The 7 Lives of Bread

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The 7 Lives of Bread

by Jean-Philippe de Tonnac

Translated from the French and adapted by Jonell Galloway. Cliquez ici pour la version française.

If you ask an artisan bread baker who is passionate about his work from where he derived his passion, he or she will almost invariably reply, with no hesitation, that it arose out of the “mystery of the fermentation.” Did you know that bread is the result of an alcoholic fermentation, and the baker therefore actually manufactures alcohol? Now how does that come about, you might ask?* (If you’re interested, read the very technical footnote below.)












It’s not really surprising that a bread baker shares the wine maker’s penchant for the processes of “alteration,” “deterioration,” and “transformation,” which make them both somewhat sorcerers, metaphorically speaking. While a baker talks about bread fermentation, the wine maker continually refers to “maceration,” and the cheese maker to “maturation.” But whether it consists of alcoholic or lactic fermentation, we are still talking about transubstantiation, a sort of “sacrament,” which creates an aura without parallel around these “artists”. They are aware of this, and they know it is at the very heart of their art. Bread baker, cheese maker, wine maker: they all fight the same battle, that of transformation of food, of true metamorphosis.

When does dough become bread?

At the same time, at what point in this long sequence of processes does the product we actually consume merit the name “bread”? This is not an easy question.

In most of our minds, bread is a loaf or a baguette; it is ciabatta in Italy and pumpernickel in Germany. In Iran, they call it sangak, in Denmark, rugbrød, in Jamaica, bammy, eaten straight out of the oven.

Can we call the fat roll of dough after kneading and shaping or left to rise “bread”? Is the dough left to ferment in the dough trough not already bread?

The large sacks of flour that the miller delivers every morning, are they not, in some ways, already bread? Is a grain that we mill, or even a seed that we plant, not bread? Is leftover bread, bread we let dry, whether on purpose or not, and that we use to make croutons for a thick winter’s soup that we lap up like a Jacques Brel song, not also bread?

This 7 Lives of Bread column will explore every facet of bread, walking you through all the phases of transformation, from seed and grain to the end product you savor.

The 7 Lives of Bread will trace the life of a loaf of bread, from its “birth” to its “death”. Bread is therefore:

  1. The grain prepared for milling.
  2. The flour that results from milling.
  3. The dough that seals the coming together of flour and water, a meeting that starts the fermentation process.
  4. The dough roll that is detached from this initial bulk of dough, and then starts down its own individual path.
  5. The dough roll when it is baked in the oven.
  6. The bread we choose at the bread bakery, or the bread we make ourselves.
  7. Stale bread, that can be baked again (the term “biscuit” means literally, in French, “cooked twice”, in the spirit of Melba toast) so as to conserve it for future use.

The latter is typically the bread of sailors and nomads. The Greeks – great seafarers — are given credit for having invented the double cooking process.

The 7 paths: in the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread

In the 7 Lives of Bread, we will explore all seven paths of these seven “lives”. If fermentation is at the very heart of bread baking, it can also be considered that all steps – from the cultivation of wheat and milling to the actual bread making itself – are active participants in the transformation process.

This concept is aptly put in Genesis 3:19: In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou [art], and unto dust shalt thou return.

Bread is therefore to be taken in like mother’s milk, earned with the sweat of our brows. Symbolically, it is interesting to attempt to understand why bread has a price, the price of transformation or of conversion: the bread changes to the same degree as the man or woman who makes it.

If we look at it in this light, for ten thousand years now, it is as much bread that has shaped humankind as it is the hands of women and men who have shaped bread. The realization of this reciprocal shaping and, through it, conversion is the starting point of this column.

*The chains of starch (complex carbohydrates, which along with gluten constitute the essence of the endosperm or starchy kernel and quantitatively speaking, the essence of the wheat grain), under the action of enzymes or amylases, are broken down into simple glucose (C6 H12 O6), which is, in turn, converted by yeast or enzymes into either carbon dioxide (2CO2) and ethanol or ethyl alcohol (2C2 H5 OH) and energy.
Jean-Philippe de Tonnac is editor of the Dictionnaire Universel du Pain or Universal Dictionary of Bread, published in French by Éditions Laffont on October 16, 2010.
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