Her Pain Sauvage is nothing short of a revelation, being made without any leavening of any kind. No sourdough, no commercial yeast, just whole flour (and grain meal), water and salt. And it makes the most delicious bread.
She lives on Salt Spring Island in a 100-year-old house, which she calls her “Maison Sauvage” and tends her garden, which she calls her “Jardin Sauvage.” She turns 80 years old today (Wednesday, April 14, 2021).
Bread without yeast!
The recipe is all hers, too, though I’m sure it’s been made by others in the long history of bread. Nina is a student of bread, and she’s used her knowledge to perfect her recipe. She’s reached out to other bakers over the years, including Dr. Stephen Jones of the Bread Lab in Washington State. Peter Reinhart, the baking author and instructor, told her, “This is real bread!”
Nina’s less known in the bread world than she is for her work as a photographer. You’ve probably seen her pictures, many of them portraits of famous people, such as Leonard Cohen and the Beatles. But her work also includes portraits of ordinary folks, such as this series from Vancouver in 1972. In 2015, Canada Post chose one of her images for a postage stamp, “Shoeshine Stand,” 1974. She was made an officer of the Order of Canada in 1984 and is a member of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts.
“I’ve only ever owned one camera all my life,” Nina told me. “It’s a Nikon, and I still have it.”
I was impressed with that (among many other things). Most professional photographers I’ve known cart around mounds of equipment: camera bodies, lenses, cables, batteries, metres, lights and light stands, bags of film. And now I have this picture of Nina taking her only camera off her shoulder and pointing it at people like John Lennon or Leonard Cohen.
A small footprint
Nor does she own a TV or a computer. She has a $2 transistor radio that she uses to listen to Radio-Canada’s classical music. She only recently acquired a flip phone that has also b become her second camera.
“I’m a minimalist,” she said. “I like to leave a small footprint.”
I’m inspired by people who leave a small footprint. People who consume little, take up less space, make less noise. I’m one of the noisy ones … overwhelmed by the detritus of books, utensils, sentimental possessions that I drag around with me. I find myself longing for the quiet of an uncluttered life, empty walls, a book beside my bed, a nice window to look out of. No internet!
Nina seems to have figured this out, though I’m sure she comes by it quite naturally.
When I spoke with her, she talked about simplicity and the “aimless life:” not doggedly attaching one’s identity to a goal or direction. Mindfully connecting oneself instead to the flow of life can be freeing and fulfilling in itself. A zen approach!
A zen approach
I told Nina that my first bread teacher was The Tassajara Bread Book by Edward Espe Brown.1 Brown was a cook at the Zen Mountain Centre in Tassajara Springs, California. My bread-making began with The Tassajara Bread Book in the mid-1970s. My results weren’t the greatest, but I was drawn to the simplicity of the approach and the baker-bread connection.
No surprise that The Tassajara Bread Book was Nina’s first “bread master,” as well. I knew we were on the same wavelength!
I first heard of Nina through Sophie Williams, a Bellingham-based baker and rye bread genius. In an Instagram post this January, Sophie spoke of a long phone conversation she’d with Nina. She had called with a question about grains.
Sophie’s post also spoke of Nina’s bread, Pain Sauvage, that leavens with only the naturally occurring yeast in the grains and flour. She offered a more-or-less verbatim recipe for Pain Sauvage as given by Nina herself.
Many of Sophie’s followers seized the opportunity and tried making it, myself included. The results were surprising in my case! Not only did the bread rise beautifully, but it was also flavourful and delightful in the mouth, not overly dense and “healthful.” It also had a flavour that I could only describe as fruity, almost banana-like.
Nina told me the fruitiness was a sign that I had over-proofed the bread.
“The next time you make it, proof the dough at a slightly lower temperature, if you can, and maybe shorten your bulk fermentation.”
It may have been her discerning taste buds that led to the idea of making bread without any form of leavening.
“I didn’t like the taste of yeast in the bread I made. I tried to reduce it as much as I could, even down to just a few grains.”
She knew most grain had naturally occurring yeast, so she tried making a dough with no commercial yeast. The flavour was much to her liking, though her hand-shaped loaves didn’t rise particularly well. Baking them in loaf pans (she prefers using glass pans) provided support for the dough in the oven, and it rose much better.
She was on to something!
Other problems were addressed over time. Nina experimented with proofing and room temperature, preferring colder conditions that slow fermentation of the dough, which develops more flavour.
Bakers on Instagram report that they have tried using different grains and different baking temperatures. But everyone seems giddy at the surprising results from making bread without yeast.
I’m still experimenting with the Pain Sauvage formula. I think all bakers have to tweak, if only because their environments are different or different human beings: different temperatures, different techniques, different grains.
I’ll be following the “aimless life” this time. But if I ever find the perfect expression of the Pain Sauvage, it will still be Nina’s Pain Sauvage!
Two days after my first conversation with Nina Raginsky, she left a message on my voice mail. It was a quote from The Tassajara Bread Book:
Mix some flour with enough water to form a dough, a touch of salt, perhaps; shape it, bake it, the result is bread in its simplest, most fundamental form:
With rich true-spirited flavour
That one soon learns to love and crave.
Everything else is extra: yeast, milk, oil, sweetening, eggs. Extra to make bread more palatable, more “civilized”, more chewable and more sliceable; yet in way the extras only detract from the primitive simplicity of grain-tasting unyeasted bread.
The range of breads and other bakery goods is extraordinary … Yet basically it’s just you and the dough — ripening, maturing, baking, blossoming together.
Edward Espe Brown, The Tassajara Bread Book
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