by Randy George
When we started Red Hen almost 20 years ago now, the bread I wanted to bake and eat the most was pain au levain (literally “naturally leavened bread” in French). From day one (9/1/99) until October of 2016 we made a bread by that name. At the beginning, we considered it our flagship bread– the one that we wanted to be known for most, as it was our personal go-to bread for almost any occasion.
As time went by, we introduced new breads. Waitsfield Common, for instance, was not one of our initial offerings. We introduced that in 2002. As it is also naturally leavened, it is also technically a pain au levain. But the Common is a lighter bread and usually the lighter breads are more popular. It also had a better name, and soon its sales eclipsed those of pain au levain. Then in 2008 we introduced Cyrus Pringle. The Cyrus has never been entirely naturally leavened, but does have a good helping of stoneground and sifted wheat flour in it (roughly the same proportion as the pain au levain, in fact).. Because it too had a better name than the pain au levain (and a good back story to boot), it wasn’t long before the Cyrus stole some more sales away from our pain au levain. Finally, late in 2016, we had to face facts and, to the dismay of many of us in the bakery, we made our last loaf of pain au levain. Or so we thought…
It never felt quite right to ditch our favorite bread. I still have a photo of a cross section of a particularly pretty loaf of pain au levain hanging on my office wall and ever since we stopped making that bread, I would sometimes see that and wonder whatever came over us to stop making such a good loaf. The other thing is that our pain au levain lent itself very well to certain additions. The pain au levain dough always provided the base for our olive bread. After we stopped making the levain, we started making the olive with our Crossett Hill dough. Although the Crossett is also technically a pain au levain as well, we have never liked the olive bread as well as when it was made with our pain au levain.
So as we approach our 20th anniversary, we decided it was time to bring this old favorite back, but with a few twists.
It didn’t make sense to bake this bread just exactly as before. A veteran musician will still perform their old favorites, but the good ones never perform them exactly the same way. We’ve developed as bakers and as a business, so why not make the reemergence of our old friend be a reflection of who we are now?
Freshly-milled flour. One important thing that has happened since we were last making pain au levain is that we now have a stone mill in the bakery. We use it every day to mill our rye (grown in VT at Thornhill Farm) as well as the local, heirloom corn from Aurora Farm. But we haven’t been using it for wheat. It turns out that the pain au levain is really nice when a little freshly-milled, coarse wheat flour is added.
Size and shape. On any given day, almost half of the individual breads we sell are baguettes. Obviously, there are many reasons people like our baguettes, but we think that part of the allure must be the smaller size and the shape. Turns out, the pain au levain looks beautiful in longer, skinnier shape and a slightly smaller size than the way we used to make it.
A New Name! The last piece was to rename our old friend. Foreign names are often challenging– people often don’t want to embarrass themselves when they’re just trying to order bread, especially when one of the words looks like “pain.” (Isn’t it funny that beer makers seem to get away with naming their brews after death and the apocalypse or just general unpleasantness? That doesn’t seem to fly with something that, above all else, is supposed to nourish you.)
So in recognition of the 3 different mills that produce the flour that goes into this bread– Le Moulin des Cedres, Harris Family Farm, and our own mill at Red Hen– we are introducing 3 Millers bread! 3 Millers will also be our basis for our olive bread and, in the coming weeks, we plan to roll out a lemon rosemary bread and roll that uses 3 Millers as its basis. Please try our new twist on an old favorite and let us know what you think!