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52 Loaves

(article, William Alexander)

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h3. From the section titled "Week 4"


Stunned, I stared at the letters on the page. W-a-t-e-r. In a baker's version of '"The the source of my despair had apparently been in plain sight all along, flowing out of the faucet. The reason my bread wasn't rising properly, wasn't developing gas holes, was simply that I'd been using tap water!


h1. About the book and author

In his first food memoir, The $64 Tomato, William Alexander detailed the travails of trying to grow his own food. With his second, 52 Loaves, he switches from the garden to the kitchen, recounting his quest to bake the perfect loaf of rustic country bread. 

Over the course of a year, Alexander grows his own wheat, studies baking at the Ritz in Paris, and, most profoundly, visits a monastery in Normandy, where he teaches the monks how to bake their very own bread.

Copyright 2010 by William Alexander. Reprinted with permission from Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. All rights reserved.


It's true; I'd just read that bread must be made with spring water, for chlorine and other impurities found in municipal water inhibit yeast activity. Furthermore, the author stated it in such a matter-of-fact way that she made me feel I must be the only creature on the planet not to have realized this.

Naturally, chlorine isn't good for microorganisms! That's precisely why I dump it into my swimming pool every day. This suddenly seemed so obvious that I wondered how I could have overlooked it. But could it really be that simple? Was my quest for perfect bread about to end almost before it had begun?

While I waited for the weekend and my next opportunity to bake, the mailman delivered my ninety-nine-dollar, two-volume, fourteen-hundred-page set of E. J. Pyler's [%amazonProductLink asin=0982023901 "Baking Science and Technology"], a book more suited for a graduate student than a home baker, but I devoured it like a good novel. Chlorine, it turned out, wasn't even the half of it. I learned from Pyler that hard water will produce a firmer dough, and acidic water — say, the kind of water found in our northeastern reservoirs, which are filled with acid rain — weakens the gluten structure, diminishing the ability of the dough to rise.

I grabbed some swimming pool testing strips to analyze my tap water. The pH was so low (that is, acidic) as to be off the scale! But then I realized that the scale on these strips ended at 6.8, just a little under the neutral 7.0. But how much lower was it? I expressed my concern to Anne. Being married to a doctor is a mixed bag. Once again, she arrived home late — very late — for dinner, but at least armed tonight with a handful of urinalysis dip strips.

"Try these," she said. The bad news was that the water's pH was about 6.2 or 6.3, quite acidic. The good news was, it wasn't pregnant.

[%image feature-image float=right width=400 caption="Baking the perfect loaf of bread can become a passion."]

Chlorine, low pH — the evidence pointing to water as the culprit was mounting. And there was more: Not long before, someone had told me she'd heard that the secret to authentic French bread is authentic French spring water. At the time I was dubious, but considering that bread is (by weight) about 40 percent water, it didn't seem at all unreasonable that water might affect not only the texture of the bread but the taste. Thus I figured if I was going to use spring water for my French boule, it might as well be French.

I picked up a bottle of Evian, delivered straight from the French Alps, fully expecting that my bread, once liberated from its chlorinated, acidic manacles, would rise in the oven like a soufflé, tasting of the Alps, evoking the character of Jean-Paul Belmondo and the eroticism of Brigitte Bardot.

Yet as I measured out the Evian, the very act of watching this stream of water flow from France into my bread bowl depressed me. I always feel guilty about drinking bottled water, particularly water that has made a transatlantic journey. Or worse, a transpacific journey. (Why this is worse, I don't exactly know, but it feels worse.) How much energy was expended to transport it here, how much carbon emitted into the atmosphere? In my writing, I've urged people to buy locally grown farm products, and here I was, using water shipped four thousand miles.

When did drinking water become such a burden? My father didn't spend one moment of his life worrying about the ethics (or the purity) of the water he drank, I guarantee it. He was just happy to have indoor plumbing. Every trip to the faucet was a small miracle, and he thankfully drank whatever came out.


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In fact, my parents' generation didn't have to deal with half the decisions, ethical or otherwise, we have to make today. Forget paper or plastic. They didn't have to select from a dozen cable TV packages or choose between a PC and a Macintosh; they didn't have to decide between free-range and mass-produced chicken, between well-traveled organic and local conventional carrots; and they certainly never had to pick their own flights (and seats) from a zillion listings on the Internet. Sometimes I feel as if my head is going to explode. Fortunately I have a usually reliable antidote to this neuron overload: I retreat to the kitchen to do what men and women have been doing for six thousand years — bake bread on a stone. 

As I watched the loaf rise in the oven (and truthfully, it did seem to be rising a bit more than usual), I had mixed feelings. As badly as I wanted this loaf to be the one, what was I to do if it indeed was the perfect loaf, if when I sliced into it, Belmondo and Bardot phantasmata came streaming out, swirling around my kitchen, anointing me the god — or devil — of bread? Make bread for the rest of my life from imported water? Environmental issues aside, I wanted my bread to have that terroir, the taste of the land, and when the Hudson Valley wheat growing in my garden matured, I wanted to bake it with Hudson Valley water.

Calm down, I said to myself. It's only bread.

It's only bread.

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