Bread lines

Bread lines

I make bread, long-hand. That is to say I make it the slow way. Sourdough bread is a craft of patience and magic. Some would say it’s an obsession. Flour, water, salt, natural yeasts and time are all that’s needed. And lots of love. The love is the magic.

Each year I come to this arid corner of Spain bringing my sourdough starter on the journey. It travels deep in the boot of the car inside a Kilner jar where it bumps along the autoroutes and autopistas. I had fed it its diet of flour and water before we left London and again when we arrived. You never know how it’s going to react to the change of scene. It’s a living thing, after all, so breathing in different air and drinking different water? It takes time to adjust.

My bread-making hasn’t been going so well of late. I don’t know why. My original starter died. Or withered beyond resurrection. Maybe ‘wither’ is the wrong word. I’m not sure what natural yeasts do when they lose their mojo. Mine became rancid, barely able to raise a bubble let alone levitate half a kilo of flour, water and salt into something edible and sourly fragrant. I have a new one now, given to me by my Hastings Bread-Bro. His is active, full of zest and yeasty vigour.

I have a loaf in preparation. I started it last night after days of carefully feeding the starter, cajoling it into a state of heady suppuration. A peep inside the Kilner jar should reveal pale-putty blisters of moistness gurgling on the surface, like an eyeful of Yellowstone Park’s geothermal mud pots without the smell of ammonia. I’m hopeful of this one, though cautious. The last one was a disappointment: 24 hours of slow rising and still it baked heavy and dense. I’ve been wondering if I didn’t add enough love. I’ll know by late tonight or tomorrow. Sourdough bread makes you wait for payback.

Bread was centre stage last Sunday. We went to Lubrin for the annual Fiesta de Pan. We went there three years ago, when I innocently expected to find a gathering of eager local artisan bakers displaying glorious bread and offering tasters. I knew better this time. There is bread at the fiesta – a lot of it. Massive loaves bedeck the effigy of St Sebastian that’s pushed through the village on a cart. The saint is the excuse for the fiesta, I think, though I can’t find a link between him and bread. Poor old Sebastian stands aboard his cart, a simpering, shapely figure in a provocatively feminine pose that seems out of place with his backstory as brave Roman soldier. Arrows stick out of his body at all angles, relics of his first execution. Yes, he may hold a unique claim to be the only person ever executed twice, living a few years in between each death sentence. As he’s escorted from the church through the streets, past wrought-iron balconies draped alternately with the yellow and red flags of Spain and the green and white of Andalucia, bread cascades onto the streets from every window. The bread, a ring of hard-baked dough like a five-day-old bagel, flies from the hands of old and young down to the crowd of outstretched hands below. “Aqui, aqui” “Here, here” they shout. This goes on for an hour or two as the cart makes its way through the village. Young men mostly, but some old enough to know better, vie with each other to catch as many as they can in a primitive contest of youth and virility.

Or maybe they’re just hungry. Elbows and arms sweep around your ears, the push of the crowd thumps you in the back and a rain of bread rings falls from the sky. A band plays, people heave and squeal. It’s an anarchic, irresistible pandemonium of colour and noise. The ground is strewn with crushed bread.

I hope the bread maker wasn’t watching. All that love baked in, then trampled underfoot.

3 Comments
  • Anonymous
    Posted at 07:58h, 26 January Reply

    Oh, what a poetic expose of the artisan baker’s constant battle with the microscopic world. Sometimes these bacteria and fungi are your friend, they respond to your care and the carbon dioxide bubbles keep popping up in profusion. But next day they change their mind. So just keep feeding that starter! Sooner or later they will appreciate your love and determination and will respond!

  • Lynnda Wardle
    Posted at 09:05h, 27 January Reply

    Wonderful celebration of handmade bread – off to cut a slice – sadly, not handmade though!

  • Hilary Ivory
    Posted at 22:17h, 31 January Reply

    I just have to say: fabulous writing, darlink!

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