Living Bread: Tradition and Innovation in Artisan Bread Making is the fifth and most ambitious book undertaken by Bread Alone founder Daniel Leader, and there’s a bit of a knowing wink in its title. Much of the book’s bread-specific content is devoted to varieties of sourdough and other breads that could, by some lights, be said to be alive. But the pivotal pun in Living Bread refers to the fact that this man has, in fact, lived bread, given his life to and his path over to it. More than any of his previous well-received books, Living Bread takes the shape of a personal journey, a pilgrimage, with more attention lavished on Leader’s mentors, heroes and international colleagues than upon himself.
Published by Avery (an imprint of Penguin Random House), co-written with Leader’s longtime collaborator, the food writer Lauren Chattman, and extravagantly illustrated by the lush photography of Jeorg Lehman (avoid when hungry), Living Bread presents as a large-format, upscale table book for a foodie’s dream Christmas. It has impressive weight and page count, elegant design and layout. What is so surprisingly satisfying about the book, however, is the multifaceted depth and interest of its content.
In a narrative style consistent with New Journalism, the natural history and the mixed-mode approach associated with writers like Michael Pollan, Leader tells a complex, multi-strand story: part personal memoir, part travelogue, part treatise on practical food science, part food history attuned to the complex cultural and political forces that impact it and, at its core, still “just” a recipe book. Different fonts and layout elements are used to delineate these content strands; you know visually, for example, when you are in one of the book’s many loving biographical profiles of bakers, and when you are in the middle of a grueling 13-hour recipe. The book can be thus enjoyed linearly or non-sequentially based on what you are there for. The elegance and coherence of this interleaved texture, however, makes an argument for reading it straight through – if you can fit it on your lap.
Leader’s compelling introduction tells the story of his own “backdoor” training in baking. Bread was hardly covered during his time at the Culinary Institute of America (it’s a very different story there now), and when the young Leader first went to Europe on a food tour, bread was not on his mind. Things changed fast as he found himself thrust into a series of unplanned apprenticeships with some of Europe’s most revered traditional bakers. Therein begins one of Living Bread’s most moving and enjoyable strands: its series of funny, touching and lightly mythologized character portraits of great bakers and Leader’s own mentors – many of them heirs to centuries of tradition, revivers of lost arts and savvy innovators in baking science and technique.
A book of this scope cannot help but have a geopolitical dimension as well, and Living Bread’s commences in its first chapter, titled “Changing Wheat Landscapes.” After a few other lively preliminary chapters – “Understanding Artisanal Flour,” “Essential Baking Practices” – we reach what many will regard as the “meat” of the book: a detailed exploration of baking techniques and traditions and a rich collection of illustrated recipes.
We caught Dan Leader as he prepared for what is going to be an epic and international book tour. This, he said, was his first interview in support of Living Bread – fitting, he added, as Ulster Publishing’s Woodstock Times was the first outlet to cover the opening of Bread Alone all those years ago.
What inspired a book of this massive scope at this stage of your career as a successful baker and businessman and as established expert and author?
I’m not a trained baker. I’m only a good baker because lots of people have been very kind to me and very sharing of their knowledge. I felt I was really lucky, and why not write about it? I spoke to my agent and she said, “Let’s go for it. Let’s go for the big book.” I was thrilled to get Penguin to sign on. And here we are.
In Living Bread, the story of bread comes off as super-complex and connected to everything else – almost like the story of the world told through this one very specific focus and lens. How did you develop such a complex, multifaceted take on it?
Let me give you an example. When I went to Sicily, I visited a group of wheat farmers. They were telling me about ancient wheat history in northern Africa and Sicily, southern Italy – history going back 2,000 years. And then they started talking about the battaglia del grano, and I was like, “Wait. What is the ‘battle of the grain’? What are you talking about?” When Mussolini was the dictator, there was a huge imbalance of trade. They couldn’t feed the country and imported all this wheat. Mussolini essentially said to all the agronomists, “We have to be more self-sufficient; we have to develop new varieties of wheat and more production per acre.” And, you know, “Do this, or else.” In a matter of a few years, Italy became the most productive wheat grower in the world, surpassing the United States. And a lot of these techniques and strains became standard around the world: the modern varieties of wheat. Here I am, visiting some wheat farmer and learning, by hearsay, this important piece of history. That happened over and over again.
The story of bread is sort of the story of civilization?
I could write a whole book on the historical intersections of politics and bread and grain, but in the end, this is a recipe book of sorts. At some point I just had to kind of say, “Here’s the book.”
I’m not sure what you’ll think of the comparison, but I see the storytelling in Living Bread as being of a piece with the late Anthony Bourdain.
We went to the Culinary about the same time. Our paths may have crossed. I was always deeply impressed with the “people” side of his food world. He could never talk about a recipe without the people and the place and the history. Certainly, I was touched by his career.
The visual dimension of the book is spectacular.
I met Jeorg Lehman by chance. We were out to dinner with a mutual friend in Paris, and I hear that he is this food photographer who has done about 85 cookbooks across Europe, with all the top chefs. And he said to me, “I’ve always wanted to do a book about bread; I’ve always wanted to visit the farms and the mills.” He had this fascination with bread. He’s German, but he lived in Paris for 20 years: French soul in a German frame of mind. And so I had this great partner-in-crime. I had a lot of contacts and he had a lot of contacts, and this book is the merging of them.
From conception to completion, how long did this take?
I am not sure if it was four years or five years. It probably started a year before the contract was signed. The book was rejected by practically every major publisher. People just didn’t get it. They wanted a Bread Alone cookbook. I could have sold 100 Bread Alone cookbooks before I sold this one. Penguin not only bought it, but when I say they believed in me, they didn’t even send a stylist to any of the food photography. It was Jeorg and I, beginning to end.
Who do you see as the audience for this book?
Right now, there is a lot of interest in fermentation: people making cheese, beer, wine, vinegar, kimchi. And there’s a lot of interest in sourdough right now. So, I think that whole food world that appreciates fermentation will appreciate this book. When Bread Alone came around 25 years ago, there wasn’t this serious community of bread-sharers, sharing sourdough recipes all over the world. So, the sourdough community, the baking community, serious foodies as well. And then, because there is baking science in the book, people who want to learn about ash content, and how flours are evaluated, and what double-zero flour really is. There is a lot of practical information for people who are serious bakers. That said, the book is not written around one technique or one recipe. I was very careful to select recipes that I didn’t feel were well-known or often written about.
Daniel Leader will celebrate the publication of Living Bread locally with a full-day program at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park on Thursday, October 3 and appearances at the Bread Alone Bakery at 221 Ulster Avenue in Lake Katrine on Saturday, October 12 at noon, and Oblong Books & Music at 6422 Montgomery Street in Rhinebeck on Sunday, October 13 at 4 p.m.
Read more articles from the 2019 edition of Explore Hudson Valley: Fall in the Valley