I have a beef with Starbucks, and it’s not about coffee – I’m a tea drinker – it’s about bread. My favorite bread, an old-school, Poilane-like whole wheat levain called pain Pascal at Trader Joe’s, has disappeared, and it turns out Starbucks is responsible for taking away one of the few breads I feel entirely good about eating.
Bread in America has made a significant comeback from the heyday of squishy white Wonder Bread in the 1970s, but it’s no wonder that many people have found a health benefit from avoiding additive-laden modern wheat products. Industrialization has ruined bread, a food once so essential to life that the word “bread” is used in the Bible as a proxy for “food,” the way the Chinese use the word “fan” not just for rice but for food in general.
Wheat in its natural form is not easily digestible. You are unlikely to get salmonella from raw eggs in cookie dough, but the uncooked wheat will give you a stomachache every time.
Bread used to be people’s way of conquering wheat’s digestibility issues. Old-school levain bread, made with long-fermented natural sourdough starter, is effectively a pre-digested (and thus much more easily digestible) form of wheat in the same way yogurt and kefir are pre-digested (and more easily digestible) forms of milk. A European study in 2004 found that long-fermented natural sourdough bread was tolerated well even by gluten-sensitive celiacs.
But today’s bread is wholly different, starting from the grain. Wheat is now a hybridized crop, engineered for yield. Roller milling destroys so many nutrients that refined flour has to be artificially “enriched” with nutrients added back in. Chemical additives used to shortcut the bread-making process include oxidizing agents, bleaches, emulsifiers and conditioners. Bread boxes, once essential for proper mold-free storage, have long been made obsolete by artificial preservatives. Even my hometown San Francisco sourdough is often rushed with yeast and enhanced with artificial sour flavoring.
True levain bread, the ideal of which is Pain Poilane in Paris, has only four ingredients: water, sourdough starter, sea salt and stone-ground whole grain flour (I believe Poilane uses spelt as well as wheat). Some of the bran is sifted out so that the final bread has the deep flavor of whole wheat without the graininess that makes you want to floss your teeth afterward.
Pain Pascal, with the same four ingredients, was the closest I’d found to pain Poilane in my area. It was a bargain at $4 for an enormous half-round that easily lasted a week. Normal bread is dry and hard after a day or two, but real levain ages beautifully, maintaining its moisture, texture and flavor.
Pain Pascal was a product of La Boulange (also previously known as Bay Bread), a favorite bakery of mine from San Francisco whose products I knew from Whole Foods and a local farmer’s market. The founder of La Boulange, Pascal Rigo, trained in his native France before opening his San Francisco operation in 1999, and among his very French line-up of baguettes, croissants and other pastries was the traditionally giant round of rustic sourdough levain.
But in June 2012, Rigo sold La Boulange to Starbucks for $100 million. And now the fate of Pascal’s peasant bread is in the hands of a coffee empire that I’m sure has no interest in spreading the gospel of authentic levain bread to America.
For now La Boulange is still selling pain Pascal at its own stores around the San Francisco Bay Area, where it is called pain peasant ($7.50 for a whole loaf, $3.75 for a half; it also offers a multigrain and a version with walnuts). Fortunately for those of us in Silicon Valley, La Boulange opened a Palo Alto outpost last year.
And I’m pinning my hopes of more widespread availability of traditional levain on Belgian bakery-cafe Le Pain Quotidien, which continues its US expansion. That company has a real farm-to-table mission to produce quality bread. I’d love to take their breadmaking classes, offered in New York City and Orange County.
For anyone looking to make traditional breads at home (hats off to you, and please invite me over), Peter Reinhart’s The Bread Baker’s Apprentice: Mastering the Art of Extraordinary Bread seems to be the book to have.