal terroir of baked bread, how could any non-Larraburu bakehouse alumnus today possibly reproduce the flavor of a bread that was baked half a century ago at a particular bay area location with particular (mostly unknown, forgotten, scrapped) equipment with a long lost menagerie of microbes, an unknown or effectively extinct water, flour and salt supply, vessels, ambient temperature and humidity by sets of long retired, dead and mostly forgotten hands, eyes, noses and tongues? How surprising is a result like, "the worst bread I've baked in a decade?" :-) Well actually, a little. But maybe that speaks to the immense scale of the challenge of trying to crack the code of bread terroir. Maybe its quietly telling us You Shall Not Pass.
So why is a bread's character so exquisitely expressive of terroir? Flour x Water x Salt x Yeasts x bacteria x time x temperature x humidity x hands x vessels x countertops ...? Fill in some numbers (and factor in the barely knowable nonlinear interactions of those variables) and it becomes combinatorially astronomical. And convincing. Here's a hypothesis: Acceleration, amplification and diversification by high heat. Wine, cheese and olive oil don't get cooked at 500˚F during production. Afterward in the kitchen perhaps, but not in the making. As Michael Pollan has pointed out (highlighting research and scholarship by others), cooking over fire may have accelerated human evolution. Maybe it's the heat of our ovens that is primarily responsible for launching our breads off in the zillion different directions represented by the endless diversity of our finished products. But that's probably only a small part of it.
Or maybe it's just that when it comes to wines, cheeses and olive oils, there are only so many orchards, vineyards, pastures, caves, and (increasingly, worryingly, genetically uniform) plant and animal breeds on the planet. But there are 8 billion of us, each built and driven by 20k genes represented by gazillions of alleles. Neither us nor our kitchens are clones. How could we expect our breads to any more uniform than we or they are?
Thanks for listening, if you've made it this far. Over to you. Got bread to bake.