52 Loaves: One Man’s Relentless Pursuit of Truth, Meaning and a Perfect Crust
William Alexander, Apgonquin Books of Chapel Hill
Fifty-two weeks, 52 loaves that’s the challenge Canadian William Alexander set himself after experiencing a perfect loaf epiphany at a restaurant, and a new-found longing to replicate the chewy-crusted, open-crumbed "peasant loaf".
Alexander’s irreverent whistle-stop tour of the history of baking moves from ancient Egypt "If the inventor had realised that said invention would culminate in the McDonald’s Snack Wrap, he might have buried it with Tutankhamen" to the continuing bread-making traditions in Morocco, tuition at the Ecole Ritz Escoffier and culminating at a French monastery, where he stayed with the aim of reviving a defunct tradition of baking its own bread.
Along the way, the complexities of bread baking come home to roost, such as the realisation that using chlorinated tap water could be hampering his dough’s development. This leaves him agonising over whether he should as had been suggested to him use French water as the only way of making an authentic artisan loaf the downside of which is the thousands of miles of transit gnawing at his locally-minded conscience. Then there’s the local water’s acidity, which, after a trip to the pharmacy to stock up on pH paper, he tests and concludes: "At least the water is not pregnant."
A semi-successful experiment was to work without a recipe, measuring implements or a clock to achieve a new-found "Zen-like" closeness with the bread. The logical progression of this was growing his own hard wheat and stone-grinding it, building a clay oven, and using yeast found growing on local apples to develop a levain. He even dabbles with the trend in the US for baking "no knead" bread doughs left to ferment at room temperature for 18 hours without kneading and finds it makes a perfectly serviceable ciabatta.
So does he achieve the perfect loaf? Well, it’s not too much of a spoiler to suggest that the publisher would not have signed off the cheque had he not. But it was a fleeting, never to be repeated moment, savoured alone in the solitude of the monastery. One of the few hints learned was a shift from moulding a boule shape to a batard, with the proximity of the crust to the interior said to benefit the exchange of Maillard compounds between crust and crumb.
Then what to do with your weekends once this intensively time-consuming project expires? "Have afternoon sex without scheduling it around the anaerobic respiration of a one-celled organism," naturally.