An artisan is a craftsman, someone who produces handmade goods using as little machinery as possible. The goal for a craftsman is not making money or attaining a big, glamorous lifestyle. His goal is to deliver an honest product made with honest ingredients and intentions.
For the artisan baker, these ingredients are flour, water, salt, and a natural starter.
The craft is a circular process that begins with grain shepherded through harvest and milling, added to natural ingredients that live in our environment, made into a dough by the baker with his knowledge, and baked into something that provides life again. True artisanal bread procedure, made with only the four ingredients, through fermentation and hydration of the grain, can result in hundreds of different breads. Small wonder that in France the artisan baker is held in the same regard as the artisan cheesemaker and the artisan winemaker.
My artisan breads class is required for students seeking an associate’s degree in baking and pastry at the Culinary Institute of Charleston. It’s my job to educate them about this craft, but it’s my passion for it that guides them along. I share stories with them, introduce them to the work of artisan bakers from around the world, and eat bread with them, and their enthusiasm grows just like the bread.
On the first day of class, I speak on artisan baking, but we bake French baguettes. The French baguette is not an artisanal product because its criteria, which is imposed by the French government, requires the use of commercial yeast, not a starter. For the first two weeks of class, we bake baguettes and other commercially yeasted breads every day. I teach them to use commercial yeast in as close to an artisan manner as possible by only using one percent or less of the weight of the flour. When an artisan baker has to work with commercial yeast, this is the ratio he uses. This takes the fermentation into the long-rising period that an artisan wants and minimizes the yeast’s flavor in the finished bread. It is the wheat, not the yeast, that we are fermenting, and it takes a long fermentation to get the best flavors out of the wheat. Our goal isn’t just a hot fluffy thing to spread butter on.
All the while, we are discussing the many kinds of artisanal breads, building the anticipation.
Midway during the first week, we also start building our starters. A true artisan baker does not use commercial yeast, he makes his own. Mine is a uniquely Charleston yeast — its characteristics shaped by the pluff mud, the humidity in the air, the sea that surrounds us, and Charleston’s location below sea level. When I make a sourdough bread with it, it will taste differently from, for example, a San Francisco sourdough, whose yeast is influenced by the fog, the smog, and the mountains, as well as the sea.
I share this with the students, and in class we make our yeast from grapes. We crush the grapes and leave them to stand at room temperature for two to three days. First come the bubbles and the aroma of an early wine. We strain the grapes and collect the juice, which is now loaded with natural yeast. It is a living element. Then we begin to feed it flour, transforming it into what is called a starter. Properly tended, this starter can be kept alive for a lifetime.
Now they are ready to try their hands at artisan baking. We begin with white wheat flour, using our Charleston starters. For the sourdough, I give them a template that I made of a palmetto tree. They lay it on the risen bread and dust it with flour. Our Charleston sourdough is a bread with texture, flavor, and crust — a bread they are proud of.
White wheat flour is followed by a whole wheat flour selection of whole grains, rye, and spelt. We make a variety of shapes and a variety of flavors. By mid-semester, many are baking at home. They come in early, bringing bread they have made, asking questions about it or about the state of their starter.
Inspiring students about the craft of artisan baking is a life journey in itself. Like their first Charleston sourdough, hot from the oven, filled with beauty, flavor, integrity, and a sense of wonder, it is exciting.