The machine age pummeled what social critic William Morris called "the arts of life." In News from Nowhere (1890), Morris envisioned a future in which the loss of these arts had gone so far that rural villagers "had even forgotten how to bake bread." The processed banality that passes for bread in the postmodern supermarket would have sent Morris into a depressive death spiral.
Morris inspired countless rearguard actions, revivals, and returns to nature. Raleigh's Boulted Bread—which Bon Appétit magazine last month named one of America's best new bakeries—upholds this tradition of indignation and DIY resistance.
Boulted's signature loaf, an intensely flavorful sourdough levain made from whole-wheat flour milled on the premises, might have emerged from the stone oven of a thatched village. It belongs on a plank table, with a wooden tankard set beside it.
Crusty and dark almost to blackness, the levain recalls a world of rough, natural texture. The crust offsets a lightly chewy crumb with a mazy gluten architecture of tenuous strands and cavernous pocks, all emitting an intense fragrance of wheat and char. It comes in seedless and sesame-seeded varieties, the latter especially good.
I've previously praised Weaver Street Market's miche as the Triangle's supreme loaf. Boulted's levain both recalls and rivals the miche.
The levain's miche-like aspects are not surprising, given that Joshua Bellamy, who runs the West South Street bakery with his fellow Raleigh natives Fulton Forde and Sam Kirkpatrick, apprenticed for two years at Weaver Street's massive and immaculate Hillsborough facility. Forde calls the levain a "more extreme version of the miche."
What's "extreme" is the fact that Boulted stone-mills its own flour. The levain begins as Red Turkey grain sold by an organic farmers' cooperative in Marienthal, Kansas. Boulted processes the grain in a constantly whirring mill that sits behind a glass partition only a few feet from the coffee-sipping customers who occupy Boulted's four tables. It resembles an upturned wheel from a Flintstones vehicle.
- Photo by Ben McKeown
- A man, reflected in a bakery display, walks past Boulted Bread in downtown Raleigh, N.C.
"We use all flour within twenty-four hours," says Forde. "After a while the flour is still nice, but it doesn't have that popping flavor, that big nose."
Another key, says Forde, is long fermentation. The levain is mixed and shaped the day before it's baked. It proofs at room temperature for a longish morning and then spends another eighteen to twenty hours proofing in the bakery's forty-degree walk-in.
The combination of wet dough, long proof, and 540-degree baking temperature produces the crackly, darkened crust full of caramelized flavor.
Good as it is, the levain recipe is not set in stone. The Boulted trio must respond to the vagaries of the grain they mill and to the roller coaster of local humidity. They also must constantly strive to deepen their craft. Like all forms of genuine wisdom, bread making is an endless study.
"We have a pretty good loaf right now, but we will keep tinkering," says Bellamy. "Probably forever."
The levain is far more complex than anything you're likely to top it with. Skippy or Oscar Mayer would be desecrations. Marshmallow Fluff would be grounds for committal to a state institution. The ideal pairing is a little fresh butter and a crisp Belgian beer like Saison Dupont or Delirium Tremens.
Forde, for one, insists that the levain is great sandwich bread. I concur, as long as the sandwich ingredients are up to the task of sharing a bandstand with Charlie Parker. Here are three recipes that both respect and redeploy the levain.
Levain with semi-dried tomato and bubbling cheddar
Cut two medium tomatoes into half-inch slices. Toss with salt, pepper, and olive oil. Spread on a parchment-lined sheet and bake at 300 degrees for seventy-five minutes. Cut inch-thick slices of levain. Brown one side on a buttered griddle. Top with Duke's Mayonnaise, semi-dried tomato slices, grated cheddar, and black pepper. Broil until brown and bubbling. If artisanal cheese is inconvenient, I recommend a nutty, sharpish white cheddar like Old Croc, an Australian brand available at Harris Teeter.
Levain with prosciutto and port-macerated figs
Dice eight fresh figs into quarter-inch pieces. Macerate the figs in two tablespoons of sweet, fruity port for an hour. Cut inch-thick slices of levain. Lightly drizzle with olive oil. Top with ribbons of prosciutto di Parma, generous mounds of fig jam, and a quick grind of black pepper.
Levain with chèvre and raspberry-honey vinaigrette
Combine your favorite goat cheese and fresh ricotta in roughly equal proportions, beating with a fork to a light, spreadable consistency. Blend honey and a few dashes of raspberry balsamic vinegar. Slather slices of levain with the chèvre-ricotta mixture and drizzle with the raspberry-honey vinaigrette.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Bread Winner"