Bread is controversial right now. A lot of my friends think that eliminating gluten from their diets--and that includes the wheat in bread--has made them feel better. One friend is a bona fide celiac disease guy. For a while, I avoided wheat too. But apparently I'm not one of the sensitive people, because avoiding it didn't seem to make me better, and loading up on gluten doesn't make me worse, either. I'm beginning to think that gluten may actually be good for me. Which is a good thing, because I love making bread.
I've been sort of obsessed with making bread off and on since I was about fifteen. Bread was one of the few things that my grandmother didn't make from scratch. She made biscuits and corn bread, but yeasted wheat bread is not part of the traditional repertoire of the Southern country cook. This is probably because, here in the South, we grow a soft winter wheat that has little gluten in it. This wheat and its flour are better for biscuits and quick breads than for yeasted breads, which require a high-gluten flour. That high-gluten wheat is mostly grown on the high plains of the western US.
I started out in my teens, as a novice bread maker, with a bread-making cookbook called The Tassajara Bread Book. It was one of those hand-illustrated funky cookbooks from the early seventies. I still have my battered copy. The cover has fallen off and the pages have dough on them. The recipe is still a piece of genius: it involves making a sponge of flour, water, and yeast, and letting that sponge (a wet, soupy mixture) rise for an hour before adding the rest of the flour to make a stiff dough that can be shaped. It makes four loaves, a lot of bread, so you always have some to give away.
That book only had a few variations on the basic recipe, so I soon graduated, in the early eighties, to The Laurel's Kitchen Bread Book. That book had hundreds of recipes for bread, including some weird ones that involved soybeans, a staple of hippie vegetarians back then. But my particular obsession from that cookbook was, and remains, desem bread, an elusive confection that is difficult to pull off, but when you do, as Laurel says, "Oh my."
The desem bread is a sourdough bread, so it requires a starter. You don't add any commercial yeast to it. Everything has to be just so: you need freshly-ground flour, so you have to grind it yourself. I got an electric grain mill so I could do that. The wheat has to be organic, to prevent any pesticides on the grain from interfering with the rise. (It's not hard to buy organic wheat; I used to buy a ten pound bag of it from my food coop.) The water you use to mix with the flour has to be pristine as well: no chlorine, or it won't rise. The timing of the rises has to be right. The rising temperature has to be cool. The final rise has to be almost hot and humid. The oven has to be steamy. And so on.
Making the starter is a five-day process. You start with your freshly-ground, high-gluten whole wheat flour, and add a little water to it. You make a little ball...and then you bury it! In a crock of organically grown, whole wheat flour. For 48 hours. At exactly 55 degrees. Then you dig it out and it's risen a little: the ball has cracked. Even at that low temperature, something has been happening: the micro-organisms in your pure flour have begun reproducing, eating the wheat, and exhaling carbon dioxide, which causes little bubbles in the dough!
This process continues for a few days: you keep adding more flour and water, until one day you have a big enough ball of it that you can add some salt (which slows down fermentation), make a big batch of dough, shape it into loaves, let it rise for several hours, and then bake it. Carefully.
But before you do that, you pull off a piece about the size of a baseball to save for your next batch. That's your starter.
This starter is kind of like a demanding pet. It has to be kept at around 55 degrees, and it has to be fed every two days or so. When I went to Nashville for a few days at Christmas, I took the starter with me and fed it every night, because it was still temperamental and needed a lot of attention. Luckily the refrigerator in the house in Nashville can be set for about 50 degrees, unlike my refrigerator at home, which won't go that high. At home, I keep the starter in my darkroom, an outbuilding that stays cool, like a root cellar or spring house, because it has a really thick concrete floor.
Another thing: the wheat has to be really dry when you grind it; otherwise it gums up the mill stones. So I have an electric heating pad in the kitchen with a tray on it, and there are always some wheat berries drying out on that tray, pending their time to go into the hopper of the mill. In other words: the desem bread requires a lot of paraphenalia, equipment and attention.
I'm not sure it's worth it. There's another kind of sourdough bread that I learned to make a few years ago called "pain au levain" in French. It's a French-style white bread with a starter that looks like the desem starter except it's white and you can use plain old flour from the grocery store! And the bread is damn good. The crust is crusty. The inside is soft and melting. It's how I imagine bread must have been in those romantic pictures of Paris in the 1920s. When it comes out of the oven, it's hard not to eat the whole loaf. Toasted the next day, it's wonderful.
But the desem bread has its own virtues. What if the entire economy collapsed and we had to grow wheat again? It would be whole wheat, naturally, because we don't have the equipment, whatever it is, that removes the bran and germ from wheat. And we couldn't go buy yeast. Desem bread is the bread that hard-core preppers should learn to make!
I actually did grow wheat a few times, and I'm growing some now. It's not very hard. Wheat germinates if you just throw it on the ground. You can rake some soil over it, but you don't really have to. It grows slowly all winter if planted in October, and then in spring starts really growing. By June it is two or three feet tall, deep green, and the grains have started to form. When it turns brown, it's ready to harvest. I cut the dry plants down with a hand sickle, spread them out on the concrete driveway, and beat them with a bamboo cane until the seeds fall off the stalks. Then I lift off the straw and compost it or something. What's left on the concrete is a little pile of wheat and chaff. You can use a box fan to winnow away the chaff, or you can float it off in water and then dry the wheat berries. Again, not that hard. I found a kind of hard bread wheat that supposedly grows well in the South in winter: Turkey Red Hard Winter Wheat. It's a few inches high right now, in the garden. So we'll see. Even if I get a poor harvest of this wheat, growing it is good for the garden: wheat, and grasses generally, has an enormous root system that aerates the soil and feeds its life when the roots break down after harvest. It improves "tilth" as farmers say.
Given that desem bread is the bread of choice for people who believe that economic and social and ecological collapse is imminent, why do I sometimes get fed up with it and park the starter in the refrigerator for a few weeks? Because it's notoriously fickle. If your starter is going strong, the first rise will take four hours and the second rise about one and a half hours. But recently I had to leave the house during the second rise, and that rise went on too long, and the micro-organisms began to break down the gluten, so the bread didn't rise, and it was just a soggy, sour mess when I baked it. The trick is the exact right balance between keeping the gluten strong and intact, so that it can create a kind of web that holds in the carbon dioxide bubbles that your native wild yeast are exhaling. That creates the rise. You need enough wild yeast activity to create enough bubbles, but not so much that they start eating the gluten and destroy the net that holds the bubbles. The dough is like a billion tiny balloons. If the balloons pop, it doesn't work; if they don't inflate, it doesn't work either.
But when it works, you feel as if you've done something a bit miraculous: you've taken the most elemental of materials--brown seeds and water--and made something delectable and something cultured, both in the sense of "cultured milk product" and "the culture of the ancient Celts." Bread is part food, part art. It's a kind of minimalist edible sculpture. It's a great gift.
My desem may be a temperamental pet that has to ride with me in my suitcase when I travel. But it's a cultured companion, a link to our ingenious ancestors who discovered this alchemy that transforms a soggy, unappetizing paste into the foundation of peasant cuisine and subsistence agriculture. It's impossible for me to believe that this ancient food, when made the ancient way, is not good for me.