The quest for gluten, part I

The other weekend, Alex and I drove to the Berkshires in search of gluten. Not just any gluten, mind you. Gluten that has gone through the natural process of fermentation, made by the baker Richard Bourdon, proprietor of the Berkshire Mountain Bakery in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.

We were flipping through Netflix the other week, undecided on what to watch, when Alex came across the series “Cooked.” It was on the list of recommended things to see, and probably landed there because I previously watched Chef’s Table, Jiro Dreams of Sushi, and a bunch of other food-related shows. So, bored on a weekend evening, we watched “Cooked.”

In it, Michael Pollan discussed the process of bread and fermentation and talked about gluten. Not that I agree with all of the show’s pronouncements about gluten, mind you, but one thing did stick out in my mind. Baking bread the old fashioned way, i.e. with natural fermentation as opposed to with ready-made industrial yeast, breaks down the proteins (gluten) so that they are easier to digest. Not only that, consuming the natural yeast and bacteria in the bread that result from fermentation builds up the flora in your intestines, which in turn helps you better process food in general.

I immediately googled and wikied to see how much of that is true, and actually found a bonafide study in which celiacs (who have to avoid all forms of gluten, even in minuscule amounts) who ingested a small amount of naturally fermented sourdough bread exhibited no negative reactions. That is big! Celiacs usually can’t even consider touching cross-contaminated foods with a whiff of gluten in or on it. To have them actually be able to eat two whole grams of normal bread and not be ill? That’s incredible. And, it was hypothesized that it might actually be healing for their gut to consume fermented foods and breads, so that was a double whammy.

In Cooked’s “Air” episode, Polan introduced us to Richard the baker, a big proponent of healthy eating, who worked tirelessly for years on perfecting the natural sourdough bread. So I watched the episode again. They showed him working in his bakery in the Berkshires. Everything was in slow motion, the kneading and shaping and putting the bread in the oven. And in between watching the close ups and the wide angled shots, came one of those special moments in my life. I don’t know if I it was a calling, or an instinct, or perhaps sheer desperation, but I was determined to go and see this guru of gluten. Just like I couldn’t help gravitating to gamelan many moons ago, I was simply drawn to bread of the Berkshires. This could be the answer to my problems. If there was one glutenous bread that I could eat, it would be his.

Now why would I want to eat gluten at all, you might wonder? These days, being gluten free, especially for those located in the greater New York metropolitan area, is a breeze. I can eat pizzas, burgers, sandwiches, bagels, pancakes, tacos, Chinese food, Japanese food, what have you, in countless restaurants. Many places have their own dedicated gluten free menus. Compare that to 2001 in Munich, when maintaining a gluten free diet was a total pain in the be-hind, to say the least. When eating out, I could count on having salad, french fries, Thai curries, sautéd veggies, sauceless meats and fish, and rice. That was to the extent of it. As for breads, there was either a small selection of Dr. Schär products – nothing like the smorgasbord of goodies that I have access to now – or really dense, hard organic bread that sat in my stomach like concrete. It’s a wonder that I hadn’t whittled away to nothing then.

Now for those who don’t know, I stopped eating gluten 15 years ago, before it became a trendy thing to be gluten free, before the word gluten became a common household word.

I did that because for some time, many things were wrong with me. I was constantly tired, regardless of how long I’d slept. I could eat like a horse and not gain weight (which some might consider a blessing, I know), but I was always hungry nonetheless. I was sneezing all the time – you would never see me without a Kleenex. The skin on my nose and around my eyebrows was peeling regularly, (something I’d seen on my dad, who probably also had the same problem, me now thinks). I had bone pain in the weirdest of spots – in the middle of my arm or on the back of my leg. My mind wasn’t sharp and  I was floating in a somewhat foggy world. And worst of all, I had a hard time partaking in the simple joys of life, for reasons unclear to me.

Skin peelings aside, most of those things were not visible to the rest of the world, they were just my little burdens to bear. Falling asleep at my desk at work after lunch, though, that’s for everyone, bosses included, to see, and the day it first happened became my tipping point. I found that I just could not keep my eyes open after eating, no matter how hard I tried. I snuck off to the ladies, sat on the toilet, put my hands on my lap, put my head on my hands and napped for 5 to 15 minutes, I’m not sure. I came back to my desk with weird press marks on my forehead, feeling a little out of sorts.  At first I thought I was just having an off day, but when this started occurring regularly, I thought, “I gotta sort this out.” My colleague, bless her, never once said a word.

So I went to a doctor, who referred me to an Ear, Nose and Throat specialist, who then determined that I was allergic to just about everything, including apples, pears, cherries, peaches, nectarines, birch, cat and dog dander, grasses, pollen, mildew, mites, eggs, cheese, milk, yoghurt, wheat, barley, oats, and rye. He just said, reduce exposure to those things and avoid those foods as much as you can and you will feel better. That diagnosis was both comforting and disturbing, because it came with no specific advice on how to handle avoiding all listed food matter, so to figure out how to deal with that, I had to do my own research.

And that’s when I found out, for the first time, that there was a link between wheat, barley, oats, and rye: gluten. And that some people who can’t eat gluten have something called celiac disease, which is a big, big thing. People with undiagnosed celiac disease often had other problems, like extra allergies, brain fog and fatigue, bone pain and the like. And, hallelujah!, those symptoms often disappeared when you stick to a strict gluten free diet. That was also the first time I had heard of such a diet.

Now let’s go back to the word “strict.” Gluten is hidden in many many things, not just obvious things like bread and pasta. It’s in sushi crab meat and soy sauce and most kinds of factory-made sauces, it’s in ready-made rubs and dried stock, breaded food, chocolate bars, so the general advice was, before commencing a gluten free diet, make sure you really really have a problem, and are not simply allergic to barley, oat, rye and wheat. Allergies can be desensitized, but embracing a gluten free diet means a serious commitment to a whole new lifestyle that involved a lot of sacrifice, especially in 2001 Germany. No more cakes at office parties, no grabbing a quick slice of pizza, no pretzels, no fried fish on Fridays, no cookies, no ice cream cones.

So, not really sure which side of the fence I wanted to fall on, I reluctantly schlepped my tired self to another doctor – a gastroenterologist – who, upon hearing my story, conducted a biopsy and blood test, through which it was shown that although my intestines looked fine and that my vili were thankfully still intact, I had high levels of IgG antibodies, which, according to him and to Wikipedia, “is also associated with coeliac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity.”

There it was, scientific proof, in black and white, that something specific was causing all of my problems. The results of the test made me happy and angry, got me crying, and then depressed, because really, what the hell was I supposed to eat if I couldn’t eat bread and drink beer, in Bavaria, Germany – The home of beer and bread?!? And what about all of the other things that made up the mainstay of the Bavarian diet, such as apples and pears and the like, that were on my list? It was a fact that was hard to swallow (pardon the pun) and frustrating and maddening all at once.

But, that was a very long time ago, and thank goodness, the initial shock and confusion has melted away. Being on a gluten-free (and later, also dairy-free) diet freed me of many of my ailments, and I am a way healthier and happier person because of it.

Which brings us back to the question, if it ain’t broke, why eat gluten? Because. I miss croissants – for me one of the most important baked goods for which there is no adequate substitute. And fluffy brioche, and crunchy baguettes. I’d love to eat Bánh mì, miso ramen, tempura, Peking duck, egg rolls, puff pastries, burritos, Marillenknödel, Black Forest Cake, Chinese pao, and a thousand other things, again.

On a deeper level, I just want things to be normal. Watching that episode of Cooked, and reading that article about celiacs eating glutenous bread and how that might heal their gut, reignited my dormant hope that my whacky system can be in balance again. I firmly believe that things that are out of balance can be adjusted back. I’ve stuck to the avoidance diet, done EPD therapy at least three times, meditated, practiced yoga, had acupuncture, what have you, and with each little effort, things have improved. Through the years, I’ve found out that I am not a celiac, but simply gluten sensitive / intolerant; and a couple of dining mishaps have shown me that I can actually tolerate a considerable amount of gluten without major pain. Dairy seems to actually be the more problematic food, and even so, I can still handle small amounts of cheese, sour cream, ice cream and the like. The number of things I am allergic to has diminished, and I can now eat apple, cherries, peaches etc, especially when cooked, or in small amounts when raw. I am inching towards the center, slowly but surely.

So this is how it came to be that on the last weekend of  June, 2016, a couple of weeks after that fateful Netflix night, that Alex and I were headed up the Palisades Interstate Parkway towards the Berkshires, soaking up the sun in our convertible, with the simple plan of getting some good old-fashioned glutenous bread. For me so I can heal, ironically enough, and for Alex so he can enjoy and learn from a master baker. I wasn’t the only one having an epiphany while watching the show apparently – Alex was inspired to make his own bread.

And what transpired, well, it was unexpected. And pretty sweet.

In the next post, you will meet our lovely B&B hostess and host Lynda and Andrei, a fluffy rooster named Pretty, three baby raccoons, and Richard the baker.

In the meantime, below some pics from day one of our wonderful wheaty (and also wheat-free) weekend.








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