This has got to be one of the top ten reasons to quit your day job and become a food blogger: so that you too can get invited to a beautiful Chateau outside of Lyon overlooking a gorgeous valley to learn bread baking in a wood fired oven while sipping champagne in the company of new friends who share a common passion for good food! Who said blogging doesn't pay off?
My husband and I were invited by Bradley and Marie Prezant, the bread baking power duo of Bethesda Baking, to come spend a long weekend at their maison in Conzieu, an hour outside of Lyon, located at the hilly tip of the Alps. As I was madly trying to arrange last minute train tickets for our trip, my husband, being the internet guru that he is, asked:
"Honey, do you know these people?"
"Yeah, I met them on the internet."
"No, do you know these people?" He probed again trying to ascertain the risk involved in our new adventure.
"Um, yeah, they're bread bakers."
No doubt the idea of driving out to the middle of nowhere and being cut up into a million pieces was plaguing him. But me? Well, I think bread bakers are a special breed of scientist that have better things to do than to draw food bloggers out of their Parisian habitats for luxurious weekends just to serve them up on a platter.
We reached their house overlooking a valley dotted with farms and rivers and pulled into a driveway bordering a church dating back over one thousand years. "Oh, mon dieu, this can't be it!" I muttered in disbelief after viewing the incredible beauty and serenity of the surroundings. Bradley and family greeted us with a warm welcome and a cold glass of vintage Veuve Cliquot. Not a bad way to begin a weekend! They showed us to our cozy bedroom complete with clawfoot bathtub, wood burning fire place, and views of the valley out of each window.
"This is for us? You must be kidding me..." I said peering out one of the windows.
The next few days were a cooking and baking frenzy fueled by good wine and great conversation. It was my first time baking bread from scratch. I don't mean just adding fresh yeast to flour and letting it do its bubbly thing, I mean making creating starters like 'poolishes' and 'levains' that pack extra flavor and take time and energy to develop. Then mixing them with more ingredients to form beautiful loaves of hearty tasting bread.
If you're a novice bread baker like me, then you're probably wondering what the difference is between a poolish and a levain yeast starter. A poolish or 'pouliche' as its called in French, is a liquid pre-fermentation starter that is created with roughly equal parts of water and flour with added yeast that is allowed to develop over an extended period of time of four to eight hours. It adds a nutty rich flavor to bread and can also increase its longevity after its baked (if it doesn't get eaten immediately). The word 'poolish' was coined in the 1700's from the way the Polish make a liquid yeast starter to bake bread.
A levain starter, mostly used for sourdough bread, is a little more complicated and requires several feedings over a longer period time. Its created like a poolish but has more flour than water. During the long aging process, while the levain is fed, it develops a rich sour taste that adds more complexity and character to the bread. Levain starters are like something out of the musical Little Shop of Horrors: "Feeeeed me Seymour! Feeeed me allll night lonnngg!!!"
Making bread starters reminds me of sea monkeys – remember those? You add water to a magical powder and then watch tiny creatures grow, swim around, and multiply. Only its more satisfying because you get to eat the bread at the end or trade it (like we did with the villagers) for fresh eggs and foraged mushrooms.
The entire bread making process is a combination of several steps. Yeast is ALIVE and requires oxygen, a little food, and a warm place to grow. As the yeast eats its food it releases carbon dioxide which causes the dough to stretch, rise, and ferment more. The dough must ferment at least three times. The first time with the poolish or levain starter, the second after more flour is added and the dough is kneaded and allowed to double (here it is often punched down to release carbon dioxide and rise again), and the third time after shaping the dough into loaves and allowing it to quickly 'proof' in a warm humid environment before baking.
Good bread bakers know how to play with the timing involved with the fermentation processes in order to create more flavorful breads. In many cases the second fermentation process can be slowed down or controlled by placing the dough in the refrigerator overnight. However, if you're in a hurry the bread will rise quicker in a warm environment. Brioche dough contains tons of butter and needs an extra long time to rise in the refrigerator, otherwise you'll end up with a gloppy mess of melted fat on your table.
The flour that you choose to bake bread with is important. The higher the protein content is in the flour, the more elasticity and the nicer the structure of the bread. That stretchiness comes from chemical compound gluten which is made up of protein and starch. Normally bread flour has a higher protein content than all-purpose flour.
We baked several breads including: brioche in all different shapes and sizes, sourdough rye, and cereal. The brioche we cooked in a normal stove but the heavier loaves we baked in Bradley's wood burning oven. In order to heat up the bricks inside his specialty furnace, Bradley made a fire with several logs and let them burn to coal. After they had burned down completely, he swept the ashes out of the oven and we shoveled the loaves in, added some water for steam, and shut the little iron door to let the bread bake away.
To "pay" for our lessons we cooked dinner. With my husband as sous chef we whipped up some soul warming potiron (pumpkin) soup with toasted seeds, a roast chicken with root vegetables and reduced red wine vinegar jus, tomatillo and corn relish (from Bradley's garden!), and a Tarte Aux Noix made from walnuts we gathered up from walnut trees around town. Not complicated, but completely locally grown and seasonal.
In between cooking, baking, and letting poolishes poolish my husband and I explored some of the neighboring villages. We drove through a town called Crapéou, pronounced Crappy-You and picked apples perfect enough to be something out of Snow White. Then headed for the surrounding hills to discover pristine lakes, trails, and more tiny villages. It's hunting season right now and you can hear the hunting dogs barking away with their little bell collars ringing everywhere. Not wanting to end up on the wrong side of a shot gun we noted the trailheads for next time.
Our last evening was spent playing the French card game Tarot with some of the local card sharks in the village, eating Tarte Aux Pommes baked with our Crappy-You apples, and drinking more vintage champagne. Due to the fact that I was a little too tipsy to concentrate on the rules of the game, I lost. But I think I won overall, so no hard feelings.
I know there are those who believe that bloggers are a narcissistic bunch who only seek out others whose beliefs reflect and mirror their own while hiding all the time behind an anonymous computer screen. But, I beg to differ. I am truly thankful for all the people I have met world wide whose areas of expertise and values are different and yet complimentary to mine. Although I can be shy in social situations, I enjoy the opportunity to meet new people face to face. This weekend for me, was an example of extraordinary generosity and the desire for a world community that I think most of us seek to create in whatever way we know how.
Many thanks to the Prezants for taking the time out of their busy lives to show complete strangers a truly wonderful time. I know it will be a memory that we will cherish forever.
I will leave you with a recipe for brioche, the rest of the bread recipes are somewhat secret and you'll have to get invited over to the Chateau...