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:
Gift 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.
* * *
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
Thank you for considering a contribution today!
Ongoing support from readers like you keeps me writing and improving this free language journal, for the past 18 years. If you enjoy this website and would like to keep it going, please know your donation towards this effort makes all the difference! No matter the weather, on good days or bad, I am committed to sharing a sunny, vocabulary-packed update with you, one you can look forward to. I hope it fuels your dreams of coming to France while expanding your French vocabulary. A contribution by check or via PayPal (or credit card, links below) is greatly appreciated. Merci!