WELL bread

the Life around the Loaf

Everyday bread can be Extraordinary. I am a baker and good-bread-seeker with a particular interest in Sourdoughs (see first post for explaination) but also a general interest in Life and Happiness and the role bread can play in it.

Friday, 22 October 2010

Why Sourdough? My stand against Homogenisation and the hegemony of dullness

My sister was writing an article about sourdough a couple of weeks ago for her student newspaper. She asked me for a quote. Later, she rang me in a bit of a panic: All the interviews and quotes she'd gathered were overwhelmingly wordy and irreducibly broad. How could she squash everything everyone had said into a few thousand words? I asked her why it seemed more difficult than writing any other article and she exasperatedly explained that every response she'd received had encompassed not only bread, but Life, the Universe and Everything.

Last night at le Cafe des Arts in Grenoble, where I am presently stationed, we hosted a 'Scientists and Citizens' discussion group. Subject: Is global biodiversity threatened, and should we be worried? I tend to think we humans are having a terrible effect on the planet and yes we should worry. More than that, I believe we should be doing all we can, not just Nationally but Personally to lessen our impact on the suffering Earth. For me, and I'm sure that everyone has a different way of lightening their own conscience, I think that trying to avoid homogenisation is a pretty good way to avoid destructive things. I can tell you all the other ways this manifests itself if you want to email me, but here I shall stick to that which relates to bread. (And yes, I know that I may sound like an over-conscientious loony, but it helps me to sleep at night and I get to eat really delicious bread.)

Sourdough is anti-homogeneity, anti-boredom and anti-robotisation. It is pro-diversity, pro-variety and discovery, exploration, curiosity and individuality, pro-local and pro-intelligence. It is anti-packaging, anti food-waste and anti-multinational. With sourdough you engage, you learn and you enthuse! Some people start making their own bread – or seeking better bread to buy – because they prefer certain tastes. As my sister found, however, it quickly becomes part of a greater life-style choice or even, as it has become for me, a Political choice. I refuse to be de-skilled!

I started baking sourdough breads because my normal loaf was too normal, and white bread seemed to be making me feel rather ill. In Borough Market, I'd see loaves with dark chestnut-brown crusts that smelled wonderful, wonderful, wonderful. They had gorgeous flavour and, between the crisp crusts, a chewy crumb that toasted perfectly. I wanted to know if I could make a better loaf in my home oven, or if good bread had to be left to the professionals. Then Lo! Two home-baking books with seductive pictures and impassioned prose all about sourdough: Andrew Whitley's Bread Matters and Dan Lepard's The Handmade Loaf.

Just to clarify, I'm not against using commercially available yeast, by which I mean the Saccharomyces cerevisiae strain which is packaged as fresh, dried or quick-action yeast. The Real Bread Campaign (RBC) does not stipulate that 'real bread' must be sourdough, they're more against unnatural additives and over-rapid or discontinuous processing (RBC's 'real bread' definition here), but sourdough bread often fits their criteria. 'Ordinary' yeast, S. cerevisiae, is just one yeast that has a recognised working temperature, speed and outcome. It's only been bred on an industrial scale for bakery and brewing use for about 200 years. Before that, because it is naturally-occurring like other strains of yeast, and grows particularly fast and well in dough, it is likely that it was still commonly used as a leaven but one amongst many, many home-grown varieties. It didn't have the hegemony that it gained from being singled out and industrially produced. Instead of buying yeast to put in their dough, bakers used to cultivate a sourdough or 'wild' yeast starter of their own. If it was active and effective they'd keep it living in order to keep using its leavening action. Using a sourdough leaven rather than yeast is, however, not about recreating the past. For me, it concerns re-expanding the variety of life. It is no coincidence that boring sliced white is produced in boring factories whilst satisfying sourdoughs are made by happy individuals who love what they do.

The slower action of sourdough, or 'wild' yeasts and lactobacilli, can produce a loaf with complex flavour and good texture. It also, importantly, takes longer. However, the time I spend actively working the dough is very short. It has, if anything, gone down since I've made sourdoughs. And planning? Pshaw! The process is slow so windows of opportunity are vast and the infinite variety of possible outcomes is to be revelled in. I admit I've occasionally taken a dough with me to work or college in a sort of attempt to be more vigilant over it, but that's because I might have found it more interesting than the thing I was attending. Bread-making's a good exercise in delayed gratification and knowing that rushing will get you nowhere. Deciding to make something and giving it time to develop is a generous act but the rewards are ten-fold and the ripples spread through everything you do.

This is a quote I first read in Kiko Denzer and Hannah Field's book Build Your Own Earth Oven. Their book is confusing but extremely spirited and inspiring. It contains lovely snippets like this, which floated into my head when I left my last job. "Off she goes again to live a life of leisure" said my ex-boss and I left in silence rather than telling her where she could stuff her nasty tasteless par-baked paninis...

from The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran

Work is love made visible.

And if you cannot work with love but only with distaste, it is better that you should leave your work and sit at the gate of the temple and take alms of those who work with joy.

For if you bake bread with indifference, you bake a bitter bread that feeds but half man's hunger.

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Farinez'vous Boulangerie: a forwards roll?

I am in Paris, Gare de Lyon, sitting in the longest train I have ever seen. We're all waiting to go southwards: -I'm going to Grenoble, the last stop, to visit the Cafe des Arts (I can't explain what this is, I don't know enough myself. However, it makes a change from what I was [not] doing at home). L'SNCF have cobbled together lots of carriages to carry all of the extra people, including me, whose earlier trains fell victim to the national strikes.

Luckily, it gave me time to find a bakery that I loved! (6 hours, in fact, but I only found the bakery in the last 10 minutes, so I can't grumble. Nobody else is grumbling either, it seems like everyone is inured to the strikes, the waves of different protesters, the police with guns... “Vive La France!” was my hostess's tired comment when I phoned to explain why my arrival would be delayed). My concern right at the moment was to find something to eat and the traditional French lunch-time menu was , though deeply desirable, not practical. The choice seemed to be noodles, kebab or full sit-down meal with a glass of wine.

So, I'm tottering along, cursing, with my backpack which is seeming heavier and heavier, and then I am distracted:

A warm waft of heady, bready air floated towards me along the cafe facades of rue Villiot. My legs decided to make a sharp right turn before my head had really had time to think up reasons why not-to (I was not going to miss the only train out of Paris!) and I was drawn through the door of a bakery that I'm sure I once dreamed about. On the right were tables of smiling chatting un-Parisian-looking Parisians were drinking tea and eating snacks with gusto (like I said, so un-Parisian!), and on the left there were all the cakes, tarts and bonne bouche piled high, all slightly oven-singed and, oh, just delicious-looking. Behind the counter, the assistants all looked so happy in that we're-working-but-it-doesn't-feel-like-work way. They were all shiny-faced because of the humidity coming from the bread baking in the back room. Multi-sensory marketing at its best! It's rather like the way that supermarkets channel the smell of doughnuts into their entrance foyers... only much more direct and much, much nicer.

One assistant talked me through all the breads, after failing in her attempt to divert me onto cakes. All their breads were available as miniature loaves, so that you could taste several types before buying a whole whopper, or so that you could have them made up a sandwich. It struck me as very sensible since, in Italy I'd found the big loaves could be very good but just too inconvenient, whereas the little dinner-rolls were almost invariably the least interesting and most unsatisfying. Bakeries in Italy pump out thousands of them daily, because “they're the only thing people will buy”. Seeing these varied rolls today made me think again that it is time for bakers to set the agenda, to direct peoples' tastes, or we end up being like Greggs the Bakers. Please read what Greggs finally said to the Real Bread Campaign here, in respose to gentle questioning about the quality of their bread: Apparently, they only do it because the public forces them to, poor things.

Yes, tastes and life-styles have changed, but can we not still aim to do our best in any situation? The warm and happy atmosphere in this bakery, Farinez'vous, told me that working towards such an aspiration is greatly rewarding because, guess what?, the customers love it! If your French is better than mine, you can read more about the bakery's philosophy on their website. And then take a step back and think "hold on! Since when did bakeries have a philosophy webpage?"

Mini-loaves – no, wait: There must be a better name... I'm thinking panini carini or paninnocini, perhaps?... – can be found quite often now in new-wave bakeries in big cities. Please can someone could tell me if it started in America? Eating a single-portion roll is certainly a different experience from cutting part of a large loaf. Purists would object to the way that the change in volume:surface-area ratio upsets the crust:crumb balance of the original loaf. I prefer a large loaf because it can be shared. Big loaves are better if you only shop or bake occasionally, but this probably isn't the concern of a city-dweller. Anyway, this place offers the choice of either size and if you're still not happy, well, have a cake instead. Wherever it came from and whoever thought it up, I like this 'sampler' size and find it a positive alternative to the downwards spiral of finding the lowest common denominator, the curious disaster of the public getting just what the public wants.

Time to run for my train! I take it all in: the swap-shop bookshelf, the community notice-board, the clink of crockery, chatter of people, the smell of new bread, the whoosh machinery in the bakery, and – above all – the smiles. I bought two breads, a little version of their pain de campagne for eating with chocolate for my lunch, and a long, thin rye loaf that I thought might last better as a gift for my hosts. Just in case I get caught up in more strikes and end up spending days in a limbo of banner-waving workers and shrugging officials...

Saturday, 16 October 2010

What, you want MORE?

I haven't written a post for so long, it's strange to sit down and do so. I've been doing, not reflecting. At the end of my tour around Italy, I stopped over in France for a week. This was great in itself, strange but fascinating. However, my thoughts about Italy dispersed and I'm sorry to say I let them go. I am writing this just before leaving for France for a month, and I would like to thank Patrick, Will and Lucie who have badgered me to get writing again.

To fill in the blanks a bit, when I came back from Italy/France I had this plan which, like all my plans, I attacked with ferocity and determination. I dug up frozen earth - frozen! It broke the spade but didn't get to my willingness to get something done – and then planted Heritage wheat grains and, as an afterthought, Pink Fir-Apple potatoes. I went on a Princes Trust course to help me make sense of the apparent conflict between making a living and making really good bread; I talked to loads of people about finding somewhere to install or build a bread oven; I worked for a month as a cook (last day tomorrow! Oh, how I shall not miss the jolly 'ding!' of the microwave); I passed my driving test, at last; I built a bread oven...

Actually, the last point on that list sounds waaay more simple than it was: Firstly, any plan of mine begins to topple after a few weeks, undermined by self-doubt; Secondly, the oven is at my parents' house and necessitated the use of an enormous slab of stone as the base, a choice we later regretted and agonised over (Will the heat crack it? Maybe. Have we enough strength to move it again? Maybe not.) My brother Tom and sister Lucie generously helped to lay the refractive brick base, shape the wet sand form (a domed 'sandcastle' that gave the 'positive' of the eventual oven cavity) and then squodge the mud/sand to a workable consistency with their feet for building the first layer of the oven. Thomas has completely huge feet and made sort work of this: Tom, Lu and I ended up looking like Hobbits as the clay mix caked our feet. Layer Two is wood-shavings mixed with mud and – nearly 6 months after we began – Layer Three, straw and mud 'cob', has just been added. Everything chez moi has to be fitted in around a confusion of comings and goings, work, college, visits, book clubs etc., and any project is best approached from the side because to address something directly might frighten it and it will run away down its burrow... or something like that. So that's why it's perfectly reasonable that Ma and I ended up slapping on the 'cob' layer in the dark the other night. We couldn't see anything, and even if we could've I wouldn't have known what to look for. Tonight, though, I lit it because I wanted it to be dry and covered before I go away again.

When I'm in France, I'll sort out pictures of the oven for you. In the meantime, the loaf I've shown here was baked on the base of the Aga a couple of days ago. It is a sourdough and has a really good, slightly glossy, crust because I've been following Elizabeth David's strange-sounding advice: -try tipping an entire glass of water over the bread before shutting the oven door. The puff of seam will give the dough an extra few minutes of stretch before it hardens to a crust and the loaf will balloon. I have done this in an Aga and a gas oven (avoiding the flame) but wouldn't recommend trying it in an electric oven...

Incidentally, the Heritage wheats were very popular with our diligent team of wild rabbits and obese pigeons who ate every last grain from the growing stems. I don't blame them, it was very special wheat and probably extra flavourful. The stems that reached near-maturity were immensely tall and vulnerable to the wind or just plain top-heavy falling-over, and I could see why selective breeding has reduced the height of modern breeds to a manageable dinky height. The advantage of the old, leggy wheats was that they could grow up, past any ground-weeds, to reach the light. By contrast, modern varieties are short, possibly shorter than the weeds, so herbicides and intensive planting has to be used to give them a chance. My plot looked like a flower bed at one point, with so many Love-in-the-Mist, Poppies, Bindweed, Vetch etc.: Pretty, but not productive.

However, the Pink Fir-Apple potatoes were a runaway success. I admit that the first few plants I dug up were so rife with enormous, shiny black beatles and slugs as fat and luxuriant as little sea-lions (imagery: thank you Pa Boase) that my brother Will suggested I needed to re-brand my failed gardening as a successful exercise in farming giant pests. The rest of the plants, though, have produced the most gorgeous crop of spuds I've ever seen, and they are the tastiest too. I dig some up in the mist this morning and couldn't stop smiling. (They are also rather comical, being pink and long, and somewhat knobbly.) Now, I remember when I lived in Rome, my favourite pizza al talglio was topped with just olive oil, rosemary and slices of waxy Lazio potatoes. In a mixture this simple, the potatoes really have a chance to show off their own flavour. I think I should give this a try when I get home again...

Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Tall or stout, but rising

The Real Bread Campaign main-man Chris Young is keeping me informed on the progress of attempts to bake a loaf of Real bread in a breadmaker (I assure you, it's gripping!) and I find that the game's been raised: he's trying to make an 100% sourdough. In other words he's not using fresh or dried yeast, let alone fast-action yeast, regardless of the breadmaker's very short programmed production time. I'm going to go on about breadmakers a bit, but I'll try to keep it lighthearted. It's just because I'm oven-less and unemployed in London. Over in South Wales, at my parents' home, I am told my 23 firebricks have arrived and are waiting to be turned into an oven-base (the shop's entire stock = a very small oven, but it's a start). I have arranged meetings with Mr Environmental Health and the local Planning Department to discuss, on condition I win the lottery, building a Serious wood-fired masonry oven without worrying that I'd be breaking some law or other and having it taken down again. Mr E.H. tells me that bread is a low-risk food-stuff, "but it's still possible to do some damage with it."

Loaf 3. I decide to go half-way again, making a sponge with my sourdough starter, Monster Baby, then adding normal yeast with the rest of the ingredients. (A sponge is, to me, a salt-less dough using a proportion of the final ingredients that, made earlier in the day, gives the natural yeasts and bacteria a chance to get going before being added to the main mixture. It can also be called a pre-ferment or a production starter. To do this in a breadmaker, you put in a spoonful of starter and some of your flour and water and set it to 'Dough' setting to combine (no need to kneed) then leave to culture. It's perhaps necessary to 'feed' the sponge in stages. I'll see how it goes without, first). When the sponge is looking bubbly, and smelling sour - Monster Baby is more lively than the last time - I add the rest of the ingredients and set the machine to make bread for the next morning at seven when I will be springing from my bed to do my Yoga, ho ho.
I have changed the recipe, reducing the oil, sugar, yeast and milk powder, but still there's more than I'd like, and than would be allowed by the Real Bread Campaign's definition of Real Bread.

The irate beeping of the breadmaker wakes me and I run down to find... a wonderful, tall loaf! It is interesting in texture, springy and light, with a crisp crust and an acid tang. Then for the real test, I give a slice to Tim, my housemate, who is officially a Supertaster and can taste subtleties that pass me by: he eats a whole slice, then says "Dilly, that is Brilliant". This enormous compliment is, I then realise, in comparison to the offerings so far.

Next night, loaf 4: I decide to use the sponge method again, because the flavour of loaf 3 was so interesting, and to add only the tiniest pinch of yeast and sugar, no oil or milk powder. I expected this to have an effect on the speed of the dough rising (lacking both the yeast and its sugar rush) and the colour and crunch of the crust, which relies upon the original recipe's oil and sugar. Again, an all-day sponge and an overnight bake.

Result: A tiny, dense loaf with a pallid crust and gungey, undercooked crumb. One big hole in the heart, otherwise very tiny bubbles. However, the flavour is just perfect! A hint of sourdough but overall a warm a delicate sweetness that needs butter and nothing more. I conclude that I need to make sure that my starter has more 'oomph' before I try to make an 100% sourdough in a breadmaker. Feeding the sponge in several stages may work. Tiny bricks of bread, no matter how good they taste, make very silly-looking sandwiches.

The picture is of yesterday and today's loaves, (today's is half yesterday's height!) because I love cutting right into the middle of loaves and seeing the patterns of bubbles, caught in the act of rising and as unique as whorls on a fingerprint.

Friday, 26 March 2010

Re-starting a starter

The first breadmaker loaf has been gobbled up, I'm not proud to admit. One of those compulsively moreish foods from which you shave 'just one last' thin slice, slice after slice. It was truly horrible, actually, but we find that it holds butter and honey very well, having a spongey, small-bubbled texture. Much more convenient than big-bubbled sourdoughs that let all the honey through the holes onto your hands. In fact, it was very like a sweet washing-up sponge, with butter and honey on. It toasts in a jiffy too, because of all the sugar. So much less trouble! Never mind the fact that the middle remains uncooked and melts to a weird gummy substance in the toaster...

The breadmaker machine has a very small mixer blade set into the base of the bowl (this doubles as the baking tin, so the blade has to be small enough to be extracted from the baked loaf). The finished loaf has a cake-ish appearance, but, rather than being crumbly and moist, the crumb is just strange and dry. It tastes of flour and skimmed milk powder, and the sugars (from the underworked flour, SMP and bucket-loads of sugar) make my mouth hurt and give me enough instant, shaky-hand energy to hoover for an hour (two hoover-bags-worth, i.e. a lot).

Second attempt: first task is to work out why the recipe supplied with the breadmaker is as it is, then to change the recipe and my use of the machine to make a kind of bread that interests me more.

The normal 'Basic White' setting takes 3 hours, very fast for me! I've got used to a very slow fermentation using a really, really small quantity of yeast (when I use yeast instead of, or with, a sourdough). The smaller quantity of yeast requires a longer time for fermentation, because there are fewer yeast cells producing carbon dioxide, the bubbles in dough. During a slower fermentation a more complex, sour flavour emerges as the yeast cells break down the flour's complex carbohydrates into sugars and produce alcohol as a by-product. These have both a physical effect on the dough's texture and create the flavour the baked loaf. As the flour's been broken down already, working the gluten and producing sugars and alcohols (which turn to vinegars), slow-ferment bread is a lot more chewy than a piece of sliced white and doesn't require flavourings, such as sugars and vinegars to be added, as Chorleywood plastic bread does. I prefer chewy, harder-work bread with flavours that have come from the flour itself, but the trouble here is that the breadmaker is preprogrammed: The choice is limited to 'Basic White', 'Quick', 'French', 'Cake', Wholemeal', 'Fastbake', 'Dough', 'Extra Bake' ('French' adds an extra 50 minutes onto the 'Basic' process, but at what stage, the instruction book doesn't say). What I've decided to do is make a mixed-starter bread, i.e. packet yeast and sourdough together, to make more flavourful, interesting-textured dough.

Second loaf: Disaster! Taking out the majority of the sugar, SMP and oil (4tbs in the original recipe, which makes the crust crisp as if fried) doesn't work. The sugar is needed to get the yeast up and multiplying from the word 'go', necessary because time is limited, so my reduced-sugar loaf had an even meaner tight sponge texture. The oil replaces the moisture lost in the certain type of baking that takes place in this mini-oven. Without the oil, the loaf was so utterly cardboard-y in tasteless taste and sad texture. It was the type of bread Delia Smith would describe as 'wangy'. Her word.

The good thing about this loaf is that it gives me the opportunity to revive Monster Baby, my whole-wheat starter who's been living in the fridge, untouched since October. Amazingly, he is alive, though feeble. For this bread, Monster Baby was just too weak to add much more than a bit of a tang. However, I replaced the bit I'd taken out with flour and water, and with this new food he's now bubbling like a bad'un in his jar. I would feel like I'd killed a pet if he didn't revive (despite being heartless enough not to feed him over the winter. My rye starter Peckham Rye has 'passed over', shall we say, but I have saved a tiny, dessicated bit to attempt a re-incarnation when needed.). In the picture are Monster Baby, note bubbles, and my ale-fed starter Mr Barm. It's time for Loaf no.3.

p.s. Tom Jaine's contribution to BBC4's Bread: A Loaf Affair made me look up more of his writing. His book, Making Bread at Home is new to me, but now on my wishlist because he talks about bread-making with such tenderness and humour. This article was part of the Guardian's Baking Guide in late 2007 (all worth a read) in which Tom Jaine explains why he makes his own bread: “It ties you to a longer perspective of human sustenance”. Not the case with me and the breadmaker, so far - I've felt like it's me versus it. Perhaps a more conciliatory acceptance that it's a machine, poor thing, and I'm a mentally flexible human, lucky me!, will prove to be more productive.

p.p.s. If there's still time to watch Bread: A Loaf Affair, I recommend it. Voice-over'd by Tom Baker (who else?) and including interviews with Tom Jaine, Linda Collister and Andrew Whitley, the lovely baker and writer whose 'Baking for a Living' course (NOT 'Baking for Profit', as I accidentally called it, to his disgust!) I was delighted to attend last October. Near the end of the program, it gets into why we (I) have this seemingly primeval attraction to kneading and shaping dough - [Voiceover:] "Bakers seem to have an affection for their craft beyond the call of duty" [Andrew Whitley, caressing a tender mound of ciabatta dough:] "This is the real reward of bread-making, especially for the male. Running your fingers down this soft, puffy ciabatta is like feeling the inner thigh of your best-beloved - slightly resistant but also beautifully sensual." Cue Marvin Gaye's Let's Get it On, and a video montage of men massaging dough. oooh. I'll take his word for it, but it could explain why I'm so envious of the breadmaker.

Monday, 22 March 2010

Dough! Given in to the Breadmaker

I've gone and acquired a Breadmaker. It comes from a pub kitchen where it's not needed any more and has sat here for a week, receiving suspicious glances from me every so often and being used to store mobile phone cables. My housemate Tim was just writing 'Bread' on his shopping list this morning and I stopped him, saying that we probably had the ingredients somewhere and we should give the machine a try. Actually, we didn't have the ingredients and I had to slip to the shop to get sunflower oil and skimmed milk powder: -'basic' recipe? I thought a basic recipe had about 3 ingredients, not 7. I s'pose it's still far better than most sliced white loaves. The machine gets up to speed, making a "nom, nom" noise like it's eating the dough. It comes to a stop for the first proof and I try the dough, which is as sickly-sweet as one might expect from all the sugar and SMP in the recipe. Chris Young of SustainWeb is running National Real Bread Maker Week, May 1st -9th if you have a breadmaker and want to make more wholesome bread - here is the group page, I hope more information will be posted on it soon.
I love the taste of dough, anyway. I love pinching a bit off the bulk of the mixture and feeling its weight, its spring, the warmth or stickiness, the raw potential of the stuff. I love it when the yeast is just getting going, producing a whiff of spice on top of the mellow, baby-like smell of the flour in the dough.
My nearly-new niece and nephew smell like dough, "in a good way", I can imagine myself pleadingly saying to my two sisters as they look at me in alarm at this 'compliment'. I'd better be careful of saying things like "Ooo! Couldn't you just eat them?" Just to make it clear, eating babies isn't my thing. Which makes it less embarrassing than usual to say that eating uncooked dough, however, totally is. I would like to point out that this habit is endorsed by none other than Albert Roux, see The Roux Brothers on Patisserie, 1991. It takes me back to being small enough to have to stand on a chair to reach the kitchen table, when we would be given bits of dough to shape by Mummy B., which we would would roll and re-roll, shaping ambitious figures who would morph inexplicably in the oven. I found the dough irresistible, perhaps it wouldn't even make it to the oven. You eat a little bit, and then another little bit, and in your warm tummy it keeps on rising and you can burp (when you are small - not now, of course) the most wonderful beery burps that tickle your nose. Not quite to the standard of an invention by Willy Wonker, but it kept me happy when I was little.
The machine beeps reprovingly at me. I feel bereft, sitting next to it while it has all the fun with the dough. It's so mechanical, so enclosed! Worried that it will sense my jealousy and fear, I give it a friendly pat. It sighs out a breath of humid yeasty air. I am still deeply suspicious of it, as it suggests that all of the sensitivity you work to develop in making something with your hands might just be a kind of mystique-making that serves little purpose other than self-indulgence. On the positive side, I realise that while it's been doing all the 'hard' work, it has allowed me to sit, clean-fingered, and write this. I do miss the dough, though.

At home, at work

Long silence... It had something to do with the fact that each post took me four days to write, but mostly it was the confusing position I found myself in. Do I want to be a baker? Yes. What sort of baker do I want to be? I don't know.

First, cue plans on bits of paper, flow charts, financial breakdowns (Zero £ divided by... = Zero £, it turns out, but 100% enthusiasm and bags of energy add up to something) and then descent, or is it ascent?, into soul-searching. I have returned to London to find what I'd always tried not to give in to: this city spins too fast for me. I have delighted in a few days spent at home (my parents' house, as opposed to that messy and significantly oven-less den in Squatney, London, that I pretend is home).

What to do? Buy lottery tickets? Sit and dream? Come on, Dilly, Act! In an effort to get back to my pre-pasta shape, I have been out in the garden, digging. Me and Ma Boase have planted wheat! Andy Forbes has given us 4 grams each of Hatif Inversable, Ile de Noe, Atle, April Bearded, Red Fife, Marsters A1 and Hickling de Mars, 10 grams of Old Welsh April Bearded (“because-” Andy says, “-it's going home”) and 100 grams of Paragon, the only Spring wheat recommended by the National Association of British and Irish Millers – i.e. fail-safe, hopefully. You can apply for your planting wheat here: http://www.brockwell-bake.org.uk We had to plant them on the 19th and 20th of March, according to the Biodynamic calendar of the man who'd supplied the grains to Andy. As I only arrived in the evening, this meant planting in the dark, which was funny but may be evident in the resulting growth patterns of the rows of wheat plants. That's assuming they'll grow at all. I decided that it was a good thing as, if I couldn't see the grains neither could our greedy local pigeon population. Next morning the dawn chorus is loud enough to wake me – the 'free food!' news is obviously out.

Why am I planting wheat? Not really for making bread commercially – there wouldn't be enough. It's more to see what wheat is like to grow and how different the varieties are from each other. I visited Andy last week in Brixton. He invites me in with a cheery “Come in, you can help me mill some wheat!” His Chinese millstones (bought from Ebay where they were being sold for turning into water-features) are incongruously placed in the window of his front room. Milling involves feeding grain slowly into the central hole in the top stone, turning the free-spinning handle to turn the top stone against the bottom one, and collecting the milled grain from the gutter around the base. I mill, he sieves, we have flour. It's amazing - a good mill opens up the grain's little bran jacket like, well, opening a jacket, and rubs the flour (the starchy endosperm) from it – depending on the grade of sieve and the number of times you put the wheat through the mill, you can make fine white flour and bran, or brown flour with the bran worked into it.

A few days later Andy comes to lunch. He brings a loaf of the most gorgeous bread, made from The flour. It is a sourdough, just flour, water, salt and his home-cultured leaven, but the flavour is complex and rich as if it contained caramel, olive oil, liquorice, cinnamon, all sorts of flavours that warm the heart. I am inspired.

Next thing to do is build the oven. I've dreamed about this for ages, but now I've just got to do it. I have re-found my book called The Bread Builders: Hearth Loaves and Masonry Ovens by Alan Scott and Daniel Wing. I've got another book called Build Your Own Earth Oven by Kiko Denzer and Hannah Field which gives instructions for a much more organic 'adobe' (mud and straw) type oven, as my friend Andy (see above) has built on his allotment.

Adobe is cheaper and I am tempted by the malleability/carve-able quality of mud (the book includes pictures of ovens in the shapes of squirrels, dragons, etc., my favourite being an eagle that looks like a big, fat robin – imagine having a eight-foot one of those on your garden!) However, there is the risk that adobe can drop grit into the bread, and also risks slumping if it gets wet. In rainy South Wales, a masonry oven might be safer.

So, lots of technical stuff about concrete to wade through (wading through the technical stuff, not the concrete). The trouble is ambition and maybe avarice – not for money, but for the type of beautiful ovens I saw on my travels – the one in Altamura that was big enough to live in, the one in France that looked like a snug cottage in the grounds of the Chรขteau de Machy, the oven in Pompeii that survived the devastating eruption of Vesuvius, and then for nearly two thousand years after... The Scott and Wing ovens do at least look like small churches, so maybe even trying to just do it straight from the instructions will result in something remarkable. I'll endeavour to keep you posted.

Madeleine (Dilly) Boase