It was Saturday morning, and the proprietor of a local bakery was tallying my weekend fix: “So you’ve got a spice cloud muffin, a chocolate pecan bar, and a — levain.” The girl who had put together my order corrected him on the last item. “No, I thought I put down a walnut currant.” He glanced down at the hand-written list and, with a you-should-know-this tone, said “Yeah, that’s a levain.” Ouch. I glanced at the girl and she smiled it off sheepishly.
While I empathized with the girl (I myself had no idea what levain referred to), the exchange impressed me. A bakery shop owner who expected the waitstaff to speak baking-ese? Tough, but rightfully so. And so tough, I was convinced levain was really something I should know the meaning of. Fortunately, I could guess it was a French word and spelled it correctly when I Googled it. As it turns out, pain au levain simply refers to sourdough bread. There are two principal methods for leavening — one utilizing cultivated yeast (baker’s yeast) and one utilizing bacterial (lactobacillus) culture. Sourdough bread employs the latter and is therefore referred to as naturally-leavened bread. [Note: yeast are fungi, and fungi ≠ bacteria.]
I’ll leave all the other details about sourdough to the pros and self-proclaimed bread snobs. For now, I’m at least armed with a cursory knowledge of levain/starter and mother dough, and won’t feel like too much of an ignoramus the next time I buy bread.