In 18th-century Britain, white bread was so coveted, and so considerably more expensive than brown bread — it required more grain and time to produce, as the wheat germ and bran had to be removed by hand — that bakers would sometimes add chalk and powdered bone to their flour to make it paler. Since the Middle Ages, the perception of a blanched loaf as more exclusive than a darker one, though the latter is typically more nourishing, has been hard to shake.
The invention of the iron roller mill in 19th-century Hungary made the process of beating all color, and nutrition, out of wheat easier and white bread cheaper. Still, the devaluing of whole grains continued, explained the Berlin-based American baker Laurel Kratochvila, 39, recently. “The 20th century was a very bad time for bread,” she said. “We outsourced to factories so that we could make loaves faster and more affordably, and there was a massive monoculture cultivation of soft white wheat and a dependency on commercial, rather than natural, yeast.” Reliance on these ingredients remains widespread; in France, for example, the perfect white baguette is still for many the gold standard of bread. But as Kratochvila points out in her book “New European Baking,” which was published last fall and includes dozens of sourdough bread and pastry recipes, a wave of bakers, working in cities from Paris to Warsaw, are now shaking things up, reframing ideas of what good, and healthy, bread is. “Be very wary of the perfect white loaf,” Kratochvila said, arching one eyebrow.
Late last year, to celebrate the end of her two-continent book tour, Kratochvila invited several of the bakers featured in the book to meet her in the village of Saint-Aubin-de-Luigné, in the Loire Valley of France, and make bread at the bakery and farm of her mentor, Franck Perrault, 46. The idea was to exchange ideas and experiment with Perrault’s flours, with each of the nine bakers (including Kratochvila) showcasing at least one new loaf.
Once everyone had arrived, they gathered in the back room of La Cabane à Pain, a rustic wood cabin in Perrault’s front yard. Built in the style of a Québécois sugar shack, the structure serves as a cafe, bakery and kitchen, with a large brick wood-fired oven. The first step was for each baker to develop their doughs. They chose from several of Perrault’s artisanally milled organic flours to make their individual levains (typically a combination of flour, water and some ripe starter), which they then set up for the first rise. Perrault is a paysan-boulanger, or farmer-baker, which means he controls everything about his bread, beginning with the soil in which his grains grow. He uses heritage seeds — such as Timilia, an ancient hard wheat grain from Sicily, and old varieties of rye from Finland and Brittany — collected by the Réseau Semmence Paysannes, a farmer-run seed network that promotes biodiversity. Then he harvests and processes the plants himself, turning them into flour with a small mill on his property.
“There is no one I know who is more dedicated to the idea of perfecting an entire ecosystem around bread than Franck,” said Kratochvila the next day as she watched Perrault stoke the oven with the help of Alessandro Mancini, 32, an Italian baker whom she met when they both apprenticed under Perrault four years ago. Mancini and his wife, Konatsu Maruyama, a Japanese pastry chef, also 32, oversee Maison Arlot Cheng in the nearby city of Nantes. The ambitious bakery and cafe sells sourdough breads made with natural grains, and seasonal pastries such as an adzuki bean paste tart and an Earl Grey and bergamot layer cake. “And Franck’s just as interested in bringing people together to break bread and build community,” Kratochvila continued, before checking on her own version of Boston brown bread, which is made with rye and wheat flours as well as cornmeal and molasses.
The next morning, the group loaded the oven with their breads of various shapes and shades of brown. In her book, Kratochvila writes that the most innovative bakers in Europe now are “people of diverse backgrounds who came to the craft through unconventional means.” The description certainly applied to the party at La Cabane à Pain. Before turning to bread full time, Perrault was an advanced student of environmental science. Before Eyal Schwartz, 43, became the head baker at East London’s E5 Bakehouse, an artisanal bakery and cafe with its own flour mill, he was a software engineer in his native Israel. Before Roberta Pezzella, 40, opened her destination bakery, Pezz de Pane, in the central Italian village of Frosinone, her hometown, she worked for the three-star Michelin chef Heinz Beck at La Pergola in Rome, becoming one of the few female pastry chefs in Europe to work at that level. Xavier Netry, 36, the head baker at the award-winning Utopie in Paris, started making baguettes and croissants at 13 to help support his family and is now one of the most prominent Black boulangers in Paris. He said that Utopie, which from the start stood out for its carefully sourced ingredients, really took off when its owners, Erwan Blanche and Sébastien Bruno, began to experiment with Japanese ingredients like activated charcoal and Sakuranbo cherries, their efforts partly inspired by the growing number of Japanese bakers in Paris. And before Kratochvila, who is Jewish, began selling authentic hand-rolled bagels under the name Fine Bagels out of Shakespeare & Sons — the Berlin bookstore and cafe she runs with her husband, Roman Kratochvila — she was primarily a bookseller.
In 2016, realizing that she would need an official baking license to grow Fine Bagels, Kratochvila first spent several months staging with Perrault, then took a yearlong boulanger course at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. In Berlin she knew other female bakers, but at Le Cordon Bleu she was one of only a few in the program. The world of professional baking in France — and in neighboring countries including Belgium and Italy — was, she recognized, dominated by white men. “But it’s finally changing,” she said. “And women are not only helping to redefine what healthy bread is but also what a healthy work-life balance is.” Pezzella, she pointed out, has established a four-day workweek at her bakery. A benefit of producing high-quality sourdough is that it keeps longer, meaning customers don’t need to buy it daily.
Around 2 p.m., with much anticipation, the bakers began to pull their creations out of the oven. Monika Walecka, 40, who in the past four years has opened three of Warsaw’s most respected artisanal bakeries and cafes — Cala W Mące, Cukiernia Tonka and Focca — wasn’t thrilled with her sourdough baguettes, but her loaves made of einkorn, an ancient grain with a nutty flavor, had an exceptional chew, said Schwartz, who made kubaneh, Yemeni pull-apart rolls, serving them with tahini and a garlicky tomato-pulp spread. Netry brought to the table sourdough bread spiked with chunks of smoked red pepper.
Perrault appeared with a generous slab of butter, which he orders in bulk from a farm in Normandy, and Comte and tangy aged goat cheese from a local producer with whom he barters. Pezzella set out some sausages that she had brought with her from Lazio. Several bottles of wine were opened — Kratochvila had invited two of her favorite natural winemakers, Eric and Alex Dubois of Château la Franchaie, whose vineyards are near Perrault’s farm, to join the group — and lunch became an extended bread tasting at the large table in the center of the bakery.
Talk turned to the similarities between natural winemaking and sourdough baking (the two processes involve natural fermentation) and how people are increasingly well educated about both. Netry described how in the past, customers would walk into a boulangerie knowing exactly what they wanted. Now, at least at bakeries like Utopie, where the offerings change frequently, customers arrive instead with questions. “It becomes an educational and social exchange, not just a commercial one,” he said.
Dessert was a collaboration between Mancini and Maruyama: buttery sugarcoated brioche buns filled with pumpkin jam. Even Perrault was forced to admit that, when it comes to pastries, refined flour has its value. Pezzella then brought out her legendary panettone. “Panettone is the holy grail,” said Schwartz, explaining that it should be fluffy, moist and rich with flavor, requiring a highly technical process and sometimes more than three days to make. “Bakers love a challenge,” he added. “I buy the raisins from Pantelleria,” said Pezzella, referring to the small volcanic island south of Sicily. “They are the best and the sweetest. Now that I own my own bakery, I can splurge on ingredients without having to explain the cost to anyone.” She offered to host the next get-together and teach the group how to perfect the art of making panettone. Everyone immediately pulled out their phone and set aside the dates.