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October 2019

Entries from November 2019

Levain: Giving bread its spark of France or in The Wild West

Jean-marc on his way to work with this morning's loaf

Levain, in a figurative sense, is "what is able to excite, to brighten (feelings, ideas). Ce qui est capable d'exciter, d'aviver (les sentiments, les idées). This is exactly what I'm feeling today in writing about bread. I hope you enjoy the story and will share it with a bread lover. Listen to Jean-Marc, pictured with this morning's loaf, or miche, here:

soundfile--click here to listen

Plaine bookGift idea for a francophile and bread enthusiast, Apollonia Poilâne's book Poilâne: The Secrets of the World-Famous Bread Bakery

Today's word: le levain

    : sourdough starter, leaven

A DAY IN A FRENCH LIFE by Kristi Espinasse

Even if I am sitting here scratching my head, I think I'm beginning to understand this thing about pain. (If you pronounce the last word in that sentence correctly, not only does the phrase sort of rhyme, as only franglish can, but the meaning is much less dramatic.)

For we are talking about bread and not emotional turmoil...though this whole bread-making process has been full of the feels. 

Ever since I learned to bake the ultra-facile (no-knead) four-ingredient loaf--une miche so impressive, so beautiful it looks like it waltzed right on out of a Pôilane bakery in Paris....I've been itching to go to the next level in artisanal baking (passionate breadmakers are nodding as they read this. Vous comprenez bien ce sentiment)!

And that next level is The Mama--aka pre-ferment, bread starter, sourdough starter...and maybe even pouliche, biga or levain (tsk tsk, I should know these meanings by now, but all my recent research is literally kneading my brain at the moment--or maybe low blood sugar is the culprit in which case a hunk of bread helps).

Back to the emotions--the thrill and excitement of a newbie boulangère (I should tell you at this point that each day I send Jean-Marc off to work at his wine shop/épicerie with a portion of just-baked bread wrapped in recycled paper)...but back to the thrill of homemade bread: what could be better than using biological or wild yeast instead of storebought--and always having it on hand? .....Or, in one's sleeping bag? This brings us to a little history.....

Immigrants, pioneers, and cowboys once slept with this sour-smelling lump of dough, that's just how precious it is (and would be out there beneath the stars, with nothing but la chaleur humaine to spark your next loaf into being). Live yeast is just that, something that must be kept vivant in order to use it in one's next loaf or pan de campo....once made by cowboys, using a skillet back then.

This is how I found myself dining with my own little 2-day old lump of levain. I wasn't certain the room temperature was hospitable enough for this experiment to work, and so the thought, Why not carry it like an unborn baby? Tucking the little glass jar into my housecoat, my (hopefully) growing bump and I shared 20 warm minutes. After lunch, I set it back on the counter (re it most people name theirs, I might call mine Ananas.... for that is the ingredient--pineapple juice--I used to jumpstart the process...the weird science of turning 3 tablespoons of flour and 2 of liquid into a bread starter that could feasibly live forever! (a San Francisco bakery claims its bread starter is 150 years old. It could outlive which point it would die, for bread starter and man need each other to survive).

After carefully mixing Ananas, feeding her daily (a requirement as those growing yeast are famished)--all the while glued to YouTube videos on bread starter--I stumbled onto another breadmaking term, pâte fermentée, which seemed like the same idea as bread starter only much easier (you simply reserve a portion of the bread dough, or pâton, and use or in the next batch!

After this whirlwind week of trying to understand levain, I'm just now warming to the concept of pâte fermentée (pictured below-on top of Ananas....and something the historical Poilane bakery in Paris uses, taking a portion of dough from the previous loaf): this particular dough (added to bread dough) is used to give the bread a rustic flavor. 

Voilà, maintenant vous savez tout! That's what's cooking over here in my neck of the woods. And should you walk by our "cabin", you'd pick up a lovely yeasty scent--and quite a sight: a newbie bread baker puttering around her garden, wearing a bump beneath her housecoat. Just like my ancestors, those cowboys, I'm keeping this precious bundle alive.

     *    *    * 

Pain fermentee pouliche levain
The bottom jar is my three-day old starter, "Ananas", and on top, a visibly fermenting piece of dough--or pâton--from yesterday's bread making session (see top photo with Jean-Marc, for the final result). Don't miss the easy 4-ingredient bread recipe here

Bread Baking Kit Gift Set | Banneton Bread Proofing Basket | 2 Baguette Baking Pan | Bread Lame | 100% Flax Linen Couche Made in France | Dough Scraper | Dough Cutter

Le PARFAIT canning jars - A variety of sizes, for a variety of uses

le levain aka levain-mère, levain-chef = bread starter
le pain = bread
la miche = round loaf (in slang: buns, cheeks, one's derrière)
Vous comprenez bien ce sentiment =
you understand this feeling
la boulangère, le boulanger = baker
la chaleur humaine = human warmth
vivant = living
pan de campo = camp bread
le pâton = piece of dough
la pâte fermentée = fermented dough
Voilà, maintenant vous savez tout! = there, now you know everything

Homemade bread eggs peppercorns

Ongoing support from readers like you helps me to continue doing what I love most: sharing vocabulary and cultural insights via these personal stories from France. Your contribution makes a difference. A donation by check or via PayPal is vivement appréciéeMerci infiniment! Kristi

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une épluchure, les déchets, la poubelle: words in today's caper...involving compost

Purple basil coquelicots

Here is where a themed photo usually appears, above the word of the day. But you don't want to look at potato peelings do you? Enjoy, instead, a picture of our garden from springtime 2018. Strangely, all the red coquelicots, or poppies, did not return in 2019....

Today's Word: épluchure

    Une épluchure, c'est un morceau de peau d’un légume ou d’un fruit
    A peeling is a bit of skin from a vegetable or fruit
Exercises in French Phonics - A little gem of a book for French pronunciation. Order here.

A DAY IN A FRENCH LIFE by Kristi Espinasse

When we moved to La Ciotat two years ago, one of our first tasks was to find a place to recycle all of our kitchen scraps, or déchets de cuisine. But in the years since we began composting, rarely have we actually gotten to use the finished product! I can't remember collecting more than a few buckets, or seaux, of the "black gold" in all the time I have painstakingly set aside rotten tomatoes, épluchures, apple cores, coffee grounds, tea bags, even my husband's underpants and socks! De plus, I regularly go through the kitchen poubelle, plucking out orange peels and banana skins that sometimes end up there.

Beyond our kitchen door, steps lead out to a side yard, and there, beneath the kitchen window, against the house, is where we set up our bac à compost : an unsightly plastic cube (and free gift from the town hall). Only, after one full year of collecting scraps daily, with the aim of making mulch, I noticed the pile was not growing. In fact it seemed to be at a standstill.

I thought about a comment one of our harvesters made, years ago: "Never place your compost pile beside un arbre....or the tree will eat your compost!" That sounded like something right out of a sci-fi book!

Come to think of it....when we first moved to this bungalow, I could see right through the sparse hedge outside my kitchen window, right through to my neighbor's bedroom window, just meters away. These days, while sipping my coffee at the kitchen sink, I notice the house has disappeared behind that hedge, which has filled in and then some.

Did that hedge eat my compost? It was time to get to the bottom of things--the bottom of the compost pile--to find out what was happening! I asked Jean-Marc to help transfer the compost over to the potager, where sunflowers grew last summer.
Sunflowers and smokey golden retriever

The two of us began shoveling rotten grapes, potatoes, and other as-yet-decomposed food onto a tarp that we placed beside the composteur.

When we dug deep enough to see soil, or hummus, that is when I saw the network of roots! Like a fine web crawling through the soil, the tiny roots made it difficult to break up the mass. By the time we reached the bottom, with the help of a hoe, we saw the giant tube-like roots. They reminded me of a hose siphoning all of the goodness out of MY compost pile.

Later, still livid, I told the whole story to Mom. "Can you believe it. That hedge ate MY compost! It snuck its hose-like roots up into the bin from below and sucked it dry! Worse, all that black gold might have gone to that tree in the middle of the hedge-- the one the rats use to climb on top of our roof! Imagine, all that effort gone into feeding a useless tree!

Mom, amused by my compost caper, stopped laughing in time to correct me. "There is no such thing as a worthless tree."

Well, I can't argue with Mom! Meantime, and from here on out, I'm feeding my kitchen scraps directly to my vegetable garden -- nevermind how odd my husband's underwear looks scattered beside the sunflowers!

I leave you with a wonderful book I bought years ago and gave away to a friend. I need to get another copy. It is called Lasagna Gardening, and it is all about placing your épluchures directly in the garden. Try it! This book makes an excellent gift for a gardener, too

Lasagna gardening

déchets de cuisine = kitchen scraps
le seau = bucket
une épluchure = fruit or vegetable peeling
de plus = what's more
la poubelle = garbage
bac à compost = compost bin
un arbre = tree

Mirabel plum tree
Picture of a Mirabel prune tree growing near our compost. Perhaps it benefitted from the compost pile, too? I hope!

Ongoing support from readers like you helps me to continue doing what I love most: sharing vocabulary and cultural insights via these personal stories from France. Your contribution makes a difference. A donation by check or via PayPal is vivement appréciéeMerci infiniment! Kristi

♥ Give $10    
♥ Give $25    
♥ Give the amount of your choice

Has a friend forwarded you this post? Receive your own FREE subscription to French Word-A-Day. Click here