Answer to Don: The "Holey" Bread That Fed Generations

home-milled and home-sifted whole wheat bread

Yes it’s true: we suddenly became all concerned about how many holes we can fit in our slice of bread. When I say “we” I refer obviously to bread nerds, but also to the wider audience of bread lovers, people who don’t necessarily know how to rise a loaf but who appreciate a slice or two (or three or four or a whole loaf) of good rustic sourdough with a moist and open crumb and a crunchy, thick, crust. This wider, somehow unaware, audience is what has made the success of bakeries like Tartine in US, and of similar bakeries happily flourished all over the globe. (Above: Home-milled/home-sifted/home-baked 50% whole wheat sourdough)

tartine bakery breads
Above: Tartine Bakery Breads (courtesy of Give Me Flour)

We can easily agree: a “Tartine’s style” loaf with an open crumb and a crunchy crust is a treat for the palate and something we may want to recreate at home or be willing to pay good cash if available at our local bakery. However, rather than asking ourselves why do we like it (c’mon’ why shouldn’t we??? it’s goooooood!!!), a possibly more insightful question is: where does this bread come from?

If you had the time to read the previous post The Hole Truth on this blog, beautifully written by Don Sadowsky, you know by now that in Northern and Eastern Europe (and US, which was originally built by immigrants from those regions) wheat was mostly reserved to the rich and so was the light and airy bread that only wheat can give.

“Still, all this history did lead to our current baker’s obsession with holes. Bread made with refined wheat by a skilled baker was lighter and airier; other, coarser grains could not compete. The bread eaten by the wealthy and powerful was considered better, holes and all. ” Don Sadowsky

Indeed wheat was more difficult to grow in colder climates than other, less “holier”, cereals like rye and barley (for instance). These cereals, even when combined with wheat, give a denser bread with a tight crumb. The harsher climate also made so that root vegetables were the main staple of these Northern/Eastern populations and their darker, heavier, bread was most likely only second in place on their table.

So it is true, light, white fluffy bread made with wheat only was not that common in Northern/Eastern Europe/early US. But things changed when industry took over grain cultivation and bread production. This process culminated after the Second World War and, also thanks to wheat modifying intervention (after the 50’s a type of low-stem wheat with higher production rates was genetically selected), wheat and white bread became available everywhere in the world. Everyone could now have the bread of the rich. Highly processed, nutritionally poor, white bread. Were there holes in it? I doubt it. What mattered was it was light and soft, easy to chew and to stuff with anything, and… easy to overdose with. On top of it, it was CHEAP. What more to ask?

Above: the father of all sins, industrial highly processed wheat-based bread

So, while the US and Nothern Europe never had a solid pre-industrial wheat tradition (North Europe did have a solid bread tradition, but was based on other grains), European countries with more temperate climates -like France and Italy- did have a long tradition of wheat-based bread (wheat has been the most used crop in Southern Europe since the Roman times). Therefore, when bakers and consumers in the US -all contemporary trends seem to be starting in the US- felt the need to move away from the hated industrial white loaf they turned, yes, to their grandma’s ryes but mostly to the acclaimed French wheat baguette and batard. I wish I could say Italian bread tradition made an impact in this revolution but I believe it did not. What American bakers mostly seeked for was the never forgotten knowledge of the French boulangère. And there they went to learn real artisan bread again.

We have to thank contemporary American bakers for having carried forward the movement. Passionate masters like Jeffrey Hamelman, Peter Reinhart, and Daniel Leader, who seriously studied the French “school of bread” and made it accessible to millions of home-bakers and professionals alike, all over the globe. Indeed in France, although the overall quality of bread had dropped -following the global trend toward cheap and highly processed loaves- in some artisan bakeries and schools (as well as in some country villages) the old traditions were still alive.

MC Farine’s Prairie Loaf (adapted from Jeffrey Hamelman’s Pain au levain)

Was our artisan bread “holey” yet? Yes, some of it, but we are not quite there.

Among the many traditional breads that were rediscovered by our master bakers, there is one that has definitely taken over and it is -almost subconsciously- leading the general taste of professional and amateur bakers alike. The bread that is now leading the movement of the bread revolution (yes, because this is a real revolution) is not the “holey” yes, but too sofisticated, Parisian baguette, nor is the laminated, subtly decadent, croissant we all drool over. It is not our Russian grandma’s whole rye loaf (ok, as far as I know, I don’t have a Russian grandma-but my husband does) nor an Italian, extremely airy, ciabatta (by the way it seems like ciabatta is a modern invention, not a traditional bread). Anyway, now to the point. The bread that has clearly become the icon of our newly re-aquired taste in bread is nothing more than… the everyday peasant sourdough loaf which has fed hundreds of generations. This loaf was mostly made of wheat in both French and Italian countryside (and Greek, Spanish and Portuguese alike I believe). It was only roughly shaped, so that the resulting crumb could incorporate irregularly sized holes. We can still find a similar bread in Genzano, Italy. This bread is a development of the bread commonly made by women at home in the countryside around Rome.

In France this bread was called Pain de Campagne -not to be confounded with Champagne, although making a Champagne based sourdough would be interesting, as bread pal Jean-Philippe De Tonnac suggested when correcting my mispelling.

Emile Friant Les Canotiers de la Meurthe 1888

Emile Friant, Les Canotiers de la Meurthe (1888), the bread that inspired Chad Robertson to create his famous Tartine’s country bread

Even in the crowded Paris of Marie Antoinette times, bread was mostly made in the countryside and brought to the city where most people could not afford homes with ovens. This bread was mostly made with wheat, wheat that was milled in a simple way using stone-based mills, way that kept all the germ in. The flour was sifted (as it has been since the Romans times) and therefore it was relatively white but not the white wheat we are used to know nowadays. Some, but not much of the bran was left in, because of a not-that-sofisticated sifting, and because a little bran was helping keeping the bread edible for longer. The wheat was generally combined with a little rye, mosltly because some rye was generally growing together with the wheat. The flour, this healthy, rich, wheat flour, was then long kneaded and long, naturally, fermented. Baked in wood-fired ovens so to get a dark thick crust. Does this remind you of some bread you’ve seen around lately? Maybe at your fancy local sourdough bakery?


Poilane loaf, the most acclaimed bakery in Paris

The whole holey truth of all this is that traditional country loaves used to have an unevenly open crumb, alternating areas with a denser crumb to sudden variably large holes. All to testify the rusticity of the process, where wild fermentation was basically left in peace to do her job on wheat. As you know, wild yeast just loves to make bubbles with wheat…

 my wheat starter on a very good day

My organic stone-ground wheat starter on a very good day 

So my conclusion is that no, our current obsession for bread with large holes and a thick crust does not come from the bread of the elites. It is not the bread of the rich we are reviving. To save wheat, which has become an antifood in it’s industrial sandwich bread version, we recreated and “amplified” the nourishing wheat-based bread of the good peasant life, a life that although we hardly ever experienced we are somehow nostalgically missing. It reminds us of simple pleasures, like dipping a piece of moist and holey bread in a tick sauce or in olive oil. The pleasure of the contrast of the moist crumb with the crunchy thick crust. The pleasure of taking some time to chewing on our “real” bread rather than swallowing it in a nanosecond with our cheese and ham. It takes time for the ferments to rise it, time for the oven to bake it (the crust must be dark), time for us to enjoy it. Time is the most precious gift we can give to ourselves nowadays. Slow, real, bread against a hectic, shallow, life – and if I get more holes than my bread pals my happiness is complete.

naturally leavened wheat

holey-style 20% whole-wheat country sourdough

To be continued sometime soon with an article about the myths of whole wheat everything. Thank you for reading!

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Barbara Elisi

Hi there! I am the "soul" behind Bread & Companatico. My main interest is the preservation of bread tradition and craft, with an eye to health. I hope you are having a good time reading this blog, and please don't be shy to connect with me through comments or emails and do keep on bread-ing! 🙂

Latest posts by Barbara Elisi (see all)

23 replies
  1. Susan
    Susan says:

    Super! I make Thom Leonard’s Country French Loaf (4 lb, 1.8-kilo) every week, sometimes twice a week. The recipe is from Artisan Baking across America by Maggie Glezer and I have been very happy with it. I still keep trying other things… I also use the starter in this book and have been doing this for years. Waiting to hear MORE 🙂 thank you.

  2. Diane
    Diane says:

    Thanks for your great article!! I’m mad of home baked sourdough bread, and it’s true, I search for a nice open airy crumb for my bread. Now I understand better why I actually love it, and where it come from. Great article, as are your blog and receipes!

    • Barbara
      Barbara says:

      thank you sooo much Diane! I was basically thinking aloud trying to make sense of all the different pieces of information in my head. happy it made sense 🙂

  3. Brad
    Brad says:

    So it’s interesting that Poilane’s bread actually contains fewer holes than “the ideal”. Maybe we hold out for holes because only with a really active starter, and hitting it right on with the fermentation, do you get a very wholey bread. It may not taste any better than a Poilane bread, but it does signify someone who has mastered the art of fermentation.

    • Barbara
      Barbara says:

      there is no “ideal” Brad. the country sourdoughs made nowadays in some artisan bakeries and by dedicated home bakers are often an “hyper” version of the country sourdough they try to imitate. as you notice, it is a show off of the natural leaven and its effect.

  4. Maria Teresa
    Maria Teresa says:

    Ciao Barbara, scusa se commento in italiano, per me ovviamente molto più veloce e immediato.
    Ho letto entrambi gli articoli, sono molto interessanti e rappresentano due punti di vista complementari. L’articolo di Don è simpatico e divertente, anche se la mia scarsa conoscenza dell’inglese non mi permette di cogliere le sfumature di sottile ironia presenti tra le righe.
    La tua analisi è perfetta, mostra un approccio storico-antropologico e nel contempo emotivo, di chi ha conoscenze e competenze sull’argomento, ma anche il grande dono di lavorare con le mani e trasmettere con l’impasto piacere e amore.
    Mi conosci, come te amo le cose semplici e genuine, cerco sempre nuove materie prime da inserire nei miei impasti, valorizzo le farine più rare e di antiche cultivar.
    La mia idea è che bisogna trovare un giusto equilibrio tra innovazione e tradizione, partendo da prodotti sani e non contaminati chimicamente, incrementando la biodiversità, distrutta in parte da coltivazioni massive molto redditizie.
    I grani a basso fusto, diffusi dai consorzi agrari negli anni ’60, hanno richiesto più trattamenti diserbanti contro le erbe infestanti.
    I grani antichi, invece, crescevano benissimo senza bisogno di nulla o quasi, avendo un fusto più alto. Certo erano molto meno produttivi.
    Per fortuna anche in Italia molti si sono mossi a favore di questa rivoluzione, come giustamente la chiami, in primis Carlo Petrini con SLOW FOOD e TERRA MADRE.
    Ricordiamo anche l’indiana VANDANA SHIVA e le sue battaglie contro le multinazionali delle sementi, MONSANTO in testa. Il discorso è lungo, per me interessantissimo.
    Per quanto riguarda gli alveoli, confesso che piacciono tanto anche a me, anche se non riesco ad eguagliare la tua perizia, mi piacerebbe!
    Credo che un minimo di alveolatura sia indispensabile per una buona cottura del pane.
    Oggigiorno si riesce ad ottenere una certa alveolatura persino con mix gluten free, a maggior ragione si può tendere a questo risultato con farine “difficili”.
    Direi che la giusta combinazione di gusto, forma e consistenza ci può regalare un pane eccellente.
    Nel gustare il pane, come qualsiasi altro cibo, mettiamo in azione i nostri cinque sensi, tutti.
    Spero di non essere stata troppo prolissa e di non averti annoiato.
    Un saluto affettuoso
    Maria Teresa

    • Barbara
      Barbara says:

      ma si Maria Teresa, il discorso e’ ampio, qui si cercava di rispondere ad un quesito piuttosto banale ma, come vedi, non ovvio ai piu’: perche’ la moda del pane con alveolatura evidente. non mi piaceva constatare che molti pensano sia semplicemente una cosa bizzarra, altri pensano sia esibizionismo, altri che sia stupido e basta, altri credono che sia un discorso elitario. credo sia importante ricordare da dove viene questo tipo di pane, che non e’ nulla che si siano inventati i panettieri di grido moderni ma e’ solo una riedizione del pane contadino fatto dalle nostre bis-bis-nonne. a base di grano setacciato, poco lavorato e quindi abbastanza alveolato, il pane che mi ricordo anch’io dalle scampagnate con i miei da bambina…

    • Barbara
      Barbara says:

      thanks Karin, I grew up with “holey” bread and it was the “ignorant” bread of the countryside, my Roman sourdough inspiration, definitely not the elaborated bakery breads of the city…

  5. la Greg
    la Greg says:

    Letto tutto d’un fiato! Simpatico l’intervento di ieri di Don che da americano forse non percepisce quella che è che noi la cultura del pane…tu al contrario dimostri una passione infinita per l’universo del grano che nasce molto prima degli straordinari impasti che le tue mani riescono a fare…
    Vorrei tanto…ma tanto…vederti all’opera perché una neofita come me avrebbe da imparare tantissimo anche solo a vederti impastare acqua e farina!
    I tuoi pani sono meravigliosi anche con le farine più difficile…indiscusso che sia arte!

    • Barbara
      Barbara says:

      Silvia sei un tesoro, ma che neofita, sei bravissima! e io non sono chissa’ quale esperta sai… ho solo capito presto come fare amicizia con il lievito naturale e davvero faccio fare tutto a lui (anzi, a lei) 🙂

  6. Fabi-Fabipasticcio
    Fabi-Fabipasticcio says:

    I read the two posts about holes.
    Holes are fundamental for bread, in the sense that they are the expression of a good job by the sourdough. The holes by yeast are a bit thinner. Furthermore, the diameter of the holes depends upon the flour used.
    I think that the real problem is not the diameter of the holes, but the quality of ingredients and the absence of additives in the bread.
    The industrialization of food processes may be more checked up, but the other side of the coin is the exploitation of the market and then the quality is missing. Anyone is going to bring it back?


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