The following text is taken from the information pack given out for the second Leaven Bread Workshop organised by the association of Dutch leaven bakers (August 1984). It was written by Omer Gevaert, the originator of the French leaven bread baked by the LIMA bakery in Ghent, some forty years ago. He is now about 80 years old but is still engaged in a rice-wafer bakery of his own and was judge at the Dutch Leaven Competition held during these workshops.
-- Master Baker Rolf Weichold
Leaven bread, the old French manner of baking bread. Having worked at dozens of bakers, I had the opportunity to study the nature of leaven bread. I learned a lot and slowly I gained the skills necessary to make traditional French bread though in fact there are several methods used in that country. I learnt that: The enzyme is more important that the microbe. The enzyme determines the development of the leaven. The enzyme contains the source of germination. We must work with organically grown grain and spring water. Clean water and pure seeds. Leaven. The production of leaven is best undertaken in the middle of a young pine wood because of the pure atmosphere. That will give the best leaven. You begin at dawn, when the dew lays on the ground, the temperature is at its lowest and many bacteria are inactive. You take the organic grain, wash it with spring water and soak it. The seed swells. You flatten the grains and form a ball of this pap (i.e. no grinding will be necessary). You cover the ball with meal to protect it from the atmosphere. After 24 to 36 hours you add a further quantity of pap, enough to make four or five times the original mass. This second dough should be a bit drier. Again you cover this with meal. The dough will develop, without fermentation or bacteria, It is solely an enzyme-effect. This happens quite quickly. The enzymes will decide which microbes they will play host to and they soon form a symbiotic community. Making a leaven for a bread dough. At the outset, you should make it difficult for the leaven [a combination of fresh flour, water and some of the starter described in the preceding section] to develop; later you ease the process. So first, make the dough dry and cold (17° C, 63°F); store it in a linen cloth. Later, when you add the final flour and water for the finished amount of dough, make it warmer (24°C, 75°F) and wetter, so wet that a machine cannot bring it together. In the past, leaven was always made with salt. My experience is that that it will give better results. Kneading. The old way of kneading by hand is no longer economic but a machine must be kept at a slow speed (30 to 50 revolutions per minute), for you should not work the dough too much. When I prepare a dough by hand, every 45 seconds I take a piece of dough weighing 1.5 kg [3.3 lb]. This I stretch to maximum extension, bring it back together and repeat the process three to six times until the dough has lost its tension. Then I store it for about 45 minutes. Do not shape or break the dough as that will take its power away. This kind of working takes a long time and the loaves do not need much proving. Most of the rising takes place in the oven itself. The proportion of leaven to dough will depend on the age of the starter; normally it is between 20 and 30 per cent of the final dough weight. Salt. Add salt as late as possible. It is a good idea to mix it with oil (half a percentage point of the gross dough weight) – this causes it to be well mixed into the dough on the one hand and slows down its dissolution on the other. The maximum salt content of leaven bread should be 1% gross weight. You can also add seaweed to reduce the strength of sourness. As sourness inhibits all change in dough, seaweed should hasten the proof. Leaven has its life span. The micelium, a monocellular fungus, has also its time of growth and flowering. Kneading not only stimulates the gluten but causes the micelium to divide and generate. The lifespan of a single leaven before it needs renewal is five ovens or eight hours. If leaven is left to itself it will sour completely and give off ammonia. If then we remove the dry sediment and retain the liquid, this substance may be used to generate a new leaven, proceeding in the same way as above: cold and dry to wet and warm. If you wash your hands in the bakery, make sure you rinse away the scraps of dough from the sink waste. In such places may microbes inimical to leaven develop. They will spread through the bakery and you will have to ditch your present leaven culture. Bread only comes alive with leaven, never with yeast or other procedures. Yeast bread tastes like yeast, not bread.
COMMENTARY (by Rolf Weichold ) When I read this the first time, I admit to wondering who could take it seriously. Admission, too, that I did not test this leaven recipe but nonetheless I don't have much faith in the pureness of our pine woods. Maybe the salty aseptic atmosphere of the Belgian seaside would better fit the author's aims. Soaking the grain in this manner activates the germinating enzymes and hormones. The body of the grain unground but opened a first chance to develop its own life instead of being digested by microbes. This may be the explanation of Gevaert's curious temperature levels for the development of the leaven (low to help germination, i.e. enzyme activity, then higher to help microbial action, i.e. wild yeasts, etc.). In our bakery in Duisburg we do not use high output, high speed, machines. We believe the dough cannot be mechanically hastened without damaging its structure and taste. The question of whether the dough should rise in proof or in the oven may be a matter of choice. I would personally reject Omer Gevaert's short proving idea. However, all will depend on the temperature of your oven. (There is an old saw: a hot oven needs fully risen bread, a cold one needs underproved dough.) Omer Gevaert's idea of micelium seems vague. There are a lot of microbes called '-myces': saccharomyces cerevisiae (yeast), mycoderma (cam-yeast), saccharomyces exiguus, etc. Obviously there is a difference between leaven yeast cells and the structure of a molasses-fed compressed yeast which Gevaert wants to stress by choosing a different name. One of the statements I really do not comprehend is that of using overripe leaven liquid, i.e. off, to start a new fermentation. Its acidity (containing indeed vinegar acid microbes) would stop any germinatory impulse within the original seed ball. The rogue microbes which he mentions when urging you to keep your wastes clean and tidy are themselves vinegar acid microbes. I would stress the need to keep the workplace clean of old, dried, scraps of dough for they will cause spontaneous fermentation of flour if the conditions are just so. Obscure it may be, but finally I enjoyed pondering on this 'leaven poetry', more as an indication of creativity than as recipe or scientific treatise. Maybe you will too.
This document first published in "The Barefoot Baker "section of Tom Jaine's The Three Course newsletter, Number 5. Summer, 1987.