A wheat leaven, the levain part of a pain au levain, requires very little to get going: a warm place (about 28 degrees Celsius), flour (preferably wholemeal, stoneground, organic), water (preferably filtered or spring), and time. You will require patience and possibly a thermometer.
Adapted from Andrew Whitley's Bread Matters
- 120g stoneground wholemeal wheat flour
- 120g strong white flour
- 200g water, filtered or spring
- Day one: Mix 40g stoneground wholemeal wheat flour with 40g water. I use a quart canning jar covered with just the dome lid, but not the screw part. This way, if things really get going in there it will just pop off the top and not release the built up energy by breaking the glass. Put in a warm, draft-free place. Andrew says that for a wheat leaven 28°C is ideal. I ended up buying an indoor/outdoor thermometer for a couple bucks at the hardware store and have found it extremely helpful. Turns out I'm not very good at estimating what 28°C feels like. Although now that I do know what it feels like, I'm getting better.
- Day two: Take your nascent starter from its cozy home and add to it another 40g wholemeal flour and 40g water. You probably won't notice a significant change in it yet.
- Day three: Your starter might show signs of life--bubbling or frothing. Add to it another 40g wholemeal flour and 20g water. Andrew says, "The water proportion is slightly reduced to tighten the dough up a bit."
- Day four: Add 120g strong white flour (or wholemeal flour, if you prefer) and 100g water to your starter. Andrew suggests white flour to lighten up the leaven, but it's really up to you. "After fermenting the Day 4 leaven for another 24 hours, you should have a leaven that smells slightly acidic and has risen appreciably (and probably collapsed)."
- If nothing seems to have happened after day four: Mix 220g starter with 120g strong white or wholemeal flour and 100g water. Repeat another day if necessary.
- If it was showing signs of life and then seems to have died: Mix 130g starter with 60g wholemeal flour, 120g strong white flour and 30g water.
- If your starter still isn't starting, try again from the beginning.
Use as the starter for French Country Bread.
When I was starting my wheat leaven, it took repeating day four twice for it to really get going. I kept trying to convince myself that it had risen and fallen, when really nothing had happened yet. And then one morning I got up and checked it and my quart jar was completely full of leaven. It was gorgeous. It set the tone for the rest of the day--nothing could get me down; my leaven was alive! It's like the feeling you get when someone is trying to show you a constellation and you keep saying, "Yeah, I see it," and then you actually do see it and it's incredible.