Peasant Bread

1 Jun

Ian McDonald has been building, charring, and repairing whisky casks for the Balvenie since he left high school. In a din of mallets and a cloud of dust, the 57-year-old cooper tilts, turns and tips barrels weighing up to 135 kg. The Highlander would put Olympic swimmers to shame with his shoulder and upper body strength.

Photo: The Balvenie

Casks arrive at the cooperage, IKEA flat-pack style, from Europe and the U.S., where they once held port, sherry, bourbon and rum. The spirits from their past lives will lend distinctive qualities to the whiskies that mature in their bellies once they’ve been hammered back together—bourbon casks adds vanilla and spicy notes, whereas sherry casks adds Christmas-cake richness and ruddy colour.

Even with 41 years of service, Ian’s not the longest-serving employee at this Speyside distillery. Malt Master David Stewart—the nose behind Balvenie’s famous 53-times-award-winning Portwood and other well-loved blends—has been with the company 50 years. Coppersmith Dennis McBain, who builds and maintains the bulbous copper sills, got his first gig on the malting floors here back in 1958. Many Balvenie employees have at least a couple of decades under their belt.

On a tour with these job-for-lifers I breathe in the banana-bread smells of the malting floors, peer at the frothy beer in the fermenting tanks and lean up against casks that have been quietly working their magic on the whisky inside since before I was born.


And I listen to story after story. One man reminisces about sneaking off to catch leaping salmon in the on-site stream on nightshifts as a young man; another talks wistfully about the old practise of lining up three times a day for official morning, noon and afternoon drams; a third reflects on this new era of labour-saving computers—“Some days, we joke about throwing ours into the North Sea,” he says.

*     *     *     *     *

The next evening, the Balvenie Boys join our Canadian group for a dinner prepared by four exceptional Canuck chefs working with fresh Scottish ingredients and inspired by the rare crafts of whisky-making.

Dale MacKay, chef-owner of Ensemble and E Tap in Vancouver and last year’s Top Chef Canada winner, serves up tender roasted scallops with a crust made of malted barley—pilfered from the malting room floors—coriander seeds and cornmeal. On the side: cauliflower three ways (roasted, pureed and Béarnaise), micro cilantro, and prune puree with a dash of Balvenie 12-year-old Signature.

Paul Rogalski, chef-owner of Rouge in Calgary and one of the culinary stars who fed our Olympians in Whistler 2010, creates a whole grouse soup experience. We start with a gelatine-grouse-Doublewood layer in our glasses then pour in a steaming consommé to dissolve it and release the whisky flavours. The coolest element of all: carrots cut into tiny whisky tuns.

On large serving platters, Derek Dammann (chef-owner of DNA in Montreal and former head chef at Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen), brings out slow-roasted lamb. It’s accompanied by sauce Paloise (like a minty hollandaise), whisky-and-port-glazed peas, carrots and turnips and my the side I’ve been waiting for my whole life: a sweet and sticky date-and-horseradish condiment inspired by the chutneys so popular in the UK.

“They talked about the family values at the distillery, how long it has been in operation for the same family and how the people who worked there live within a few miles of the place and have worked there forty-fifty-plus years, so I wanted to do something family-style,” says the chef.

The last of the main courses is an incredible garlic caramel popover with venison. The meat has been marinated in Balvenie 17-year-old Peated Cask—the smokiest and most distinctive of the whiskies we try—and juniper berries, in a nod to Dennis the coppersmith’s habit of “sweetening the sill” by boiling a juniper branch inside it.

Torontonian Tom Brodi (former executive chef of TOCA at the Ritz-Carlton) dresses his dish with walnut and spiced chocolate. Charred Brussels sprouts and leeks on the side pay homage to the cooperage trick of charring the inside of old casks to bring them back to life.

Dessert is a dreamy apple tarte tatin with hazelnuts and vanilla ice cream. Dale has spiked the vanilla crème fraiche with whisky finished in a Caribbean rum cask. We all need a little Jamaica, as the rain drums the windows outside.

There’s a whole lot of toasting, laughing and beaming across the table throughout the night, and it feels like our kitchen gang of four have properly feted the craftsmen who took us into their world the day before.

“I don’t usually eat this way at home,” says Brian Webster, the mash man, grinning as we get ready to leave at the end of the evening.

Brian is clutching a doggie bag. Inside is a part of the meal that I’ll likely still be thinking about ten years from now. We all will. It’s some of the bread that Derek served right at the start of this lavish meal: a peasant bread made with barley flour and toasted malt and hop grains—soft on the inside and with a perfect straw-coloured crust.

“We’ve been trying for years to make a good bread with our grains,” says Brian, who has spent most of his working life on the malting floors, “but we’ve never been able to make anything as good as this.”

We ate it slathered with butter smoked with peat (also pilfered on our tour—you have to watch those chefs), and topped with a layer of sea salt, Balvenie Signature Blend, charred onions and potatoes for an explosion of flavour and subtle crunch.

I know you’re supposed to exercise self-control at the breadbasket, but I had four great big slices of peasant bread that evening and would have gladly started again the very next morning, which I suspect is what Brian did.

You’ll understand why if you give it a try.

A big thanks to Derek Dammann for passing on the recipe.

Peasant bread

Yield: 4 round loaves

3 cups water
½ cup sourdough starter
½ lb whole wheat flour
2 tbsp plus 1 tsp active dry yeast
1 ½ lb all purpose flour
¼ lb barley flour
¼ lb rye flour
4 tsp sea salt

1. Prepare the sponge the night before. Mix 3 cups water, ½ cup of sourdough starter and ½ pound of whole wheat flour thoroughly with a whisk and leave it covered, at room temperature overnight.

2. The next day add the yeast to the sponge and stir to dissolve. Combine the rest of the ingredients and knead for 10-15 minutes, until it is smooth and elastic. Allow to proof until it doubles in size about 1 ½ hours.

3. Divide the dough into 4 equal parts, form each portion into a ball and allow to proof again until doubled in size. Spray the tops, dust with flour and slash. Bake in a preheated 400F oven for 40-45 minutes.

Sourdough starter

Yield: 13 oz
2 ½ oz peeled russet potato, cut into small pieces
7/8 cup water
1 & 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1. Combine the potato and water in a stainless steel saucepan, bring to a boil and simmer for 15 minutes, until the potato is very soft. Pour into a clean container, mash the potatoes finely with a fork and allow to cool to room temperature. Stir the flour in gradually until you have a well-combined, stiff batter. Cover with plastic and store at 70F.

2. After 6-8 hours some liquid may rise to the surface, stir vigorously  and recover.

3. After 72 hours, refresh by stirring in 4 tbsp of water and 1 ½ ounces of flour. Let stand for another 48 hours, then stir in 4 tbsp water and 3 oz of flour. Continue to stir until all of the flour is incorporated and the mixture feels heavy and sticky. Let the mixture triple in volume, this takes about 8 hours.

4. Keep in the refrigerator, covered tightly.

5. Keep refreshing the starter everyday if you are using it or weekly with 1/8 cup water and 1 oz of flour.

9 Responses to “Peasant Bread”

  1. Sharen Maguire June 1st, 2012 at 7:52 PM #

    The instructions for the sourdough starter have me confused. You are adding flour and potatoes and boiling ? Do you mean water.. and potatoes..? In the ingredients you talk about 7 1/2 oz flour is this the flour you are adding to make the batter in step 1 or is 1 1/2 cups. (maybe it is one and the same eg 7 1/2 oz flour= 1/12 cups?_)

    Do you leave the water in with the mashed potatoes and stir in the flour to get the stiff batter .. If not when do you add the water??? Help lol!!! Many thanks

    • Valerie Howes June 25th, 2012 at 4:09 PM #

      Hi Sharen,
      Thanks for pointing this out. Chef Dammon asks that you add WATER and potatoes; there was an error in that line (I’ve fixed the recipe now). It should be 1 & 1/2 cups flour in the starter. Yes, leave the water in.

  2. walter zirk June 3rd, 2012 at 10:07 AM #

    where/how can I get the recepie for peasant bread

    • Valerie Howes June 3rd, 2012 at 10:34 PM #

      It’s at the end of the story, Walter. Good luck!

    • Nora June 4th, 2012 at 2:18 PM #

      Wanted to print recipie but not all the photos before. Any way to do this??

      • Valerie Howes June 4th, 2012 at 3:57 PM #

        Hi Nora, you could select the text you need then copy and paste it into a Word document.

  3. Kim June 3rd, 2012 at 1:46 PM #

    I’ve never used a potato to make sourdough starter, will try this bread recipe soon. Thanks for sharing.

    • Valerie Howes June 30th, 2012 at 11:43 PM #

      You’re welcome!

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