Slow-ish food: French artisanal bread

It’s 5am and I can’t sleep. I’m no stranger to waking ridiculously early, but still resist it. Today I decide to surrender, get out of bed, and get a jump on my pain de campagne (French country bread), which I started making on Sunday. That’s when I finished reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma, by Michael Pollan, in which he recounts making a huge meal with the local, seasonal ingredients he’s gathered. This included a type of sourdough bread, for which you make your own yeast (by “collecting” it from the air … apparently the air is crawling with the stuff!). As soon as I read that — fuelled with enthusiasm for good, slow, local food thanks to Pollan’s excellent storytelling — I went straight to the kitchen to make my own.

Now, in my sleepy 5am haze, with the dog giving me his most incredulous expression for being up so early, I’m ready to make what is my very favourite bread.

Incredulous dog at 5am

Pain de campagne is a crusty, round loaf with a slightly sour taste, and I’ve seen recipes which require you to get a sourdough starter or spend a week or, in some cases, months, making a starter from all manner of ingredients. The recipe I have (from The Book of Bread, by Christine Ingram and Jennie Shapter) takes a total of four days for the whole recipe, including the starter. While this bread is my favourite French variety, I know there are subtleties to making it and to its taste that I can’t begin to appreciate (e.g., see this well-informed blog by a real baker about variations in taste, texture, etc., or this one, which suggests I’m getting in over my head).

Despite the challenge, I enjoy this kind of slow-food process: thinking about it on Sunday and knowing I have to be patient and then I’ll get to eat it on Thursday. In the realm of slow food, of course, where making artisanal bread requires months or years to make the starter, this is fairly fast food, but I it’s pretty slow for me. All week I’ve been thinking about what I’ll serve the bread with — white bean soup? lentil soup? I’m in search of a refreshing summery soup that will complement the bread. I’ll let you know what I come up with, or please make a suggestion.

So on Sunday I began making the chef (whole wheat flour and water), which is the first stage. I let it sit for two days in a warm place (which, for once, wasn’t difficult as we actually have some summer weather here in the UK).

Mixing flour into the levain to make the dough

On Tuesday I added a first ‘refreshment’ of warm water and whole wheat flour, then Wednesday night the second ‘refreshment’. The recipe suggests letting it rise until doubled in quantity for about 10 hours, but when I looked at it this morning, eight hours later, it was already doubled. So I added water, white flour and salt and am now letting it rise, which should take 1.5-2 hours. I’ll update when I move to the next stage.

I rarely bake bread, so although I’ve made pain de campagne before, it’s always an adventure when I try it again. My husband is the baker. About eight years ago, when we were living in Belgium and he had some time on his hands, he decided to give breadmaking a try. Since then he’s made bread for us every week. Frankly, I wasn’t big on bread — I love artisanal and French breads, but I didn’t eat ordinary wheat or white loaves every day until he started making it. Something about it being made with love by him makes me want to eat bread more (it’s about the love, of course, but it’s also about having a vehicle for butter, which is my other true love … for a romantic tale of butter, see Jeffrey Steingarten’s essay Buttering Up, from Best Food Writing 2003).

Before I sign off to have breakfast, I just did a bit of surfing to learn more about the bread I’m making, and the more I read (about how difficult it is to make, about all the ways I might fail), the more daunted I am. I’ve made it before, though, and it worked fine. So I think the best strategy is to go forward, make my bread, and hope for the best.

Kneading dough for pain de campagne


One Comment on “Slow-ish food: French artisanal bread”

  1. […] follow up my last post about my excursion into making (sourdough) pain de campagne, I’m happy to report that it […]

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