Few things in life are as simple or complex as bread.
The same four essential ingredients — flour, water, yeast and salt — can yield 10,000 different combinations.
That’s what author William Alexander discovered when he embarked on a year-long odyssey to re-create the perfect loaf of peasant bread. In the process, he says, he learned an important lesson about baking and life.
For most of his life, William Alexander didn’t really care much about bread.
“As a kid I never liked bread,” he says. “I grew up in the 1950 and 1960s with this horrible cellophane-wrapped pre-sliced white bread. It wasn’t until just a few years ago that I tasted real bread. I never knew bread could be this good; the crust was this dark brown, sweet crust that turned chewy in your mouth. And the crumbs, rather than being like dense and mushy like white bread, it was this open-celled, almost honey-combed crumb. It just had a wonderful yeasty smell, just a delicious flavor.”
Alexander, who had never baked before, says he knew the only way to have this kind of bread again was to learn how to make it himself. He started, literally, from the ground up.
“I planted my own wheat and harvested and threshed and winnowed and ground that wheat into flour,” he says. “I even built a hole in my backyard, took mud that came out of that hole and made a clay oven to bake the bread.”
Alexander baked a loaf every week for a year. He says it was an exciting learning experience.
“What happened was with each failed loaf, a new questions arose. When the bread didn’t rise, I started wondering what yeast was, so I went to visit a yeast factory.”
Alexander chronicles those experiences in his book, “52 Loaves: One Man’s Relentless Pursuit of Truth, Meaning and a Perfect Crust.”
“I wanted to go to a place where bread mattered to people,” he says. “There had recently been riots in Morocco due to the cost of wheat going up, so I traveled there to bake alongside Arab women in a large village oven. It was the largest oven I’d ever seen. They all brought their own bread there. They would put a mark on it so they would know their family’s bread and leave it with the baker. Then they would come back later in the day.”
In the course of his bread quest, Alexander won second place in the New York State Fair bread competition. He enrolled in a bread-making seminar in Paris, and spent a few days at an abbey in Normandy, France, where he taught the monks how to make the traditional abbey bread.
“That was about three quarters into my year of baking,” he adds. “When I found a medieval abbey in France that said they had been baking for 1,300 years, but had lost the last monk who knew how to bake bread, I volunteered to come over and bake some bread for them. They came back and said, ‘Sure, that sounds like a good idea, but could you train a monk to bake while you are here?’ I suddenly realized I was in this absurd situation: I am an amateur baker, I hadn’t been in a church in years, I barely speak French, and found myself going over to try to restore the lost 1,300-year-old tradition of baking at the abbey.”
When Alexander’s year long bread making adventure came to its end, he realized that the perfect loaf of bread he was after was whatever loaf he was baking at the time.
This was not Alexander’s only attempt to produce his own food. In his previous book, “The $64 Tomato,” he chronicled the joys and frustrations of growing his own vegetables.