une épluchure, les déchets, la poubelle: words in today's caper...involving compost
Les Proches: loved ones in French + what brings satisfaction

Levain: Giving bread its spark of life...in 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 mankind...at 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

A Message from KristiOngoing support from readers like you keeps me writing and publishing this free language journal each week. If you find joy or value in these stories and would like to keep this site going, donating today will help so much. Thank you for being a part of this community and helping me to maintain this site and its newsletter.

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For more online reading: The Lost Gardens: A Story of Two Vineyards and a Sobriety


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Robert Fisher

Hi Kristin,
My wife and I live in Az, and met you once at Vincent’s. I’ve been a boulanger, amateur for 40 years.
My repertoire is small but my bread would match any Parisien boulangerie product. I make typical baguettes and pain au levain with my starter that is supposedly 100 years old from Alaska. If you’d like, I’d send you my formulae and techniques.
Bob Fisher


I can SMELL it from here. Wunderbar!!! How fabulous!

Instead of using recycled paper, why don't you discover the advantages of beeswax wraps?
My daughter makes and sells them, is hugely successful.
They are completely bio-organic - no pesticides were used in the cotton growing, no antibiotics in the wax. She buys the wax from a small business in the Black Forest and the cotton fabric is from a long-established traditional German company.


One uses them instead of alu foil and cling-wrap....

Kristin Espinasse

Robert, lucky you to have one of those starters ...d'un certain âge! And, thank you, I would appreciate more information on this topic.

Kristin Espinasse

Good idea, Maureen. Will check them out. I usually use a dishcloth or brown paper bag. Whatever is handy.


Kristin - You need to look for a book called "Do Sourdough" By Andrew Whitley (ISBN 9781907974113). He lives in Scotland and also wrote "Bread Matters". One other thing that I have learnt is that low speed stone ground flour is essential for bread making. When I prove bread, I use a counter-top glass oven and leave it switched of until the bread has risen. Andrew writes in his introduction "the best breads are fermented slowly, which is exactly how sourdough yeasts and bacteria work." I leave mine for about 24 hours.

Suzanne Duna

Kristen Shirley you have a copy of no need to need by me and I hope I brought at the time we came to visit you. I will try the Dutch oven bread but take a look at the easy easy focaccia and other breads in the book.If you don’t have it I shall try to remedy that,!!

Suzanne Dunaway

Horrible dictation. No Need To Knead, my book on bread, the first of its kind, is a book you should have. The focaccia alone will make you smile, I promise. And J M....


Years ago, when I was a young newlywed with stars in her eyes, I decided to try sourdough baking, as a friend had given me a start. We made and ate all kinds of bread items for several months, until we tired of it and let the starter die. More recently, as in about 5 years ago, I wanted to try to make true French style baguettes and did a lot of research and baking with mediocre success at imitating those amazing loaves of bread. I wrote about it on my little blog too. But I soon came to realize that living alone, I was the only one eating all this bread and so, my bread career came to an end. But, I'd still like to try to achieve that true French baguette!

Kristin Espinasse

Suzanne, I have your beautiful book, No Need to Knead. But I tend to do things backwards, in the same way I write. Now that I have jumped in and begun making sourdough starter, it will be much more meaningful when I read more on the topic ( up until now, I have watched YouTube for info on the starter yeast). I will definitely try your focaccia. 💕

Kristin Espinasse

Marcia, The bread does pile up! I am lucky to be able to share it with my Mom and to send it off with Jea-Marc. Just yesterday I began feeding the hardened pieces to my chickens (I first soak the  tough bread).

Kristin Espinasse

Wonderful tips! Thank you Mike. 


Our dear Kristi,
You are gifted.Both as a writer(needless to say) and,among your other many attributes,now as a bread maker.
Your four ingredient loaf was a slice of heaven(thank you for sharing the recipe with us!)
Your description of pain wrapped me in smiles!Because life without pain(French pronunciation) truly causes pain!(American pronunciation!)
In my younger days I loved every aspect of making bread,especially sourdough.The starter always seemed almost miraculous to me:this rather unbeautiful glob of stuff turns the other ingredients into something incredible enough to send you off on a cloud.
Another wonderful post today, chere Kristi!!
Merci mille fois!!
Natalia xo

Judy Feldman

Bonjour Kristi!
My husband has made no-knead bread often, but not with pate fermentée, as you mentioned. How much dough should he save to use for the next loaf?


Meiling Newman

I had a sourdough starter as well but during a long absence, it died. I’m looking for a recipe for a new starter if anyone can share. Bread look delicious.

Gail V

You have solved my dilemma! I have been wracking my brain as to how to get my starter from my Summer place to our Winter residence via a long plane ride. I will tuck it in my clothes and keep it under 3 ounces then slip it in with my liquids just to go through security.😁 You are a genius.

Kristin Espinasse

Going luck, Gail! And bon voyage to your sourdough stowaway 😂 


As a boy the old man next door was a story teller, so I do not know if his stories were always true.
His wife made lovely sour dough bread.
He claimed that he made money during the gold rush selling sourdough to the miners. Probable not true, however as I kid I loved his stories and I would bet that there were men who made money this was.
My son, who is 52, still makes bread with sour dough and it is truly delicious.

Kristin Espinasse

Meiling, I hope you saw my email (which included a thank you!) and this recipe I used for my first bread starter:

Bonne chance !

Catherine Berry (But you are in France, Madame)

Hands up - bread lover here! My husband has made his own starter in the past with great success but, yes, it needs maintaining and that was one thing that did not make it to France from Australia...Enjoy your newest challenge.


Bonjour, Kristin,
This bread recipe looks pretty simple so I am going to try it. I am not a baker, however, hope springs eternal. Merci beaucoup.

Kristin Espinasse

Thank you, chère Natalia. 💕 I loved your description of starter, that unbeautiful glob capable of sending one off on a cloud.

Kristin Espinasse

Hi Judy, this is the million dollar question. Everyone talks about making it but no one tells you exactly how much to add! I will add a cup of it (or the amount growing in that jar in the photo, above) to today's dough, and eventually let you know! But I think the answer is to eyeball it!

Judy Feldman

Thanks, Kristi. Let us know how it turned out! I guess we have to acknowledge that baking bread is also an art!


Mais??? d´où viennent ces belles baies roses sur la photo? De ton jardin?

Kristin Espinasse

Haha! Malheureusement non...je les ai cueilli à Hyérès 🙂

Cerelle Bolon

Congratulations, Robert! That is quite an accomplishment..and I salute you! I live in Phoenix, too..and it is where I also met Kristin...
Keep on baking!

Paul Eggermann

Nice work Kristin,

I see a few of your readers say their sourdough starter died. I have a 100 year old starter that is pretty darn hard to kill. I have left it in the fridge for a month while away in places like Paris and brought it back with a few feedings of rye flour and lukewarm water. There will probably be a sort of black liquid on top that smells a little funky. Just stir it in and feed that puppy.It should come back after a few feedings. If not, c'est la vie!

Jim Lahey's book got me into no-knead bread and I have been using that old hand me down cast iron dutch oven ever since. Recent additions to the basic white loaf has been any combination of toasted sunflower, sesame, flax and poppy seeds. Other variations include lots of walnuts, raisins and dried cranberries. Try adding Miso paste for another taste altogether. I got this one from Gontran Cherrier https://cnz.to/paris/shops-markets/rye-and-red-miso-bread/ and experimented with different Miso's.

After a while you can make bread out of almost any flour(s), salt, starter and enough water to make a sticky lump that grows.

Bonne appetit.


Kristin Espinasse

So enjoyed your comment. Thanks, Paul. I am keeping my starter alive and active by daily breadmaking. Today I got reckless and fed the starter in a very au pif guessworky way. I think it is still kicking though! The past few days have seen big fluffy round loaves. I am stoked, and if I had a fire oven it would be stoked too!  

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