25 Jan Bread
I bring my bread-making things with me to Spain. My sourdough starter, tenderly nurtured over the last couple of years in Teddington, makes the journey, carefully fed before we set out and gently stowed in the boot of the car along with a cast-iron casserole well past its prime but still a perfect vessel for baking.
As I set out last night to commit another 18 hours to creating a loaf, I contemplated what it is about the process of bread-making that captivates me. A few things come to mind. For instance, there’s the language that attaches to making bread. When bread makers get together they use a kind of argot, full of words of obscure origin, like poolish, biga, banetton. They talk intently of folding, knocking-back, shaping, proving; of the crust, the crumb and the bite. They swop notes on new flours they’ve tried: rye (dark, light, cracked or malted), spelt, einkorn, emmer, ancient grains, even some of Neolithic provenance. They share their triumphs and their disasters. They show no respect for the normal social niceties and, early on in your acquaintance, they may ask you: “How old is your starter?” – they may even ask, rather impertinently, if they can sniff it!
I especially like that in the world of bread-making everything has to slow down. Sourdough bread needs time to develop, to come to life, to achieve that rupturing and cleaving that happens unseen, as the natural yeasts rouse themselves, inhaling air and multiplying. The flavour will be more full-bodied, rounder, riper, the longer you give it. The process is methodical, sequential, one step at a time, and time between the steps. They can’t be rushed. Your patience will be rewarded as the dough, kneaded, folded, folded again, and maybe folded once more, shaped and put in its basket, rises after a few hours to a smooth, generously fleshy mound. And after it’s baked it’s as if a gift of magic emerges from the oven. Those prosaic ingredients, flour, water and salt, with the added agency of a simple fermented starter, have been transformed. And YOU have orchestrated this miraculous metamorphosis. It’s just incredibly satisfying.
I use my hands when I knead, delighting in working it, relishing the touch, the tactile stickiness of the dough, feeling when it’s yielding yet firm, when it’s ready to prove. Making bread connects you with something earthy and ancient, links you with other hands moulding dough deep in the past. It feeds your body and it feeds your soul.
I’ve been reading Laurie Lee’s, A Rose for Winter, an inspirational Christmas gift from my stepdaughter, Helen, who has the gift of always finding inspirational gifts. Lee writes of his return to Spain in the early 1950s, 15 years after his sojourn there fighting Franco and the Fascists. At the end of the book, he describes a conversation he overheard in a bar. It sums up, in his sublime prose, what this whole bread thing is about.
“Afterwards I went to the taverns and drank their golden sherries. In one, a group of men were discussing the baking of bread. They spoke with bright eyes, each echoing the other’s wonder, as though describing a miracle. The best bread is like this, it comes from the wheat of Mora, it is shaped thus, marked thus, placed in the oven so. The fire must be spread wide, sprinkled with charcoal, glowing like the crust of the sun. The baked bread opens thus, turns cream and gold like a ripe chrysanthemum, is crisp yet tender to the teeth, and tastes like manna. The best bread is from Portonegro, the old man Charro bakes it, his loaves are like girls’ breasts, all milk and sunshine. To eat such bread one wants neither fruit nor meat. No, it’s a meal in itself. And so it went. Such rapt remembering of skill and flavour, such poetry of gesture, scooping, rolling, shaping the loaves. Here was speech and movement not yet enslaved by either jargon or the machine; phrases from Homer and the Bible, by men who had read neither.”