By Thomas Parker (regular contributor)
Archestratos (4th century BCE) granted supremacy to Lesbos bread as the whitest and most refined: “Now the best to get hold of and the finest of all, cleanly bolted from barley with a good grain, is in Lesbos, in the wave-surrounded breast of famous Eresos. It is whiter than snow from the sky: if the gods eat barley groats then Hermes must come and buy it for them from there.” (trans. J. Wilkins and S. Hill)
The triple characterization (white (refined), wave-washed (smooth), breast (billowy)) pumped Lesbos bread up as fit for the gods whereas, mostly in the ancient world, barley bread was derided as being amorphous, clumpy brown, and fit for the poor. Barley lacked the structural proteins of the gluten in wheat so, apart from the Lesbos example, those seeking high-rising fluffy breads that held their shape avoided it. But barley, not to be silenced, played a particularly interesting part nearly 2,000 years later in the French bread wars of the 1660s.
Debate in Paris at that time swelled around a controversy that pitted pain mollet (a fluffy white bread) against the traditional pain levain (compact and dense sour dough bread). The matter played out in terms of health on the surface, but was really one of country, class, Catholicism, and cash.
Pain mollet, whose name derives from its softer dough, was in part popularized at the end of the sixteenth century by Catherine de Médicis (the bread was alternatively referred to as “le pain de la reine”). It rose at a lively rate— worrisome, for some— due to the yeasts it employed. Those yeasts were barley malt yeasts sloughed off from the byproduct of beer, often from foreign lands, such as Flanders. For detractors of pain mollet, this “beer excrement,” corrupted the country’s staple, infecting it with an un-French drink derived from equally un-French lands.
Yeast itself had a sketchy past dating to the Bible and, before that, the Ancient Greeks. It teamed with life, but possessed disturbing potential to swell out of control (exactly as these pain mollet seemed to do). Mired in controversy, it was thought as spumy as it was insalubrious, salacious, and belonging to an unfinished, in-between state of bread matter.
Of course, sour dough also contained yeast, but the devil lay in the details. Sour dough was leavened with yeasts known as franc levain, or dough inoculated by wild yeasts captured in the air of wherever the flour and water was mixed. The yeasts were colonized in the dough, soured by lactobacillus organisms, and cultured as the starter to make fresh bread. “Franc,” in this context, referred to “cultivated” as opposed to wild, and suggested that some measure of control was exercised on the unruly yeasts.
The lexical context helped make the sour dough yeasts even more palatable. The word franc with respect to humans signified “free,” “sincere,” “true,” and “authentic.” Franc levain rose slower and was not as fluffy, but it was redeemed as being at once wild and cultivated, free and controlled. Most of all, as the name suggests, franc was French, and not built on the sketchy byproduct of some foreign brewery.
To say a federal case was made of it would be to say too little. The Lieutenant General of the Paris Police asked the Faculty of Medicine to weigh in. Forty-seven doctors condemned the bread from beer yeast as dangerous, but thirty-three gave it a pass. The detractors opined that foam thrown from beer was a pernicious influence that gave rise to worms. Furthermore, beer itself was unhealthy, made from corrupted barley or wheat, dirty water, and cocktails of unknown drugs.
The pain mollinistes responded that the Gauls had been using beer yeast to make bread for centuries, and that Pliny had observed as much in his Natural History (79 CE). The pain levainistes conceded that the Gauls had once used beer yeasts to make bread, but countered that it was by refining their ways that they ceased to be barbarians, leaving the unseemly bread practice behind. Indeed, it was the Franks who civilized the Gauls and made them properly “French.”
In the end, neither side totally won out. Brewer’s yeasts (barm) did, after all, make bread rise faster and higher, (truth be told, the economic factor of the bread wars had always been more central than health, country, and morality). Yet, perhaps the most savvy of the bunch were bakers who, in no small number, began to combine a bit of barm in their sour dough mixtures, playing both sides of the coin to make prodigiously endowed fluffy bread that remained “authentically French.”
For more on the history of the controversy, see Steven Kaplan, The Bakers of Paris and the Bread Question, 1700-1775 (Duke University Press, 1996)