About Pain au Levain: Mixing and Shaping the Dough
Pain au levain is traditional sourdough bread. The baker begins by making “le chef,” a mixture of wheat and water, which he covers and leaves to sit at 20-25 degrees centigrade for three days until it triples in volume.
Next, he prepares the “levain” by combining the chef with flour and water and letting it sit at 20-25 degrees centigrade for another 12-14 hours.
Finally, he can prepare the bread for baking. He does this by combining the levain, the wheat, the water, and the sea salt. He shapes the dough, sets it on floured linen cloth (couche) he has pleated by hand to keep the baguettes’ shape as it rests, and sets the bread in a cool room.
The shaping of the baguettes begins at 3:00 each morning and by 5:00 he sets to work firing up the wood-burning oven. I arrive in time for the second baking at 7:00 am. Mr. Honorat tells me that in dry weather he can make a hot oven, and it keeps heat to bake throughout the day. But the day I visit is cold and rainy so he has to restart the fire when I arrive. The wood he uses is pine from Bordeaux. Other neighboring wood-fired bakeries use it too. A large pot-shaped piece of metal sits in the center of the oven and remains there until the baking begins. I’m told this is to assure that the floor of the oven heats evenly.
The bakery also makes and sells other products like croissants. Mr Honorat gave my husband and me some fresh and out-of-the-oven to fortify us during our visit. But baguettes are their major product. The day before our visit he baked 980 baguettes plus a smaller number of ficelles, compagnes, and assorted other breads. Sundays are his big days and he makes 50 liters more bread then. It is a matter of interest that there is such local variation on almost everything, even how one measures output. He explains that in Robion, bakers measure their output in liters and in the next village by kilograms of flour. To give you an idea of how much that is, the formula for the baguettes is 100 kilograms of flour to 60 liters of water.