Thursday, October 17, 2013

Staff of Life

Eastside Road, October 16, 2013—
NEARLY TWENTY-FIVE years ago, in 1989, the noted home baker, teacher, and cookbook author Marion Cunningham, who was based in the San Francisco Bay Area, used to get together with Amy Pressman, who had a bakery in Pasadena at the time, to
spend hours discussing various baking ideas, problems, and techniques. Eventually they decided that if they learned so much about baking from their casual meetings, other bakers would appreciate the opportunity to discuss the pleasures and mysteries of baking, too.
I quote that from the website of the Bakers Dozen, the organization that grew out of their conversations a few months later. I often refer to this as my wife's "professional organization," as almost everyone knows what such a thing is, but that's misleading: one of the marvelous things about the group is that included from the very start amateurs — "home bakers" — as well as professionals.

We have belonged to the group, Lindsey and I, from the beginning. I am hardly even a home baker, though for a few years I did bake our daily bread, which I suppose qualifies me a little bit for membership, beyond my other, more important qualification, as the Lovely Little Husband of a woman who after all was named Pastry Chef of the Year back when she was still in the traces at Chez Panisse.

I have always been struck by the curious, perhaps unique combination of generosity and discipline that characterizes so many of the bakers I have known. Whether working at savory or sweet, bread or pastry, the baker must be focussed and attentive. Success depends on discipline and repetition. One thinks of the typical pastry chef as being a bit of a control freak, and indeed meticulous care for detail is central to success in the field. Temperature and proportion require extreme care, particularly in a commercial bakery or restaurant where consistency is important, perhaps even crucial.

But every baker knows that one's ability to control goes only so far. The weather; irregularities in commercial supplies; even fluctuations in room temperature or humidity can influence the outcome of any day's work. The baker, like the baseball player, lives at the cusp of control and circumstance. Perhaps this contributes to qualities I've often noticed in bakers, if not perhaps baseball players: a certain humility, a cheerful degree of resignation; a wonderful combination of generosity and frugality; an enthusiastic commitment to their work. I come away from every meeting of the Bakers Dozen with renewed optimism about humanity because of the evidence it provides of these qualities.

Craig Ponsford addressing the Bakers Dozen

This week we were particularly interested in a presentation by Craig Ponsford, the California baker who famously won the gold medal at the Coupe du Monde de la Boulangerie in Paris in 1996, an event as epochal as the celebrated breakthrough of California wines twenty years earlier at the "judgment of Paris."

At the time, Ponsford was a founding partner in Artisan Bakers, a bread bakery he'd opened in Sonoma, California, one of a number of bakeries which had opened in the Bay Area in the wake of Steve Sullivan's Acme Bakery, which had pioneered the great second generation of Bay Area breads. (Larraburu and Toscana, much larger commercial bakeries, had established the first.)

Although he and Artisan parted company a while back, Ponsford is still an active baker. You can buy his breads in San Rafael at Ponsford's Place, usually on weekends. This is undoubtedly a boon to locals, but it seems to me Ponsford's really significant contribution to the art of baking, these days, is through his work in consulting to millers, and publicizing their own work.

No matter how competent the baker, it will always be the flour that makes the bread, and Ponsford is currently hard at work spreading the word about flour. This is particularly significant now, when there is so much talk about gluten and its digestibility in the human diet. The flour we have all been fed, whether in home-baked bread, bread baked in small local bakeries, or good old Cellophane-wrapped sliced white sandwich bread, has for the last century or so been the product of huge corporate millers.

These mills indulged and encouraged the popular taste for white flours and breads. According to Ponsford, over a century ago a process was developed which "tempered" wheat grain, softening it in water to encourage it to sprout just enough to make it easier to remove the outer husk that protects the pure white endosperm. This was done to simplify the production of pure white flour, but it accelerates the kernel's development of gluten. Since the tempering process was quickly adopted by most industrial millers, today's flours contain a higher gluten content, as can be seen in industrially baked breads.

The human digestive tract evolved to find nourishment in grains — more accurately, I suppose, grains and humans evolved together, grains profiting from human agriculture to flourish in ever newer climes and soils, humans profiting from grain's adaptability and ease of portability and storage. But the grain we evolved with was whole: not bran, not endosperm, not germ: the entire grain.

Ponsford explained that flour, like sugar and even milk, is processed industrially by separating it as soon as possible to its simplest states. Bran, germ, and endosperm are separated; industrial "whole-wheat" flour is simply bleached white flour with a certain amount of germ and bran mixed back in. Similarly, brown sugar is refined white sugar with molasses mixed back in; "whole" milk is non-fat milk with butterfat mixed back in.

When I was a kid we ate three kinds of bread: the usual American industrial sliced bread, also known as "balloon bread" or, by synecdoche, "Wonder bread"; "French" bread, usually Franco-American, still baked in Santa Rosa, our local city; and homemade bread, for which my mother used I don't know what commercial flour, probably General Mills. She used her own yeast-based starter, kept on a kitchen windowsill where it often smelled unpleasant, and I remember the slow progress of her bread from a light, fluffy loaf, full of holes, through a brief period when it seemed to be like "normal" bread, to a final stage when it became impossibly dense and chewy.

The French bread was usually sliced, spread with margarine, sprinkled with garlic salt, and warmed in the oven, and I thought it was a treat.

The commercial sliced balloon bread was another matter. I usually ate it by nibbling off the crust all round the slice, then folding the remaining white slice in half, folding that in half again, compressing the result between the palms of my hands, and repeating the process. The result was a leathery slightly sour-tasting thing, more or less dark depending on the state of my hands. It wasn't very tasty, but it was better than sliced bread. It was of course the result of otherwise unameliorated gluten.
PONSFORD CURRENTLY CONSULTS to Community Grains, a company in Woodland, California, which finds responsibly grown grains and mills them in a traditional (i.e., pre-tempering) manner. The resulting flours (and polenta) are whole-grain: the entire kernel is ground all at once, without separating germ, bran, and endosperm. The resulting flours, Ponsford says, are more readily digested than those resulting from conventional industrial milling, because — this is my explanation, not his — they are in better balance: properties of gluten which can cause digestive problems are offset by properties in other parts of the grain which interact with the gluten.

Of course support for this conclusion is largely deductive so far: I don't know to what extent scientific procedures have been brought to the investigation. But there's no question that diseases now widespread in "developed countries" have dietary correlations: diabetes, obesity, and intestinal disorders obviously so; and that there's a demonstrable correlation between the appearance and increase of these diseases and the further reliance, in the areas in which they appear, on industrialized production of flours and sugars.

bread.jpgPonsford told me that it was Community Grains, up in Woodland, that had milled the wheat recently harvestedd by our friends Andrea Crawford and Robert Dedlow, the proprietors of Kenter Canyon Farms. Andrea was a gardener and forager for Chez Panisse many years ago, before the couple relocated to Southern California to raise produce for the restaurant-and-carriage trade there. Andrea has long been an enthusiastic home baker, and when they had the opportunity to plant fifty acres of flat, fertile Central California coastal-influenced farmland near Hollister, they decided to plant wheat.

In the meantime Andrea had been developing her own recipes and methods. Last May we had lunch at their house, in the hills above Glendale, and were impressed with the results — though at the time she was using commercial flour, as their own harvest hadn't yet come in.

But last week she was able to sell her own bread, and their own grain and flours, at the Santa Monica and Hollywood markets. The bread at the top of this blog post is hers, bought last Sunday morning in Hollywood and keeping well into this week. The texture is even, the crust pleasantly chewy, the flavor well focussed, with that intensity that comes from well-proofed dough.

I'm glad to see her bread on the market, and glad to see it getting the attention it deserves in the Los Angeles Times (where it was written about by no less a figure than David Karp, who maintains the "market watch" column at that newspaper. We know him (my first-person-plural is not editorial: it always includes Lindsey) as the Fruit Detective, a man of immense erudition and enthusiasm; I'm glad to see him extend this from orchards to wheatfields.

California used to produce a large percentage of the nation's wheat, before economies of scale encouraged relocation to the plains states. The area around Woodland, in Yolo county, used to be wheatfields; my grandfather, who was born in Geyserville in 1883, remembered living there on the family farm in the 1890s, and watching the huge teams of horses drawing combines across the fields, and, soon enough, massive steam-engines replacing the teams.

Here in Sonoma county our friend Lou Preston (Preston of Dry Creek), who makes a mean loaf of bread in his Alan Scott-inspired wood-fired oven, is also growing wheat on his biodynamic farm. In cold weather we cook our "bog-man cereal" using his wheat, which we buy at the farm. There is no shortage of serious bakers of bread hereabouts, Ceres knows: and, of course, we have our own commercial bakeries in Healdsburg, of which our favorite is naturally the Downtown Bakery and Creamery, which Lindsey and our daughter Thérèse founded with co-founder and present owner Kathleen Stewart back in 1987. Downtown Bakery & Creamery supplies our daily bread, though we enjoy Lou's, and Joe Ortiz's bread at Gayle's Bakery down in Capitola, and of course Steve Sullivan's bread at Acme (many of us think of him as the founding father of the bread revival hereabouts), and, now, Andrea's, when we're in Los Angeles.

But all this has made me think it's time for me to put my hand back in — particularly with the availability of local flours. Lou sells his flour, and there's a couple of pounds in the pantry. Maybe I'll get back to work.

1 comment:

John Whiting said...

Charles, you're still at it! So is Mary. For the past several years, baking at home, she's tested and rated the bread flours for the UK Great Taste Awards. We end up with at least half-a-year's domestic supply.