The Fresh Loaf

A Community of Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts.

Have we lost our way?

Bread1965's picture

Have we lost our way?

And before the heckles start let me clarify. I'm using the plural "we" - meaning really me. But I suspect I'm not alone.. but not sure.

Recently (ok last night) I started watching Apollonia Poilane's Master class:  It's a bakery I've long heard about, read about and hope to visit one day. It seems almost mythical to me when I read and hear that people have ordered Poilane bread to be shipped overseas. I'm sure the bread is probably memorable and remarkable. But that clearly seems a bit much. I've always had a fascination with trying her bread because of the story behind the bakery, family and bread. It's like a love story for bread bakers. In the way people (me included) dream about going to Chad's Tartine to try his bread, to me Poilane is on the same bucket list.

She starts the class right off the top by showing how a home baker could make her signature boule. She shows how to make, maintain and in this first lesson use a starter in her classic loaf.  She talked lovingly about feeding it regularly etc. And it made me reflect on how lazy I've become with my starter. I neglect both Charlie my regular 100% hydration starter and Brown my NFNM stiff rye starter named after Dabrownman (where ever you are these days buddy, miss your posts). Other than replenishing them weeks or at times months apart I otherwise never feed them. They're indestructible. And yet, for all my neglect after about two feedings they still faithfully and without complaint come roaring back to active duty when called upon without missing a step. They're great starters. But are they living up to their full potential. Is my neglectful way affecting my breads. I don't think so as I've made some really great bread this way. But I suspect so as it just seems like it would be much better for the starter to be fed regularly.

As I watched Apollonia cradle her freshly made starter and talk how to take care of it with reverence for the life force she held within her hands I wondered where I lost my way. She reminds me why I love both bread and the process of making bread, and of the women in my family that have passed on the baton to me.  Of how hard it was to learn to get a good starter going long before you could "google", of learning how to manipulate it's flavor to that sweet tangy spot I love, of being proud of those first ordinary and yet amazing loaves I learned to make all those years ago. She reminds me more of where I come from than where I am today.

Today I think more about creating structure and open crumb. About cutting it down the middle to take the perfect picture to post. About experimenting with different flour combinations and additions - many names of which I've never heard about until I started baking and posting on places like this site. And in contrast there she is making this beautifully simple and unremarkable humble loaf that my mother or grandmother would be so proud to bake or be given.

She also made me think of the utility of bread. However much I love bread I admit I bake it ''for sport'' rather than to survive. Like Apollonia's grandmother mine kept her starter under her bed as the warm spot in the house. It was a weekly task to make bread to last and feed a large hard working, struggling family. Apollonia talked not of thin crusted open lacy crumb loaves like so many of today's great bakers strive towards (me included) but of wanting a well baked thick crusted very uniform small hole crumb structure as that will all help the sourdough loaf last longer before drying out and going stale. Because in 1932 when the bakery began just as the great depression was taking hold, wasting bread wasn't an option and it needed to last.

In many ways she made me stop and rethink my baking and reminded me of my own family roots and why this craft means so much to me. Of what it represents to me. I've not thought about it this way for a while and perhaps needed a reminder. Everyone posting their bread bakes on this board in whatever form, style, combination of flours or ingredients, shape or level of ability are craft men and women honing their skills. Each making progress on bread as an expression of themselves, as an art form, as an introspective therapy or as a simple pleasure. It's what attracts me to the board, posts and friendships that have formed here.  And also part of what this represents to me. But I think I need to step back and get back to basics for a while and find my way again - if that makes any sense. And no time like a pandemic to refocus on the heart of what this craft means to me.

But what of the fridge and neglect? I hate waste and keeping a starter on a counter will ultimately lead to a lot of waste through feedings. But I think I'm going to try and revisit that path for a while to find a middle ground.  It's not practical to keep my starter out of the fridge full-time. But maybe it's time I took Charlie out on a field trip to the counter-top. At least for a while.


citygirlbaker's picture

What a beautiful, reflective piece.  

I do think “we” sometimes get caught up with that picture-perfect loaf and forget the true essence or purpose of bread — a way of survival or a vehicle to connect with loved ones. 

I am so happy to hear you’ll be spending some quality time with Charlie again.  I can’t wait to see your next bake. 


Bread1965's picture

And by the way, your last Tartine loaf really looked terrific!

pall.ecuador's picture

Really appreciated this.  I've had Poilane's bread when I once visited Paris and it is complex and denser and dryer than what I expected but you are right, it is a loaf that my grandmother would have proudly served on her farm.  For me, I go back and forth between the neglect and regular feeding.  One thing I have come to realize though is that even my "meh" breads are so much better than the grocery store that any of my neighbors love to accept a loaf.  Maybe there is a way to avoid the waste and build community the answer by baking more and passing it on?

Bread1965's picture

To your grocery store bread comment, I don't think many people think that much about the bread they eat. But take notice when they come across "real bread'. As to passing it on that's a good idea and I often will. Thanks again.

Benito's picture

Wonderful post Frank, interesting insights and thoughts, I enjoyed reading your post.  Thanks for sharing it with us.  I hope you get back to posting your baking with everyone here a bit more often.


Bread1965's picture

Thanks Benny..

Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

Or...are we suffering cabin fever?  It wouldn't be a surprise.  Maybe we should call it cold oven fever.  Sounds like we're in a slump.  Try this.  Wrap up the starter jar with a nice warm sock and tuck it into our pocket or jacket and go for a 20 minute walk. Do this everyday.  

If the starter is chilled, return to the fridge when getting back and if countertop, see if we needs a feeding before going out.  Plan 20 min. walks about the same time each day.  See if it helps.  The fresh air and change  should help.  Our starters are just fine and dependable.  Let the walk inspire us both.  :) 

Bread1965's picture

I've joked with my kids of late that "I need some therapy" when I'm about to make some bread. :) It is after all - or at least for me - a meditation of sorts. It's an immersive diversion - reflective and relaxing.

But my post was not so much cabin fever - even though I'm definitely going through that after working from home since last March with a faint hope that I might return to the office by year end! - but rather just a late night reflection.

As to your idea of walking with Charlie - if I start doing that then I might indeed need some therapy! :) That said I am a long time avid walker and hiker. And in fact this week I've been reading Walking by Norweigan Erling Kagge.

Keep safe..

Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

with you.  We would be the only ones who know, sort of like wearing red flashy underwear under a gray suit. Smile that you are getting away with it.   I would think that therapy is required when Charlie starts taking baking notes.

Should you get stopped for walking your pet (we are only allowed outside at night between 10 to 6am if walking a pet) what do most people know about starters?  Not much!  So say your starter is getting fresh air or collecting wild yeast. Lol. 



Bread1965's picture

Too funny..

AlanG's picture

I agree with Mini here.  I don't know about others, but my wife and i are missing the camaraderie of friends (Zoom doesn't begin to substitute for in person gatherings).  My wife is not a big bread eater so I end up baking for one.  My starter lives in the fridge as daily feedings on the countertop are wasteful.  It is resilient and I do periodically take a small amount and replenish the stock with a standard feeding schedule. There are several people in our neighborhood who have posted questions about sourdough baking and were things different, I would have them over for some instructions and provided them with starter cultures. 

I'm happy with my bread and have a couple of pieces of toast with my noonday soup with hopes that the cabin fever will break soon.

Bread1965's picture

Alan - I'm sure we're all going through our own version of cabin fever. But I can think of little better to help than slightly toasted sourdough and soup for lunch! keep well..

MTloaf's picture

to diminish the utility of her bread nor did she get inspiration mixed with envy or have any thoughts about the meaning of making a loaf of bread. 

I love your term "sport baking" that means to me giving it your best effort but not in any competitive sense with a final score but more like fly fishing that is more about the act of fishing and not about what you catch.

I have never had a name for my starter. Perhaps it's because after I feed it and teach it how to act it goes into the oven and then gets eaten.

Thanks for posting your thoughts. 



idaveindy's picture

Granny didn't have Instagram, but they did have County Fairs to show off their household crafts.

MTloaf's picture

They also had to worry about those Katzenjammer Kids stealing the pie that was cooling on the window sill:-)

Janedo's picture

I definitely see where you're coming from.

First of all, I'm a very lucky baker because I live in France and have spent time in the Poilane bakery, 8 rue du Cherche-midi. The bakers let me ask a million questions and explained the whole process for making that famous loaf. They work down in a cellar with no windows! A steep staircase leads back up to the boutique which is pretty small. I rushed right home and made the loaf. The levain and flour was different, so it tasted different. But it was good!

That famous loaf has a very closed crumb, no holes. It is dense and very aromatique. I haven't had it for years, but it is pretty unforgettable. The reality is that most French people probably don't like it because they like white bread. At the bakery, we bake some light baguettes because many people prefer it! It's irritating, but we have to do it. We also over bake some because a few clients want that as well!

As for our dear levain. As long as it is still alive, we can start treating it better. I think we often go through phases of being more prefectionist and wanting to do things right. But we also go through times when the goal is just to get bread on the table. It is definitely worth taking the time to go back to the basics and really learning the whole process, the how and why. I did that with cooking, reading Samin Nosrat's Salt Fat Acid Heat book. It made me a better cook. I think she did what Apollonia has done for you. So enjoy! It probably means you are ready to go to the next step.

Your levain won't be angry for being mistreated in the past. Or if he has to stay in the fridge once in awhile.


gerhard's picture

are the least scientific about it, they developed a feel for baking and roll with the punches. Sometimes adjustments have to be made, with sourdough time seems to be the big variable for me.

wooo00oo's picture

For me, I think I would've stopped baking altogether if I kept striving for prettier loaves. These days I bake with yeast—I don't eat bread consistently enough to bother keeping a starter—and I merely try to get an even crumb with lots of whole grains. Sometimes it's just hard to keep up with everything in your life... but it's better to bake and not reach perfection, than to stop baking altogether. I still like looking at everyone's great loaves, and I'm satisfied with my misshapen, short, reasonably tasty ones, because ultimately bread is to be eaten.