Levain is not only this traditional French bread's name, but levain is actually a bread starter used as a leavening agent and sometimes called "wild yeast." Acting in much the way yeast does, levain helps dough rise but also effects the flavor and characteristics of the Pain au Levain (bread of a wild yeast.) The essence of levain rests in patience. To make levain, water and flour are mixed together and allowed to sit for up to several days to develop flavor and strength as the starter is exposed to air and grows good fungus (this fungus actually keeps bad bacteria away making levain safe.) A well-ripened levain will be bubbly, and extremely elastic. Levain can be kept for years if fed often and maintained.
The levain cannot be bought, making levain unique to each baker who begins to cultivate this starter. Some are soupy, some are firm and tough. Theses differences ultimately effect the mildness or sourness, the weight, texture and look of the finished bread.
The French word "levain" translates to "leaven," and rise of our final bread is attributed to this process. It's estimated that levain has been used since the 1600s. In keeping with our traditional methods of making and baking bread, levain was a natural option for us here at Bread Alone. This also allows us to keep ingredients simple and natural; the way bread was originally made. This is a commitment we make as bakers and a nod to all the bakers who came before us. Plus, we know how darn delicious a good Pain au Levain can really be!
Our French Levain bread is a blend of organic white and organic whole wheat, and has a thick, dense crust. The crumb is chewy with a mild sourdough tang; a bit sweet and a bit nutty. Sourdough Levains are typically favored by the European market, but it has quickly become one of our most loved breads. It was also named one of NYC's best loaves by the Village Voice, who said, "Compared with other traditional French sourdoughs, this one is mild, more like San Francisco sourdough. It's also fine grained, and goes just as well in a bread salad as with cheese or charcuterie."
Try our Levain at any of our cafes, markets or even order online. If you would like to try your hand at making a proper levain, start to finish, check out our book, Bread Alone:Bold Fresh Loaves from Your Own Hands.
**Photo from Village Voice NYC, August 2011.