PEOPLE – The Alchemy of Bread

26 Aug 2003

For some time now particular names tend to be mentioned when you talk about ‘quality food and drink’ from around the world. One of these names is Kaiser of Paris with his famous baguettes, redolent of the ‘good old days’. While Eric Kaiser was on a visit to Beirut, I had occasion to meet this young enthusiast, talk about good bread and share breakfast with him—Lebanese style of course, with a view over the roofs of Beirut. When asked what the name Kaiser stood for in the bakery world, Eric explained that his primary aim was to ‘restore bread to its former quality’, and ‘…above all return pride and prestige to the baker’s craft, to an artisan who can make good bread, and can convey and restore importance to the profession so as to attract intelligent young people to the occupation. It is fascinating work, a sort of alchemy which lets you learn many things’.<br

Mouzawak:
What contribution have you made to the world of bread?

Kaiser:
Kaiser has made a modest contribution, endeavoring to make high quality bread available once more. We initially worked on bread-making machinery. Together with a friend, Patrick Castagna—the best workman in France as far as bread-making machines are concerned—we developed a new machine. The machine was called ‘Fermentolevain’, and enabled natural yeasts to be continuously produced. In the 1990s Patrick and I were involved in training and we realized that after trainees had finished a training course in the use of natural yeast, during which we had tried to reeducate them how to use the material, they had forgotten everything within a week … Perhaps we weren’t good teachers, or perhaps the subject was just too complicated. We opted for the second explanation and tried to develop a machine that continually produced sour dough of consistent quality. If you go back in time and look at the history of breadmaking, you see that bread used to be made using ‘natural’ yeasts such as vinegar or different cheeses. It was necessary to make a culture of yeast that existed in the air, and at the same time encourage the yeast to grow so there was enough to leaven the bread. In the past all bakers only worked with this type of yeast, the sour dough method, since the alternative of industrial yeasts did not exist. The first yeast-making factories sprang up in about 1850, when bakers began to add a small amount of chemical yeast to their bread, albeit continuing to work with natural sour dough. This small amount was then increased, and by the 1970s and 1980s, it was all that was used, with the result that the bread lost its taste and texture, and it then became necessary to add additives to improve its flavor.

M. : Why are you so resolutely opposed to industrial yeasts?

K. : The main thing is that chemical yeast involves simplifying the process. In addition, I don’t think it is the bakery sector itself that has invoked the changes so much as having had changes imposed on it by radical industrial developments. Bakers find themselves forced to work in a particular way so they can adapt to modern machinery. A whole range of equipment—kneading machines, portioning machines, molding machines, controlled leavening chambers—have been invented in the blink of an eye … Bakers have been hustled and pressured down the wrong track. They have been shown that controlled leavening chambers require well-processed bread with a lot of additives and yeast. In fact you need to do the exact opposite.

M. : Who has benefited from all this and in what way?

K. : I think that bakers thought they could benefit from improved organization of their work. In fact, the profession has fallen apart and been degraded, given that anyone could decide to be a baker without really being passionate about bread. People were no longer making good bread, they were just making bread. About ten years ago there were second thoughts, there was a change in policy. First of all the ‘Raffarin Law’ protecting French traditions was passed in France: it promoted bread made with flour containing no additives. Following the ‘Raffarin Law’ there was legislation shortly afterwards supporting bread made with sour dough. In 1994, Patrick Castagna and I launched the ‘Fermentolevain’ machine, which was definitely of interest to bakers wishing to make good wholesome bread. The first to show their approval were bakers from the US, Japan and Canada, who wanted to use the machine because they appreciated what it could do and thought it was important. I still travel as a consultant and see the many different approaches used by bakers, who add yogurt, mashed potatoes and many other ingredients to their sour dough in order to promote fermentation.

M. : Can bread be considered a universal food?

K. : I have traveled extensively and wherever I have been, all over the world, I have always found bread.

M. : What led humans to transform grain into flour and then into bread?

K. : I believe humans have always been motivated to produce good things, and in a certain sense, bread was inevitable. I think the inspiration for such a uniquely fundamental food must have come from heaven. It is the only food that can assure survival. If it is made with love, I think it is an incredible source of energy. I remember there was a revolution in a faraway country, the Cape Verde Islands. I had gone there to help set up a bakery, then there was a revolt. The Cape Verde people smashed everything as they went, and there I was, the only white person, in the middle of the bakery … They smashed everything, but not the bakery. I think there is a real respect for bread, the bearer of life since time immemorial.

M. : Do you think bread is more of a French food?

K. : No. At one time there was a great tradition of bakeries in France but there is equally a great bread tradition in Italy, Spain or Japan. France became known because of its bread, just as it has become known because of its wine and cuisine.

M.: And Lebanese bread?

K.: It has suffered from the same problems as French bread. First there was naturally leavened bread, then there was the invasion of industrial yeasts and additives … Lebanese bread started being changed, it was produced more quickly and its quality got worse. I think that after all these changes, if we returned to making bread naturally, or at least ‘a little more naturally than at present’, bread really would be more wholesome, nutritious and healthy. Lebanese bread would definitely benefit. I have tried it when it was made only using sour dough, and it was absolutely delicious. A real treat.

M.: Is it only because people are keen to save time?

K.: Saving time doesn’t come into it, it’s a question of organizing things differently. You can achieve excellence by dedicating some time to your time.

M. : Can any kind of flour be used to make sour dough?

K. : When I worked as a consultant I was amazed to find some bakeries producing the same way, using a lot of industrial yeast with organic wholemeal flour and extremely refined flours. The quality of the flour is of fundamental importance. You have to use stoneground wholemeal flour, which still contains the wheatgerm with all the nutrients. You can also use other cereals, such as the rye they use in Germany, which gives a slightly sourer flavor. You can use wholemeal or part wholemeal flour, but you need to remember that it is the husks which contain most of the natural yeasts. Yeast is that small element which makes a big difference.

M. : It seems to be what we would call baraka, magic. To get back to bread, what does being passionate about bread mean?

K. : It means being passionate about what you do and what you love.

M. : What is good bread, what is it like?

K.: First of all it is a lovely yellow-brown color; more aromas develop if the bread is browner and more well-baked. Two hundred different aromas can be identified in a baguette. So first of all there is the visual appearance. Then, when it is cut, the bread should have both large and small irregularly-shaped holes, a sign that it has risen well. And finally, bread can have different flavors, depending on customs and traditions.

M.:To conclude, I would like to say something about Lebanese bread. Nowadays virtually all you can find for sale on the market is flat pitta bread. This bread is mostly made using white flour and industrial yeasts. But it is becoming easier to find pitta bread made from wholemeal flour, or with added bran and sometimes even seaweed, with attention being given to new dietary concerns. Out in country villages in the mountains you can also find markouk bread, an ancient traditional bread with a very thin sheet of crispy golden pastry, baked on a large hot plate (sajj). Or tannour bread, baked in an oven dug out of the ground, which is reminiscent (also in name) of the Indian tandoori. In the south of Lebanon they still make mechtah, a thick long bread, (which gives it its name) and also baked on the sajj.

Kamal Mouzawak is a contributor to Saveurs du Liban et d’ailleurs, Lebanon’s most important f&w monthly.

Adapted by Ronnie Richards

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