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Calvel's "The Taste of Bread" - some quibbles on history


chezjim
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(I thought of reviving James MacGuire's thread (which I was delighted to see) but 2004? Seems a bit far back.)

While I'm not enough of a baker (barely a baker at all) to judge the technical aspects of Calvel's monumental book, I have every reason to believe that from a technical point of view it is invaluable (this is, after all, the person who taught Julia Child to make French bread). I was also delighted to see that it was one of the rare works to show photographs of the basic French breads (which, verbally, are almost undefinable, so that pictures are all the more necessary). I keep hoping someone in Paris will shoot a baguette next to a flute, a ficelle and a batard and put the result on Wikipedia, but for now Calvel is one of the few to offer these images.

My own interest however is in food (largely baking) history. I probably have to trust Calvel's accounts from when he was a working baker (the 30's?) and after (even then I'd love to be able to ask him a few pointed questions). Anything earlier and he makes some really shocking errors.

Which probably won't matter to most hands-on bakers, but if the actual history of some of this matters to you, read on.

As near as I can make out, Calvel simply accepted the legends of his trade. A natural enough thing to do, but once he became a professor it would be nice if he'd applied the principle of returning to prime sources, which he clearly did not. He says for instance that until the Viennese (that is, August Zang) arrived (around 1839), the French had only used yeast as an aid to sourdough (p 45). But eighteenth century sources (notably the monumental Dr. Malouin) state quite clearly that some breads were to be made only with yeast. On the same page, he repeats (and may have originated) the common assertion that "poolish" is a "Polish" sponge. This goes along with an idea frequently cited by others elsewhere that the poolish was a Polish technique which came to France via Austria. Which would be very strange, given that "poolish" does not mean Polish in any of those countries (it is an old ENGLISH word for "polish" - the English didn't use the method themselves, since they long had a sponge of their own.)

In fact, references before 1900 to the technique (including two by an Austrian, Emil Braun) spell the word "pouliche", that is, the French word for "foal" (and a homonym for "poolish".) One can more readily imagine French bakers referring to a "young" mix of yeast allowed to grow strong before being used as a young horse than imagine that Polish, Austrian or French bakers used an archaic English word for a Polish technique. But speculation applies in either case.

Later (116) he says that "Baron Zang" (Zang was a commoner) made Vienna bread without milk (numerous contemporary sources say it was made WITH milk) and using a poolish (no contemporary source mentions Zang using a poolish, which at any rate is not mentioned until the late 19th century, years after Zang left in 1848.) The Austrians certainly used yeast, but a German language text from 1841 describing Austrian techniques says nothing of any technique resembling a poolish (that is, no pre-fermentation). And the one big Austrian contribution to yeast - the invention of the more purified "pressed yeast" - came after Zang had left France.

He treats the appearance of the baguette as contemporaneous with other "pains de fantaisie" (fancy breads) (103) and focuses on the fact that these had to be eaten soon after they were made. Which tended to be true. But it was not a defining characteristic of the classification, which existed since at least the 18th century (well before the baguette). A pain de fantaisie was originally so-called for the simple reason that it was out of the ordinary (made to the baker or client's "fantasy" or whim) and with time was sometimes defined as a bread not subject to a regulated price. When made with yeast (which was not always the case), it did indeed need to be eaten within the day, but that was incidental to the meaning of the term. The baguette, at any rate, was a very late entrant to the category.

All this might seem to be nit-picking in the extreme, but beyond the fact that, hey, some people care about this stuff, several of Calvel's assertions seem to have made their way into the general literature (Calvel was after all a bone fide expert) and so one finds, for instance, frequent mentions of "Baron Zang". I don't know if Calvel is responsible for the myths around the poolish (which is referred to as a "Polisch" in one early 20th century text), but those are pretty widespread too.

None of this is meant to question the book's fundamental importance. I've recommended it more than once. But if it has an Achilles' heel, it is on the history side.

Jim Chevallier

http://www.chezjim.com

Austrian, yes; queen, no:

August Zang and the French Croissant: How Viennoiserie came to France

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As near as I can make out, Calvel simply accepted the legends of his trade. A natural enough thing to do, but once he became a professor it would be nice if he'd applied the principle of returning to prime sources, which he clearly did not. ...

Although a highly respected teacher of practical baking, weren't all Calvel's professorships (2 Japanese, 1 French) honorific titles?

"If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch ... you must first invent the universe." - Carl Sagan

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I've never seen his title qualified in any way and apparently he became "professor emeritus" after he retired, which would suggest to me a full professor. Still I can perfectly imagine that they might have considered his working background qualification enough without requiring further certification.

Helas, this did not keep him from writing with a great air of authority on historical matters.

Strangely, you can find info on him in the American Wikipedia and on a Spanish site:

De 1936 a 1978 fue profesor de Panadería en la National Superior School of Milling and Cereal Industries ENSMIC.

Raymond Calvel site - in Spanish

But not on the French Wikipedia (any native French speakers tentés par la tache?)

Edited by chezjim (log)

Jim Chevallier

http://www.chezjim.com

Austrian, yes; queen, no:

August Zang and the French Croissant: How Viennoiserie came to France

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