A loaf on the wild side

2009-08-10 00:00

THE crunch of tyres on gravel as you slowly follow the winding dirt road down into Winterskloof is a comforting sound, one reinforced by the gentle early morning winter sunlight slanting through the trees. I am on my way to visit Graeme Taute who has built up a considerable reputation for the quality of the bread he bakes using traditional French methods.

When I arrive, Taute is busy making pain de compagne, country bread. The sight of the fermented dough sprawled across the teak working table in his kitchen is faintly alarming. Somewhat akin to a beached manta ray, it seems sentient, alive even. As it turns out, it is.

Taute makes four varieties of bread: pain de compagne — both large and small loaves — olive bread, baguettes and 100% rye loaves.

A clinical psychologist by profession, Taute closed his practice towards the end of last year to turn full-time baker. At least, that was the plan. It hasn’t quite worked out like that.

“I’ve been working on a book off and on for years, but two months ago it started calling insistently. So I write on Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and half of Thursday.” The rest of Thursday and Friday is spent making bread.

Although Taute’s not quite sure where the writing and the baking will lead he’s enjoying the challenges that life seems to be throwing his way. “I like that line from a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke that says as we grow older ‘The task is this: to be decisively defeated, By ever larger things’. It was safe to stay in practise as a psychologist but my soul wanted something bigger to be conquered by. That ‘something’ was more important than security and financial stability.”

So Taute now finds himself being conquered by a novel on the make and bread on the bake. “I am besotted with the French artisan tradition of bread making,” he says, “although it’s very time-consuming. Everything is done by hand, the mixing, the kneading, as well as the final shaping. I’m also fascinated by wild yeast. Today, there are only two bakeries in Paris making bread using predominantly wild yeast.”

Wild yeast is a different strand of yeast from the dried yeast available in supermarkets, and its capacity to tolerate very acidic environments allows for the lengthy fermentations which are the hallmark of good French bread. The dough that Taute is busy dividing into separate loaves and shaping for the final fermentation really is alive.

Taute keeps the “mother” yeast culture in a small bowl in the fridge. His “mother” is six years old. “It takes a year at least to get a culture really potent with all the right microflora.

“The yeast has a sweet smell, not that pungent smell most people associate with yeast, that’s the smell of dead yeast. Live, properly fermented yeast smells sweet and gives a sweet taste to the bread. Some people think I put sugar into my bread, I don’t.”

For his country bread, Taute does three “builds”, each build taking six hours. “I finally end up with a levain — a leavening — of six kilograms, which I then incorporate into the final mix.”

Early on Friday morning, Taute begins shaping the individual loaves prior to baking, allowing them a final rise in individual baskets before baking them in a deck oven —“it’s the best mimic of wood-fired oven” — on stone tiles.

Contrary to what might be expected, the temperature at which the slowly fermented “builds” take place must be cool. “It must be under 18 degrees.” Which means Taute’s Winterskloof kitchen is just right temperature-wise in winter, while in summer he moves the “builds” to the outside deck of his house.

Taute uses Eureka stone-ground flour produced in the Swellendam area. “They use three stones and it’s ground very gently — the wheat germ is still with it.”

“Commercial bread is made with dead flour. It’s been overheated by the milling, and so has little nutritional value,” says Taute. “The French call commercial bread ‘cooked dough’, rather than bread.”

Taute became interested in bread five years ago. “I’m not a great bread eater, but I became obsessed with reading about French bread.”

When Taute started to make bread himself he admits to being defeated by yeast. “I was turning out bricks. I just couldn’t get the hang of how it worked. I felt it was this alien staring up at me.”

Gilly Walters (of Wedgewood nougat fame and bread maker of note) provided the solution. “She watched what I was doing and said ‘you can’t think your way through making bread, you have got to feel it’. With that something just clicked, suddenly I realised how the yeast worked and the bread dough became a living thing, I could feel its heartbeat. Then I found out about wild yeast and that was the final catalyst.”

Reading all he could about bread and bread-making techniques, Taute inevitably encountered the great authority on French bread, Raymond Calvel. “I was really struck by something he said: ‘good bread is something made according to the nature of things’. Bread knows how to make itself. We just have to give it the right conditions. In that sense, bread making is rather like life; I often think we interfere too much.”


• Graeme Taute supplies bread to the Karkloof and Shongweni farmers’ markets. Special orders can be made at Hattingh’s Sausages in Hilton. He also runs occasional bread-making courses. If you would like to be added to his mailing list contact him at gtaute@mweb.co.za



500g white bread or cake flour 100%

350g water 70%

4g (1 level teaspoon) instant yeast 0.7%

10g salt 2%


Mix the ingredients together in a bowl, transfer to an oiled counter, and leave to rest for 10 minutes.

Oil your hands and stretch the dough out into a rectangular shape slightly larger than A4 size, pulling (or pushing) from top to bottom, and then out from the sides.

Fold the stretched dough by pulling the bottom edge two thirds of the way up, and the top edge one third of the way down (like you would a letter).

Roll up the dough from left to right, cover, and leave to rest for 45 minutes.

Repeat the stretching and folding three more times, following each with a 45-minute rest period. You will thus stretch and fold the dough four times, and the whole process will take three hours.

Grease a deep baking tin.

Stretch the dough out into a rectangular shape, the shorter side roughly the width of your tin.

Roll the dough up tightly, pull in the edges, and place in the baking tin. Cover with a cloth and allow to rise in a cool area for one-and-a-half hours, or until it has at least doubled in size.

Preheat oven to 220 degrees Celsius and bake for 40 to 45 minutes, or until nicely browned and hollow-sounding when tapped underneath. Remove from pan, and allow to cool on a wire rack.




“ARTISAN bakers use formulae (expressed as percentages) rather than recipes. It makes it easy to see what sort of bread it is. One looks at the level of hydration to identify the bread. For instance, a Ciabatta will have at least 80% water, and any rustic bread will have at least 70% water. Standard breads have 60% to 65% water. A bagel has only about 50% water. Using formulae also allows one to easily adjust the ingredients. If I want to use 100 kilograms of flour, it is easy to work out how much water, salt and yeast I need. If I’m doing the recipe I gave you, the amount of water would be 70% of 100 kilograms, the salt two percent of 100 kilograms and the yeast 0,7% of 100 kilograms.

I teach the percentage system in my courses, and encourage bakers to use it.”

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