La Tocnaye, Jacques-Louis de Bougrenet, an aristocrat in exile from the turbulent revolutionary times in his native country, travelled by foot through Ireland (from England and Wales and on to Sweden and Norway) in the late 18th century, writing wittily about his encounters and hoping, in passing, to convert the locals to the continental manner of bread-making (salt seems to have been unwittingly left out of the recipe he shares). I think I know how the man felt, I probably felt the same when I landed in Ireland in my youth, and that’s probably why I, a Frenchwoman in Ireland, have been making sourdough bread by hand for the last 15 years.
I have written out with most minute detail the procedure of people on the Continent in making leaven and using it. The instructions which I give below were sent to me from London by one of my friends who, at my request, had procured the information from Germany, and it describes accurately how our peasants make bread. He sent me the matter in French, but in the effort to make it more generally available I have translated it into English, perhaps English in French guise ; but provided I am understood, that is all I ask. Those who know how to make bread, or those who don’t wish to know, will do well to skip this bit of English, although I am persuaded that it is in a somewhat unusual style.
Manner of Baking with Leaven [in the English of the author]
They give the name of Leaven to a quantity of dough put into fermentation, occasioned by the addition of the old dough preserved from the precedent kneading.
The manner of getting it good, is to mix (the day before one intends to bake, and before going to bed) a little of the old dough before mentioned, with a third of the flour intended to make bread : the whole is to be mixed and diluted with cold water : this forms a firm and compact dough, which ought to be left all night in a corner of the trough, covered with a proportion of flour, raised in rolls and pressed hard to give it more solidity and to prevent the leaven from extending itself out of its limits. The day after, at about six in the morning, it is fit to be used ; with cold water it takes commonly seven or eight hours to be ready, with warm water about three, but the dough is always soft.
If found that on the following day, the leaven was passed, that is, already turned sour, as may happen in the great heat of Summer, or when a storm has taken place during the night ; it sufficient then to renew and to refresh it, by adding to it half its weight in new flour and cold water : three hours after, it is fit to be used.
When the leaven is thus prepared, they begin by putting entire without breaking it, with a proportion of water, and it ought to be diluted very quickly and very exactly, prevent any lumps from remaining ; when it is sufficiently diluted they add to it the remainder of the water, which ought to be cold in Summer, and tepid or warm on the contrary in winter, to counteract the effects of the hands in the two seasons, and to produce an opposite one. They then mix all the flour destined to be employed with the leaven, and assemble the whole in a lump which they work with the hands, carrying it from left to right, heaving it up, cutting it and dividing it with the open hands, nipping and pulling the dough with the fingers folded and the thumbs stretched out ; that is what is called thrilling ; they work it up several times in the same manner, scraping the trough every time ; they introduce afterwards in the lump the dough that has been detached from it with a little water and carrys it, in the same manner on the other side ; that is what is called “contre fraser”, or thrilling the opposite way. The kneading is ended by making a hollow place in the dough and pouring water in it ; this labour serves to confound and divide the coarsest part of the flour, and by the continued, quick and speedy motion, forms new air, which renders the dough more viscous, more equal, longer, and lighter, and it produces a bread better tasted and whiter ; this third labour is called “bassinage” or fermentation. To add yet to the perfection which the fermentation gives to the dough, they strike it with the hands, pressing it by the sides and folding it up on itself, extending and cutting it with the hands closed, and letting it fall with effort.
The dough being sufficiently worked out, is taken from the trough and divided into such parts as are judged proper, cutting and striking it still, and placing it in a lump near the oven, where it must remain half an hour in winter, to enable to preserve its warmth and to ferment ; it must be turned and divided on the contrary, when the weather is hot.
The effect of fermentation is to divide and to attenuate the new dough, to introduce in it a good deal of air, which as it cannot disengage itself entirely, being prevented by its viscosity and consistency, forms in it eyes, or little concavities, raises it up, widens and swells it ; it is for that reason, that this portion of flour kneaded with the old dough, which determines all its effects, has obtained the name of leaven or “levain” from the French lever, to raise.
This operation requires a certain degree of heat to be made slowly and gradually : it is essential to accelerate or to stop the fermentation, according to the season of the year, to make it produce its effects about in the same time summer or winter ; for that purpose the dough ought to be put in baskets covered, with linen or flannel, in a warm or cold place, according to the season ; fire must be put in the oven, as the necessary time to heat is much about that required for the fermentation to come to its point, or for the bread to have taken what is called, its due preparation.
I am sure this is an eloquent piece, filled with fine hard words, which I have got with hard labour in the dictionary. I could have delivered this fine method as a physician does his pills, perhaps also some people will think me a fool not to have done it ; everybody has his way of seeing things : as for me, had I discovered a marvellous receipt to cure the plague, the ague, and even the Ministerial or Antiministerial fever, I would think it my duty, to give it to the public as generously.
I won’t resist sharing another extract from the beginning of his adventures in Ireland (see also here for other extracts).
I had not taken the trouble to calculate distances very carefully in starting, and now, late in the evening, I found myself still eight miles from my destination—and eight miles Irish count for something. It was past eleven o’clock when I arrived at the house where I expected to be received. The doors were locked, and to my distress I found that the owner, who had invited me to his house, was not at home. Further, that there was no inn nearer than four miles distant, and that on the side of Dublin which I had left. To go back on my way was a hateful idea—I preferred rather to go ten miles forward than four back—and so I went on. At half-past twelve I found myself in a village, its name unknown to me. Everybody seemed to be asleep ; however, at the last, I found a cabin with a light in the window, the dwelling of some poor labourers who had returned late from the city. I entered, asked for hospitality, and had placed before me immediately what was in the house. For rest I passed the night on a three-legged stool, my back leaning against the wall. This for the first day of my travels was not a very agreeable beginning, but I had to take troubles as they came. There was no need to wake me in the morning. At dawn of day all the animals in the cottage, sleeping pell-mell with their masters, acquainted me with the fact that the sun was up, and I rose from my stool and left this unfortunate house of want. How profitable this night would have been to me had I been always the favoured child of fortune! I would advise parents to force their children thus to pass several nights in their youth; it would be more advantageous to them than years at school. Really to have compassion on the poor, and to have a real desire to help them requires that they should be approached; the careless rich, who have never seen the poor near at hand, think of them with disgust and turn away their eyes from the sight of poverty …