After hearing him preach, I can say without a doubt, I’m a believer in the Gospel according to Graison Gill. The baker’s passion and conviction about whole wheat, long-ferment sourdough bread made with stone milled flours is so evangelical, that since first encountering the founder and former owner of Bellegarde Bakery, back in 2017, I’ve become obsessed with this old-world style bread. Amen. I recall him once describing the conventional, non-stone ground flour — especially all-purpose, white — that most of us buy at the grocery as trash. In 2022, Gill sold the bakery to five employees, who have continued his mission, which includes intense, five-to six-hour breadmaking workshops. While I’ve made yeasted white and wheat bread, until recently (despite the pandemic lockdown bread craze of 2020) I’ve remained far too intimidated to attempt long-ferment sourdough. In June, I finally watched “Cooked,” the documentary based on journalist Michael Pollan’s book “Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation.” The book published in 2013 and the documentary was released in 2016, but as usual, I’m late on the uptake, because I spend most of my free time reading pre-20th century literature and watching costume dramas, but I digress. Pollan’s work finally gave me the confidence and conviction to try sourdough, so a couple of weekends ago I took the workshop at Bellegarde Bakery.
As mentioned, the workshop is intense. (Disclosure: The Bellegarde owners provided the workshop complimentary to me as a member of the media). Lead baker Alex Valore was our teacher for the afternoon. We made country boules and focaccia. It’s not that baking this style of bread is difficult, per se, rather, it’s a long process. Technically it takes two days (if you already have a sourdough starter). On the first day, you pre-mix (or make the autolyze) and leave it out overnight. Day two is spent mixing, proofing, waiting for the dough to bulk ferment, shaping and baking. It’s a whole thing. In the Bellegarde workshop, the autolyze is done the day before and the students simply create the dough with Valore’s instruction and supervision. Then, via cooking show-like magic, Valore whips out about 30 ready-to-bake boules (two for each participant) for us to put in the giant commercial ovens, while we work on stuffing (also pre-made) focaccia dough. We stuff the loaves with everything from roasted garlic and tomatoes to olives, herbs and feta. Or all of the above.
There’s a snack break in which participants get to enjoy ham or caprese sandwiches made with the bakery’s focaccia. Then it’s back to work getting those stuffed focaccias baked. The class went faster than I imagined, because we are engaged the entire time either mixing, listening to questions, baking, folding or stuffing dough.
After class, we were sent home with the two boules and a focaccia, as well as the two boule doughs and a focaccia dough. The next morning, I baked one of the boules and did a final proof, stuffed and baked the focaccia. I also started my sourdough starter that morning. Which is the thing that has most intimidated me since the desire to bake my own sourdough bread first hit me all those years ago. A friend offered to FedEx some of her husband’s starter, which has made various cross country moves with them over the years and is likely filled with delicious and complex flavors. But, because I’m me, I just had to start my own from scratch. For both ego and science reasons.
My starter is ready and I plan to bake next week. Despite the workshop and the intense amount of research I’ve done, I’m still nervous that it won’t turn out. I’m a perfectionist, so anything less than a gorgeous, perfect loaf is a failure according to my brain. Which is probably why it has taken me six years to even attempt to learn the process. So, you might say this blog post is premature. You might be right. I might ruin several batches. I might never get it right. But I’m going to try, and I promise, either way I’ll report back.
Meanwhile, why am I telling you about this bread that I haven’t yet even baked on my own? This style of bread is absolutely delicious, loaded with vitamins and minerals and is more easily digested than conventional bread. The reason Gill trash talks conventional, non-stone ground flour is because when wheat is stone ground, the stones stay cool and don’t burn off the nutrients and endosperms, plus more of the wheat germ and bran is retained. It also includes other dietary fibers that help balance the effect of the starch. Due to the fibers and low glucose content — and coupled with the long-ferment sourdough — this style of bread also helps prevent inflammation and improves digestion (also known as gut health, which I wrote about recently, if you want to learn more).
If you decide to buy it rather than bake it, natural or wild yeasted, long ferment — aka sourdough — whole wheat, levain bread is what you want to look for in the description. It’s a little pricy if you buy it from a bakery. But, you get what you pay for, no? I love supporting my local bakers, especially those like Bellegarde that are passionate about creating nutritious, gut friendly bread. But I also am on a budget, so buying a couple of loaves every week at $9 or more a pop is a bit rich for my blood. In addition to Bellegarde, Levee Baking Co. also makes this style of bread. In fact, there are various small bakers across the country bringing back this old-world style of breadmaking, and they are (deservedly) proud of their work, so believe me it will be mentioned on the bakery website or somewhere else in the marketing materials.
For the few and the brave keen to try their hand at it, I tracked down Michael Pollan’s recipe online (it’s also in his book “Cooked”). Wish me luck for next week (or possibly this weekend) when I see if I have what it takes to bake this glorious bread.
Are you a sourdough baker or do you think this sounds like punishment? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.