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The Terroir of Bread

Updated: Jan 8, 2023

There are many aspects of France and French life that I miss after every visit that then keep drawing me back for more. The food and how it has soaked into their culture I adore. France is obviously not alone in this, Italy, Spain and Greece to name but a few locals, but perhaps the accessibility from England gives France the edge or perhaps it’s just the people...

The French language is quite alluring, words flow and drift through the air, almost alive with a sense of their own direction in a conversation. There are those words for which there is no literal translation, words that are borne out of passion for a concept. My favourite of these is 'Terroir'.

The partnership existing between bread and terroir is equal to that of wine, cheese, coffee, whiskey and chocolate to name but a few. The organic nature of bread, how it has a mind of its own, depends entirely on all its elements, including our own hands. Perhaps sourdough is the best expression of bread and terroir. Three simple ingredients go into making a sourdough loaf; water, flour and yeast. Cultivating natural yeasts from the environment gives the bread a unique rise, crumb, crust and flavour found nowhere else. These yeasts are present from start to finish, from those present in the wheat to those floating around the air where the ferment is made. Aside from being simply gorgeous, this is a surprisingly thrifty and inexpensive way of making your own bread. It all begins with the cultivation of yeast in a 'starter', 'biga', 'levain' or 'ferment'...

Now there are many very talented folks around the world who have mastered this sometimes illusive art form. Those wonderful people have taken the science of all these ingredients and harness this power to create singularly beautiful breads! Phrases such as hydration, bulk ferment and a handful of other terms takes the terroir of bread to the next level. Quite rightly so, exploring all that is in front of us to strive for perfection is one of the most human of traits. Although incredibly complex a subject sourdough baking can become, the origins are still beautiful in their simplicity. The simplest of starts opens doors to the passionate allowing their creative juices to flow, exploring endless possibilities...

This is the wonder of terroir, an elegant harmony of simple ingredients made into something more by respecting and embracing the habitat from where it was produced. Making bread from a personal 'starter' evokes a sense of place. Finding your favourite flour from a local mill or using a supermarket staple furthers the terroir of your loaf. How you choose to make your dough, rise and prove it, the shape of your loaf, what tray or tin you choose to bake on, how clean your oven is even the time of year and weather all has an effect on the finished loaf to some degree or another.

The greatest, but largely overlooked, factor involved in the terroir of bread is the baker! Decisions made all throughout the bread making process directly influence the finished article. So really the baker or the wine maker, harvester, brewer, the artisan producer is as much a part of terroir as the ingredients themselves. Using craft knowledge and emotion from within to steer the decision making process towards an idea, the desired finished article. A symbiosis between the habitat and an individual, 'getting hands on', taking responsibility and ownership for every stage of the process. Finally leaving your mark!

A sourdough is bread in its simples form and, as with much in life, the simple things are often the hardest to achieve. The beauty of sourdough and its simplicity is that terroir = flavour. The terroir of a sourdough has a physical flavour! This is, of course, not only true for bread but also for all tasty treats from wine to cheese, whiskey to rum, coffee to tea and so on. To embrace the terroir is to enhance the flavour. This is not to say that bread made from traditional bakers yeast or the various dried yeasts available produces an inferior loaf, far from it! The result is neither inferior nor superior, simply different!

Bread can become as complicated as you like. Introducing more ingredients, changing temperatures, altering ratios, tweaking every aspect of the process will change the finished flavour and fundamentally alter the texture. Bread in all its forms is perhaps my greatest joy in the kitchen. Traditions and habits around the household and with the family make their way into my bread making. It could be said that even these are part of the terroir, neither physical nor tangible but influential none the less. Weekends are made for an easier start to the day and a treat. Enriched doughs such as brioche or 'pain de mie' make a fabulous Saturday breakfast. Any bread in the vague shape of a baguette with garlic added somehow is a must for pasta and there is always a call for Pizza at some point during the week. To take dough to the next level and indulge ourselves, there is always room for a lardy cake (more an enriched dough than a cake) in the cupboard!

Time is perhaps the single greatest influence on bread making, hence a big part of the terroir of a loaf. The physical process obviously takes time, however taking the time to immerse oneself in the process of making a loaf of bread not only feels like a luxury with a relatively young family, but also makes eating the loaf an entirely different experience. Perhaps, considering all of this, the single largest aspect of terroir is not time but what time gives us. An opportunity, a chance to add passion and human a element to what ever it is we are doing. The joy of having a home made loaf in the house. The luxury of time to bake. Family clamouring to have the warm crust smeared in butter. All the emotion and what can blossom from simply having a warm loaf of bread in the house, go into the flavour, shaping the experience and desire to have another go. What you as the baker bring to making a loaf really does change the finished flavour, texture and experience. It is because of this that, to me, the concept of terroir extends far beyond the environment and ingredients. Terroir is also the personal touch, the imprint left behind by those involved.

The harmonious symbiosis between emotion and food is perhaps why there is such love for those countries where food has soaked into the culture. Give you bread personality, bring it to life and embrace the terroir of bread. No loaf will be the same and you will love every one!


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