Friday, 27 March 2009

La miche

If you look up the meaning of miche in the dictionary, it will just translate the word as 'loaf' or perhaps 'round loaf'. But a miche is special. Making a miche is one of the black arts of the boulanger. A miche is nothing but flour and water and a little salt, which mixed together produce the most delicious loaf. It's like a magic trick and no added yeast and no energetic kneading required. This is the real French bread, with a centuries old tradition, unlike the baguette (French stick) which has not even reached a single century yet.

To make a miche from scratch is not something you decide to do one morning in order to have fragrant crunchy fresh bread by lunchtime. To make a miche from scratch you need nearly a week. Admittedly, most of that time it is busy festering away for itself – you are not actually doing anything with it for more than five minutes of the first 4-5 days.

Yes, I know, it looks like something that came out of the rear end of a cow...

A miche is a wheat flour sourdough, leavened by mixing stoneground wholemeal flour and water together and set in a warm place to activate the natural yeasts present in the flour. Every day for four days you add a little more flour and a little more warm water. On the fifth day, if the mixture looks fairly active, you add some more wheat flour and warm water and this time, a little stoneground rye flour too. Rye flour has more yeasts, and helps the whole leavening process as well as adding some flavour. It is a misconception that sourdoughs pick up yeasts that just happen to be floating by in the air. The yeasts come as passengers on the wheat and rye grains, dormant and surviving the traditional milling process, ready to do their bit for mankind once the flour is mixed into a paste. That is why you need to use stoneground flour, and preferably fresh and organic – modern milling discards the part of the grain with the most yeasts, and long storage causes them to go into a decline and never recover. The yeasts not only produce gases that cause the bread to rise but they also produce acids that modify the gluten in the flour, making it more elastic, easier to digest, more nutritious and changing the taste of the final product in an entirely beneficial way.

Resting the dough under an upturned bowl

On the sixth day, put aside a third of your gently bubbling, ammonia smelling, grey, extremely unappetising flour and water paste and keep it in the fridge (so that the yeasts go dormant in the cold) to act as a starter the next time you want to make a miche. Add enough white bread wheat flour, some salt and warm water to the remaining two thirds of your active paste to make a very sticky dough. You should be able to just about pick it all up in one oozing bundle, but not be able to knead it. Sourdough needs to be wet, and needs a long cooking time to compensate for the extra liquid in the mix. Don't be tempted to add enough flour to make it easy to handle. You will end up with a brick, not a loaf of bread.

Look at that gluten go !

Sourdoughs do not need to be kneaded. They are simply rested to allow the yeasts to act on the gluten, then you mound them up a bit and (traditionally) put into a flour dusted cloth lined basket to rise (or simply straight into an oiled loaf tin/pan if you are not making a free form country style loaf on a tray). Once risen (and it is surprising how much such an unpromising gloop can rise!) decant gently from the basket onto an oven tray lined with silicone coated paper and put in a hot oven. After 10 minutes, a reasonably strong 'crust' should have formed, and you can turn the oven down 20°C and bake for as long as it takes. If you check it after 40 minutes and you are not convinced it is done, put it back in for 10-20 minutes – it won't come to any harm. It is very easy not to give a sourdough long enough in the oven to dry out properly, resulting in gluey, stodgy bread.

First effort - a bit low profile because of too wet a dough

Every time you make a sourdough it will be different, because over time the proportions of flour and water in the starter will change, so the amount you add to make up the dough will change. You won't get the balance of flour to water quite right the first or even the second time. My first effort was too wet, but many people end up with too dry a dough. A few practice loaves are worth it though, because the slightly sour salty taste and chewy texture should be on anyone's top five list of comfort foods. It also keeps well for days, gaining flavour, and with the acids from the yeasts inhibiting mould growth.

After a few more goes, the loaves look like this
The loaf above is a mixture of rye, wholemeal wheat and spelt (an ancient variety of wheat that modern wheats are descended from), just because that's what I had on hand. It has a very hard crust and is quite dense and dark in colour, rather like the 'National Bread' during World War I must have been I suspect. However, far from complaining that it is almost inedible I quite like this type of bread – but I live in an age when wholemeal is good and healthful, not an indicator of poverty and subsistence.

I used the instructions for French Country Bread in Andrew Whitley's Bread Matters, which I thoroughly recommend for anyone interested in making bread at home.


Note: because les miches are normally round loaves, inevitably the word has entered the argot (slang) and so the word can indicate women's breasts or can be used like the American 'buns' for the cheeks of the backside.


Anonymous said...

Delicious! Love the history on the bread.
Who is making la miche in the photo?

Ken Broadhurst said...

Sourdough bread was the big thing in San Francisco. I never liked it. Does yours have that sour taste? How can you tone that down?

Ken Broadhurst said...

The Robert dictionary says that "miche" in the sense of bread is an archaic term. The only modern definition it gives is the one that corresponds to the American "buns" -- the butt cheeks. Les fesses.

Anonymous said...

Sourdoughs are really boring people

Susan said...

Dedene: It's me.

Ken: My starter is fairly new, so not too sour. In general, the older the starter the sourer the dough.

I've definitely seen 'miches' used as slang for 'breasts' as well. The term 'miche' in the sense that I have used it for sourdough I think is mostly used by hardcore domestic bread bakers, who like to think of themselves as an elite, rather than it being a strictly French term now. You do sometimes see loaves labelled as 'miches' in boulangeries.

Anon: do you mean this is another slang usage?

Ken Broadhurst said...

Hi Susan, I'm sure you are right about the slangy uses of the term "miche" — I've seen them referenced in dictionaries other than the Robert.

I don't go to boulangeries very often because we have bread delivered in our hamlet. I know the term "meule" is used, and of course "boule" but I'll have to do some looking around for "miches." It could be that people don't apply the term to bread any more because of its slang meaning (while that hasn't happened to the term "bun" in Am. Eng., the term "hot cross buns" does make me laugh).

Ken Broadhurst said...

It's interesting that if you do a Google search for "miche" in English, you get a lot more hits having to do with bread than if you search for the same term in French.

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