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: 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.

Saturday, 13 February 2010

A trip into the countryside with Marco

Marco, my ex-colleague from my London bakery days (*sigh*) proposes taking me to visit a baker he's heard of in the Romagnan countryside, well south-east of Bologna. We dawdle towards the bakery because we're so early, and Marco decides to pass some time by taking me to the house of Romuolo and Maria-Rosa, to show me some thatched roofs made of bulrushes. There turns out to be far more to see: Romuolo collects old farm-machinery, from huge tilling contraptions to tiny bits and pieces from farm kitchens. He's not there when we arrive, but his wonderfully mad-as-a-hatter wife Maria-Rosa shows us around, shouting explanations at me from about my waist-level (because, as we English-speakers know, foreigners understand things better if you say them LOUDER). The collection is just for Romuolo's own interest: -it's not generally open to public viewing. Amongst the very organised exhibition, which takes up three large barns, a shed and a cottage, there are lots of old bread-related things: sieves, pans and most interestingly for me, hand-operated kneading machines. Two of them are wooden chambers containing an extended cog turned by a wheel on the outside. The dough was locked into the chamber and the handle turned to squash and stretch the dough against the cog until the gluten is developed and it feels smooth. The second kind of machine is a two-person job: one would raise and lower a lever connected to a plank that pivoted across the kneading table, the other would place the dough under the plank to be flattened, then gather it up, turn it and repeat the squashing. Maria-Rosa shows me an etching of two turn-of-the-century ladies in massive skirts operating this machine. Though it's not depicted in the image, I can imagine that you'd get pretty impressive muscles from this one.

We are invited to lunch here, and after we've been down the road to meet the baker, Cesare, we arrive back for a warming bowl of home-made, filled pasta cappeletti in ragu' ...followed by slices of coppa di testa, slices of a different coppa di testa, smaller peppery pork sausages cooked over the fire, radicchio, ricotta, hard cheese, oranges, home-made liqueurs, coffee, fruits in liqueur... Plus bread (this is the photo: the quarter-round is a bit of Piadina made by Maria Rosa. Piadina is the bread of this area - all the way here, we've been seeing signs for La Vera Piadina (The True Piadina) pointing the way to roadside eateries. Leavened with baking powder, rolled out flat and baked in a pan, it must be eaten fresh and tastes similar to scones. In the middle is a fruit-bread from our visit to the bakery, fragrant with fennel and delicious enough to eat even after the rest of the feast. On the left, scattered about, is white bread from the Hypermarket, which Maria-Rosa says makes her feel ill but she 'has to' buy it. Under its dry crust it has a certain nothingness to it, like candy-floss, when you press it between your fingers.)

It is a huge privilege to be invited into someone's, a real person's!, home and to be able to observe their not-so-normal life and attitudes. Perhaps she thinks nothing of it, but I am inspired by Maria-Rosa's masterful approach to her surroundings, being fairly self-sufficient without showing off or apparently struggling. Their son, who has his mother's same way of talking non-stop as if the only way to expel air is in the form of words, is more consciously 'regressive' in his lifestyle, because he's a keen scuba-diver and links modernised farming directly to the disappearance of the underwater flora and fauna of the local coast-line. He is absolutely convinced that the world is mad and dangerous, and the only thing to do is to reject the world. The world is mad enough to make his mother feel compelled to buy bread that she doesn't even like. I ask her how bread has changed in her lifetime:

“Once upon a time, bread gave off a perfume. It perfumed! Maria Rosa - that's me – made bread with her mother when she was only two, or three years old. My mother was a baker, as fast-moving as a bird in flight. So I know very well how to make bread. I do recall that my mother would put chemicals, a pinch of something, in her bread to make it rise better, but now we have all sorts of poisons in our bread and they're not used innocently any more. If you return to very basic bread-making, it's as simple as this: If the flour is good, the bread will be good. Today, the bread that you can buy disgusts me (except perhaps Cesare's – I've only ever bought biscuits from him).

“When I was young, I had to have my tonsils taken out. My mamma recalls me crying- “Even though I can't eat bread, at least let me smell it's perfume!” Now, in the winter, my grandchildren come to see the tractors. I tell them that the tractors are sleeping, but under the snow, I tell them, there are stems of wheat bursting from their seeds. They must be told that you have to be patient for good bread. La Pazienza e la virtu' dei forti – 'Patience is the virtue of the strong'

"I make bread today but, with lievito di birra, the things I make dry out too quickly, they're only good on the day they're made. It has all changed. You -” (me) “-must do beautiful things, and in this way we will maintain the equilibrium of the world. Life is hard enough to drive you mad if you don't find beautiful things within your days. Go and make good things!”

We visit the tiny bakery of Cesare at Mandriole Sant'Alberto, driving through vine-covered plains that are fertile because they were originally part of the now-drained lagoon of the Po delta. Dykes protect the lower-than-sea-level ground. As the temperature drops, mists roll in and I feel like I'm in a watercolour painting.

The first thing that Cesare wants to talk about is the oven, which is horse-shoe shaped, 3m in diameter (as big as the bakery itself). He personally restored it with the help of the son of the original builder. It must be lit every day to maintain the right temperature for bread-baking. It takes years to get used to, and become good at using, the oven. Although electric ovens are easier, they do not produce the same results. “The oven itself has decades of experience.” His system for telling when the oven is ready for the bread involves spraying a jet of water from a bottle into different areas of the oven and listening to the specific pitch of the 'ksssshhhhhhhh!' it makes. He cocks his ear towards it, and 'hears' the temperature is right to start loading in the trays of fastidiously neatly-laid biscuits.

It's a black oven – the fire is lit in the oven chamber, then brushed out once the stone walls are holding enough heat to bake bread and afterwards, as he's doing when we arrive in the late morning, baking biscuits. There's a banana-shaped metal trough hugging the inside right-hand curve of the oven, which is filled via a tap operated on the outside wall. This provides steam which, in the initial stage of baking, softens the crust of the bread so that the loaf can continue to expand, and at the end of the bake, gives the crust of Cesare's bread a lacquered gloss.

Generally, I like to ask something about how bakers see their trade within the broader context of the food industry, whether they feel like they 'lose' or 'win' from the food chain. It this case, though, Cesare gets there before me, telling me about his determination to make his contribution to - and rewards from - the system, are fair. He has consciously chosen this work because it allows him to stand by his beliefs, and he hopes to contribute to a more happy and just society. His principles follow those laid out in la Carta della Terra, a document or manifesto for a new attitude to citizenship produced in 2000, that ends, “Let ours be a time remembered for the awakening of a new reverence for life, the firm resolve to achieve sustainability, the quickening of the struggle for justice and peace, and the joyful celebration of life” ( How amazing, that when I started out, I was just asking people about what temperature they bake their bread at, and now I've got to this...

He is 43 years old, though his fresh and lovely face suggests something closer to 25. (Is the secret to eternal youth hidden here, somewhere between the lines of perfect biscuits?) I ask him how he started baking and his face lights up, cheeks go even pinker, as he tells me that the passion came to him when he was young, from watching his father bread-making. His father was also a fornaio, beginning professionally in '56, and before him, his grandfather made bread, but only at home. His grandfather had a forno comunale to which other people would bring their home-made loaves to be baked. “For the most part, it was the women who'd bring their loaves to our house, and they stay for a gossip. My father became a sort of telegraph for all the news of the area.”

Cesare didn't immediately choose to take up the same profession as his father, but went off to train as a chef. (This explains the orderliness. The bakery is warm but sterile-feeling, in its white-tiled neatness. The two rooms are tiny but sparklingly clean and perfectly laid-out, more like a large laundry-room than a small bakery.) After Hospitality college, he did lots of work-experience “to learn the right attitude” - self-disciple that has continued to serve him well as a baker. He worked as an hotel chef, “but at a certain point, I decided that I'd have to be mad to continue with this work, which was non-stop and left no time for myself, and so...(he shrugs, points around him and smiles.)” His experience as a chef gave him both pride in his professionalism and a passion for creating beautiful combinations of flavours. Being a chef in a small kitchen and being a baker calls for different strengths - while often the chef is called on to create variety, the baker is expected to excel in producing consistency, year in, year out.

Some of the recipes are his grandfather's, others are his. He is able to be creative, but “you have to know traditions too.” Customer demand at the moment, for example, says that it's worth his while to make traditional Carnevale sweets, fried chiacchiere ('chatters' - so called because they make such a noise when you eat them) and Tuscan castagnaccia, rich and addictive chestnut-flour and cocoa pudding strewn with pine-nuts and sultanas. I ask if good bread is an elitist thing for him: He doesn't want it to be, but he finds himself surrounded by neighbours who are fairly poor and buy cheaper bread than his at the Hypermercato. His higher-paying customers come from a good distance away, knowing of him by reputation.

For Cesare, this is more than work, it's a way of life that concerns him morning, noon and night, because caring for the oven and the pasta madre doesn't fit into normal working hours. This can be a problem: “I have a colleague who helps out here sometimes, who lives 20km away, and he sees it only as a job. If you do so, you soon start asking yourself: -what's the point?” He's looking for someone to share the work with at the moment, but can't find anyone who can do the hours. “They see only the complexities, and none of the opportunities that this work offers.” He himself lives opposite the Panificio, so he - conversely - has plenty of time to enjoy life with his family, occasionally popping across to do what needs to be done. It suits his, as it suited his father.

“When you put in passion and professionalism, and you stick by your own values, what you do in your work will be of great value to you. Other than monetary value, I mean. The experience that constitutes a life lived, in which you have seen the gratitude of customers for the efforts you've made... and the economic return that that brings. When you work from the spirit, from your own values rather than only for the money, you see everything that the extra effort produces and it is complementary to the joy of the work itself.” This is such a lovely attitude! Instead of seeing his work as a wrong to be righted, he feels both rewarded by the work and it's returns.

Another Japanese name for me to remember: He talks about Kiguci, who taught that we should base our choice of work on the principle of 'beni, bello e buono'. Beni – 'benefits' for Cesare, economic, enough to survive on, bello – 'beautiful', something that pleases you to do, and buono – 'good', something that you can share with other people in society. After I've heard all of this from Cesare, I am filled with excitement to get home and get to work... something I'd generally never say!

The pasta madre he uses was started by his father at the birth of his bakery in '56. “Lievito di birra makes bread that looks good, whereas lievito madre makes bread that, maybe doesn't look great -” (I disagree!) “- but gives the bread greater flavours, perfumes, longer life and better digestibility.” He uses the metaphor of a wild trout and a farmed trout: the farmed trout, whilst larger and more convenient, lacks the flavour and the vitamins of its wild cousin. He refreshes his pasta madre every day in the morning, evening and at midnight. It's then fairly active, and bread can be made from it within 4 hours. He makes plain loaves, one of which we buy, as well as breads with strutto (lard) and a kind of sweet, fruited lardy-cake, a local speciality that he revived.

We drive back at break-neck speed because we're late for lunch, with me clutching a loaf of bread that is satiny-brown, light and hard-shelled like a blown egg-shell. We eat this loaf later with supper. It is intensely vinegary, which I'm not sure I like, and it's too fluffy for my tastes but it disappears within five minutes, between 8 of us (I'm in Marco's friends' kitchen). The shattered crust lies in pieces all over the table and we all sink into a collective post-white-bread coma.

Friday, 12 February 2010

Panificio Simili, via della Felice, Bologna

As I said, I wanted to go and see the bakery that carries the name of the Simili family, despite the fact that the Sorelle Simili have not been involved in it for years, and they told me not to bother looking in.

It is large, high-ceilinged and empty-feeling. Is it by some unfortunate coincidence or is it my imagination, that this bakery seems to attract Bologna's most petite residents? Everyone who enters, in their fur coats and berets, looks tiny in front of the high glass counter.

I have come at the end of the day, and there is next to nothing left in the display. A steady stream of customers comes in, each on asks for something the shop's already run out of, and most people leave empty-handed. I say 'ask', but to me it sounds like they demand, but this is just a cultural difference that I've not got over yet. Italians don't use as many 'please's and 'thank-you's as perhaps we do in English. Ordering a coffee, you say "a coffee", rather than what I say: "Please can I have a coffee, thank you very much" - I end up sounding excessively polite here.

The lady behind the counter manages to keep up an unbroken phone conversation for the hour that I'm there, despite all those pesky customers. When she finally rings off, it's time to close the blinds and shut up the shop for the long lunch-break. She shows me the bakery, which is long and low, with a small white-enameled oven at each end, and the ready-weighed flour sitting in the bowls of the mixers for tomorrow morning. The workshop also produces filled fresh pasta in the Bolognese tradition, and biscuits whose buttery perfume still lingers deliciously.

The shop itself looks like it's been gutted. I ask whether it was all sold today. "No, there's just no point in filling the shelves any more. Up to about three years ago, people would come here for their flour, oil, vanilla and baking powder as well as bread, but now there are three big supermarkets close-by and no point in even trying to keep up with them." She tells me that they're going to take out the empty shelves and put up big photos of the shop dating from when it was the booming family-run business it used to be. I wonder what the Sorelle Simili would think of this, let alone what purpose it would serve.

Thursday, 11 February 2010

Mulino Ferri, Sasso Marconi

I have taken the bus from Bologna to Sasso Marconi, named after the inventor of the radio. His family lived here. Marconi's tomb, a massive fascist-era monument, is along this road. I am coming to visit Mulino Ferri, supplies of flour to il Forno di Calzolari and member of MontagnAmica.

Miller Marco Ferri, shoulders hunched, meets me at the door of his mill. The machinery is running but he and his family - brothers, sister, brother-in-law, and niece and nephew - don't have to do much more, at the present moment, than oversee it. The air in the mill is cold and he has his shoulders hunched and his hands tucked into his pockets. To replace the normal Italian hand gestures, at each outburst, he flaps his elbows.

How come your family are millers? “It's because we're all mad. They started it for a joke in '53.” He expels a mad laugh and his family, who are eagerly gathered around him as we talk, all fall about laughing too, all pink-cheeked. “The mill is like a beautiful woman, una bella donna, it draws you in, you fall in love and you couldn't leave it even if you wanted to.”

At the start, 'third-party' individuals would speculatively buy wheat, bring it to be ground, then sell on the flour. Now small entrepreneurs like that have been replaced by the very big industrial mills. He can remember, not so long ago, when the grain would arrive on ox- or horse-drawn carts. The iron rings to which the horses were tethered are still in the wall out front. He recalls them carrying all the grain-sacks on their backs up the set of steps to tip into the hopper of the stone mill. This is the mill whose photograph is displayed on their flour-bags, which now sits, looking tiny and hic, in a cobwebby corner.

Now, they mill the flour between rollers. They progress from grain to fine flour in small increments so as not to overheat or damage the flour. The mill could work faster, but they are happier to work more slowly for a better quality of flour. You can see the contained rollers in the picture of the family, with the tubes that whisk each grade of flour up though two floors, down through the sorting machine and back to the next set of rollers along for step-by-step refining. The whole building vibrates, it feels like I'm in the stuffy engine-room of a ship, complete with gangways and treacherous ladders connecting the 4 floors of machinery.

His considers his work for MontagnAmica, whose grain he machines, to be more for the community than for money. He sees himself as part of an effort to maintain local grain cultivation and keep the community together. “If we don't act, everyone will disappear from the countryside.”

Next door to the tall, square mill, his sister Anna is running the shop. It sells flours and biscuits a well as animal feed. He presses two bags of flour into my hands and then he and his sister take it upon themselves to brush all of the flour from the air in the mill off me. They dust me down, then give me a thorough sweep with a stiff brush. It's like a flour spa-treatment.

I ask Marco what he particularly likes about this job: “The flour, when it's milled well and it's come from the mill into the flour bags. It's not compacted at this point. I run my fingers through it and it's like clear water - limpida come' l'aqua.”

Wednesday, 10 February 2010


A train through a soggy, snowed-on mountainous landscape to Pianoro, south of Bologna, to meet Paolo Canto of MontagnAmica. This is the organisation that allows Matteo Calzolari, of il Forno di Calzolari, to source and mill his grain locally. Covering only a small geographic area, MontagnAmica aims to shorten the physical distances between - for example - farmer, miller, baker and consumer, as well as attempting to reduce the number of middlemen involved in the system, making sure the money goes to those doing the work. The idea is that, by promoting good farming practice and publicising its benefits to the consumer, the local area will gain both financially and socially.

I walk across the station forecourt to the office of MontagnAmica, past a life-sized plastic cow that is tethered to a milk-tank done up as an Alpine chalet. A lady pulls up in a 4x4, puts some coins into the machine which then pumps a litre of milk into the bottle she's brought with her. My friend Marco tells me that these machines were installed four years ago, by local dairy farmers who wanted a fairer deal. So progressive!

Paolo, with his goatee, looks a bit like Mr Tumnus (the snow helps). His office is festooned with leaflets about local produce and shelves hold bottles of local wine, packets of local produce and a sad-looking dessicated loaf of bread. I explain my interest in his organisation, expressing an interest in taking the route of the walk he's designed: la Via del Pane – the Bread Route. No can do, have I not seen the snow? Ok, I'll settle for an interview: What does this project mean to him? Though bread is only a part of what his organisation deals with, fortunately for me, it turns out to be his main 'thing'.

“I love bread – to make, to eat; I love trying new recipes and different types of grain...”

He learned bread-making at home, from his grandfather. Now he makes bread with his family two or three times a week using a pasta madre, plus public bread-making demonstrations (there's one on Sunday in Bologna) to encourage people to try baking for themselves or, at least, to think about what they're eating. He's not so interested having a leaven of some venerable age. If he's away for any amount of time, he'll throw out his old leaven because, for his tastes, it will have become too sour. Combining his personal love of good bread, and a mission to improve the lot of the local community, his main task in MontagnAmica, after setting up and maintaining relationships between producers, is to encourage local consumers to shop conscientiously.

“It's becoming more and more important to orient people, families, children, towards better food, for example: bread made in a certain manner, with pasta madre, locally-produced grain and locally-milled flour.” They have managed, commendably, to contain the whole process within a 10km area. “Also, we need to orient the farmers, millers and bakers towards activities that benefit the local community – to strive to optimise the quality of their work so that the final product, the bread, is guaranteed to be of higher quality.”

MontagnAmica aims to create a Filiera Corta. Bakers can pay more for their flour if their other costs, particularly transport, are lower. Farmers are encouraged, by being able to charge more for better quality grain, to farm the land less intensively, rotating crops and planting older grain varieties. Though non-modern grains give a lower yield, they produce much needed diversity, both for the environment and in the eventual flavour of the bread.

“We are responsible for labelling our products clearly: we have a lot to boast about and we need to tell people why some products are better that others. We can say how good the flour is, both to taste and for your health. At least it won't make you ill!” Does he mean he wants other products to be labelled 'this will make you ill'? “It's a pity, but it's generally the case that food is made with little regard for those who will eat it.”

He feels he's up against the publicity of the Multinationals, who cynically use all of the same qualitative, 'natural' and 'local' language that he does, and that he feels is rightfully his. “They succeed in convincing too many people.”

“Economic Colossi do the same marketing as we do, but I know the field, the mill, the oven: everything is transparent for everybody.” People can look at their local surroundings and see what they'll be eating. “But we don't have the economic means to make this into a national campaign.” I've been thinking a lot about this, about the difference between top-down and bottom-up approaches to effecting change in consumer habits. The benefit of MontagnAmica's tiny territory is that they can organise and discuss things as individuals. The disadvantage is that they feel that what they're doing is only a drop in the ocean, they feel their power is too small.

On a local level, he's doing everything he can to get people to engage with the project: They have set up signs to guide people around their own countryside, literally labelling the view. They've also designed a series of walks that link, in a short circular walk, the 'four essential elements for making bread': A field, a mill and a source of water (though not a working mill -there's only one functioning right now, though the countryside around here is peppered with abandoned watermills) and a wood-fired oven.

I leave him making a long phone-call about practicalities with a MontagnAmica colleague, gets quite agitated, repeating that he thinks someone's “fuori” (meaning fuori della zucca -out of their pumpkin). I can see that the beautiful idea of communicating on a personal level has it's problems. I can understand that it is possible to be more businesslike if the supply-chain is longer, as it renders individuals anonymous and less complex to deal with. The other side of the coin is that these people in this Filiera Corta eat together, talk together, are friends as well as colleagues. With a job as life-consuming as farming or baking, it is important for me that pleasure is found within the work rather than put off for when, or if, there is day off and earnings to spend.

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Sorelle Simili, bakers and teachers

It is so exciting for me to be invited to the home of the Sorelle Simili, twin sisters famous here for their bakery, their books, their cookery school and now their work in encouraging people to bake at home. I met them at the Pasta Madre convention on Saturday, but I first heard of them ages ago from my Head Baker in London - (Is there a better term for 'Head Baker'? Should it be capitalised? Eeh!) They are authoritative and at the same time sweet as anything: they have a devoted fan club over here. Born in 1936, into a baking family, they continue to be part of the evolution of Bolognese and Italian habits and appetites.

We sit down with a pot of perfume-y tea at a marble-topped table (ideal for making pastry on, methinks). Valeria does the talking, with Margherita occasionally finishing Valeria's sentences. “In the world of today, we have lost the habit of making things at home, with you children, your friends. Working together is a way of socialising. In addition, there is the question of our health: Making food for yourself, or knowing the person who's made it, means that you can know or find out what's been put into it. If you buy good ingredients, you'll make a good thing. But we are interested in its importance for our moral health too, not only physical.”

They are convinced that something must be done to save us from ourselves and the treadmills we find ourselves on. “People are losing the occasion and the opportunity for these simple pleasures. We understand that people must work, that people are busy, but to work in front of a computer all day long, without producing anything with their hands, penalises rather than rewarded for their hard work. Without the bella satisfaction of transforming something, with your own hands, life is empty.

“We talk about our children, who grow up without smelling the perfume of something baking in the oven. At least on the weekend, I think people should make something to eat at home. We have less money now, relatively speaking, but the solution is not to buy ready made food or to go out to eat. What can we do about the situation that we are in, where farmers have no incentive to improve the quality of what they produce. Do we really have to eat apples grown in Connecticut? It's absurd! It's scandalous now that you even have to read the ingredients on a bag of flour, to see in there are added conditioners, added gluten etc. Good flour costs three times as much, but the reimbursement may come in different ways.”

Valeria tells me their story, beginning: “For us, the importance of bread is more than for most: our parents met in a bakery: she was the shop-girl and he worked in the bakery.” In 1929, their parents opened their first bakery and in '46, they opened a second forno in Via San Felice, Bologna, which is still there and still carries the family name. It has changed hands, however, and I am instructed by them not to bother going to see it...

“We lived and breathed this bakery, always hearing them talk about it and knowing that they worked with great passion. In 1950, we left school and starting working full-time in the bakery. I'd worked there on-and-off since the age of 12, though not for money. When there was work to be done, they'd call us down to the bottega. Our parents recognised the sacrifice we were making in terms of a social life.”

Margherita also worked for 2 years in a company that supplied the raw materials for bakeries, and so came to know everyone involved in commercial bread-making. They got to know who was good and who wasn't.

When they were in their mid-20's, the death of their mother and the departure of their sister, who went off to get married, left them with 13 employees, round-the-clock work and nothing left for themselves at the end of the day. They sold the business and started afresh, just Valeria and Margherita. They set up a bakery in a tiny posticino by the sea, 28mtres squared, and another in the mountains. It was enormously satisfying to be independently successful and the financial rewards were great, but the constant work asked too much of them. Their working day could last up to 17 hours, starting at 3am, but in this way the businesses grew and grew with their hard work. Each time they left something from exhaustion, as far as I can understand, they took on an even bigger challenge. In 1986 they opened a cooking school. It was a success but it wasn't very lucrative, being “more like an all-day restaurant for 12 people”. They've also written three books, most famously Pane e Roba Dolce – Bread and Sweet Stuff. (Bolognese speech has a monopoly over the words roba – 'stuff' and tipo – 'type', used as we use 'like', like. It's strange, feels teenager-y.)

They keep repeating: -If you work hard hard, you will earn. You will always earn less than those who cut corners and fiddle taxes, but the rewards of honest work are not only financial. On the subject of what price to charge: “It's not possible to sell bread at a high price. Bread is, and should be, for everyone. That doesn't mean you can't make very good bread. The important thing, though, is to make money on the smaller things such as little pastries that will be a treat. If you set out to take on this type of job, prepare yourself for hard work. The rewards, however, are great if you get it right.”

Valeria runs to get her lievito (pasta madre), which is in a Pyrex casserole dish. I ask why the dough, as I have seen also on other occasions, has a cross cut into it like this. She says she used to cut the dough to see when its growth had peaked (at which point it needs to be put in the fridge to calm it down), but now... she does it because it's physical habit, “because it pleases me to do it, he is always like this”. You called it 'him'? “He's our baby – nostro bimbo.”

“The bread we make at home, here, is quite a hard dough.” The newly refreshed pasta madre doesn't have the normal tang, and they tend to keep it from fermenting too fast. (The different alcohols produced by fermentation turn to vinegar, one of the main contributors to the flavour of the baked loaf, and here the idea is to commence with a less acidic dough which allows, instead, a sweeter floury flavour to come through.) “We Bolognese are used to a slightly 'sweet' flavour in our bread. Our bread is naturale, but is easier for those unused to the flavour of sourdoughs.”

They are now on a mission to teach people to bake pasta madre bread at home, but have found an initial stumbling-block is the sanitisation of our homes and materials. To start a sourdough, you need only mix flour with water, and leave it in a warm place to ferment. Yeasts and bacteria living on the flour, in the water, the air... anywhere, take advantage of the presence of food and warmth and start to multiply, producing alcohol and carbon dioxide as they grow. This makes the bubbly, sour culture that can be used to leaven dough. The problem they've encountered is that people's homes are too clean and their flour too over-treated to easily produce a living culture.

If you want to try starting a pasta madre, try new, wholemeal stone-ground flour. It's more likely to get going faster because the natural flora of yeasts and bacteria will be just waiting for a bit of nutrition to wake them up. It makes sense that the yeasts that will grow best in flour will be those found naturally on the wheat grain (like the whitish stuff on the skins of grapes) but our flour is often too 'clean': even if it's called 'wholemeal', it can be a remix from separated and sanitised components. Another way of getting over this problem is one used by the sisters for their students: if a pasta madre is going strong, share it!

They've worked on working out simple systems and timetables for people to follow so that making bread at home is easy. After starting the pasta madre culture initially, it should be easy to maintain and make use of. Their system, which makes a dry dough in the Bolognese style, is: Taking 400g of pasta madre, add 400g flour and 200g water and leave for 3 or 4 hours. At this point, 600g can be made into a loaf, adding salt, and 400g can go back in the fridge for the next time. Simple. Can I try this bread? No, because it was made yesterday. Today they've made biscuits instead. I have a biscuit - a crisp, sweet, mostarda-filled raviolo - and would like to have had more.

I am sad to go - they're so lovely! - they both (though they have no children) seem very maternal and I'm sure that this works in their favour when trying to teach people. I walk back into town past their old bakery, which is closed for lunch but looks closed full stop. Against instructions, I'm going to have a look in when its open.

Il Forno di Calzonari, Bologna

Today, the shop of the bakery I'll be visiting on Thursday. I met the baker and proprietor Matteo Calzonari at the Pasta Madre convegno, where he gave a presentation on his business's involvement in the organisation of local, organic producers called MontagnAmica. He and his forno are located in Monghidoro, 30km South of Bologna, but every morning half of the bread is driven into the city to his other shop in Via delle Fragole (Strawberry Street, next to Raspberry Road: Via dei Lamponi).

Matteo and his wife Stefania, who runs the shops, sell – as well as bread, pizza, biscuits and stffed fresh pasta – local, organic wine and beer, cold meats, milk, cheese, jam and ready-to-eat pasta sauces. Information about Organic (Biologico) certification is displayed on a music-stand, and every product, including bread, has a handwritten tag giving the the ingredients and their origin. The choice of breads changes from day to day: today, there's one dotted with hazelnuts. The speciality breads are popular enough that people come by to ensure that they'll get a loaf from tomorrow's farro – spelt – mix. At the same time as being convincingly 'organic', this shop feels modern, in being clean, light and warm. Whilst stressing the goodness of the produce, the didactic shop display gives an explanation of what's good about the bread and a big, stunning photo of a Munghidoro field of wheat.

Everyone who comes in for their pane quotidianale pauses after they've got their bread and asks for una fettina -a little slice- of this, un'assagio (a taste) of that or un pochino of the other. The shop's quite small and the warm air smells not only of bread, but chocolate, toasted nuts and seeds, biscuits, honey and lots of other temptations. Alessia, the girl behind the counter, tells me that people seek out this bakery because it's unusual in its holistic approach, then they keep coming back because of the quality of the bread. Seeing one of the shop's older regulars approaching, Alessia runs to put a chair by the counter for him, and he stays for a good half an hour - I talk to him and discover that coming here is the highlight of his day. He stays for half an hour, tells me about his wife who can't leave the house, his wooden leg, his child and grandchild who died, his few surviving siblings from a family of ten. While Alessia brings him his bread and pasta, putting it in his bag for him, I try to think of something more positive to talk about. What's the secret to his longevity? “Eat little, but eat well. If you eat this bread, you eat well.”

Monday, 8 February 2010

Bologna streets

A day spent wandering through the city streets of Bologna. In the province known as 'the Stomach of Italy', Emilia Romagna's capitol city is clearly enjoying the bonta' - a word that I've heard used far more frequently in Italian than it's English equivalent: bounty - of its varied and generous cuisine. Around the central Piazza Maggiore, the incessant clatter of cutlery and of coffee-cups rings through the little side streets. University students stand about looking gorgeous in the dappled sunlight under the frescoed vaults of colonnaded walkways. Coming from Cagliari, this city feels so Northern and cosmopolitan. That said, there is no Big City rush about this place. It seems absolutely acceptable, thank goodness, to dawdle in front of each bakery.

The bakerys' windows are stuffed with with Bolognese pastries and breads, crunchy and rich with strutto and coccioli (lard and pork scratchings-type pieces of pork), as well as hand-made fresh pasta, panettone and colourful and delicate Viennoiserie. Though I thought that bakeries down South offered quite a range, theirs would look somewhat limited next to the dazzling choice offered here.

Right at the start of this trip I realised that, because I'm used to paying so little for my food in the UK, I find all food in Italy expensive. This place, however, seems to take the (expensive) biscuit. Entering a supermarket and feasting my eyes on the beautiful way that everything is packaged, I note the international choice of foods. I always feel rather disappointed that Britain's contribution to the world of food is always Instant Porridge Oats, to be eaten 'for slimming'. Queueing behind a fur-coated Signora who pays €11.45 for tinned Brussels Sprouts (I'm not sure which bit of this sentence not to italicise), I decide that I can live quite happily on the bread and fresh cheese that Luigi gave me yesterday, and settle for un'etto (100g) of garlicky Mortadella di Bologna.

Yesterday at Luigi's gave me a lot to think about in relation to the distance between producer and consumer. I'm a bit humiliated that my home country (that's Britain, I'm not foolish enough to narrow it down to Wales) is hardly represented on the international food scene, in terms of recognisable traditional products, and I find it maddening to be told all the time how bad the UK's food reputedly is (“You don't have any good bread in your country, do you?”). However, I realise that it's not my problem, or rather, I'm only responsible for doing the best that I can without a 'mea culpa' for the past and present dross. I don't want to make something to be sold in Bologna, I'm looking far closer to home. I saw, in Luigi, the immense satisfaction of being personally in contact with the people eating his bread.

Since the beginning of this trip, my interest has leaned more and more towards an interest in a quality of life rather than simply the qualities of bread. I have found delicious bread at every stop, but I wouldn't want to take it home with me, even the loveliest, longest-lasting pasta madre loaf. It was never my intention (even if I were able) to recreate recipes that I've encountered here, back home. Far more important, I feel, to be in and of my own community. At the moment, and in the best way, my inspiration is coming far more from the bakers than their bread.

Sunday, 31 January 2010

A bread story from il Signore Camba's youth

Correcting the grammar in my list of questions, my host Tore' laughs because the question “What does bread mean to you?” is so ridiculous to him. Not in the way that I'd think, that it was bizarre or irrelevant, but because the role bread is too important to call into question. It's like being asked what the colour green means for you, and having to imagine a world without green.

“Se manca il pane, manca un pezzo di se stesso”

-If you're without bread, you are missing a part of yourself-

If bread is so necessary, why is Emilio (the baker downstairs) lamenting the diminishing demand for bread? “Because young people have never experienced scarcity.”

Tore' tells me this amazing story about his youth:

He was one of ten children, 10 “hungry wolves”, and the whole family got through 15-20kgs of bread every day. Bread and cheese was their staple diet: “It sounds like a lot, but it's hard to get fat on bread.” However, the bread ration during WWII was 200g each, next to nothing!

Cagliari suffered badly under air raids, and Tore's parents moved out to a place in the countryside. He can remember joining a stream of fleeing city-dwellers. They went by car, and he recalls the mystified faces of villagers who'd never seen a car in motion before. They weren't poor, comparatively, but there was no goods to buy. You could get hold of bread from 'under the counter' -pane di nascosto- but it was often so bad, augmented with bran, acorn flour or even woodshavings, that Tore's brother came up with his own way to get hold of more bread:

He'd watch the chimneys of the other houses for any sign of smoke, then run to the door of any house in which he saw that a fire had been lit. He knew that this meant they were getting ready to bake their bread, and he'd found the perfect moment to go in and ask for a bit of the refreshed pasta madre- “-because my mother needs it.” A living leaven was a precious and shared resource before the existence of commercially-available compressed yeast. He'd bring home his ball of dough, roll it out very, very thin and toast it to make his own version of Carta di Musica. The other villagers must have been thinking, Tore' says, “wow, these Cagliarese must bake a lot!”

Saturday, 30 January 2010

Pane Carasau

A meeting with Giulia Annis, of Slow Food Cagliari. Giulia throws herself into ringing around all of here Slow Food friends to find someone who knows someone who ...thinks they know someone who makes bread with pasta madre. It feels like a bit of a wild goose chase, but with the added possibility that, perhaps, the goose doesn't even exist. Giulia is lovely, busy but accommodating. She's just been re-elected Convivium Leader for the local branch of the Slow Food organisation and has just returned from a month spent in India with SF bigwig Vandana Shiva. I leave our meeting a little down-hearted because we find so many dead ends, but optimistic because Giulia has so much energy and passion for what she does.

For lunch, after the mandatory tonne of gorgeous pasta, we eat Carta di Musica bread with fresh sheeps-milk ricotta and a glass of acidic red wine.

First, a note on the wine: Table wine doesn't just come in wine bottles, cartons, or plastic bottles, it comes – I couldn't believe my eyes at first – from what looks to me like a petrol pump in a petrol station. Or a wine pump in a wine station, if that'd mean anything to anyone back home.

Carta di Musica, or 'Pane Carasau', as it's called in Sardo dialect, is amazing stuff. It is to my great disappointment that I can't go now to see it being made. It is winter (though this seems hard to believe, what with the hot sun, the flowers in full bloom, and us eating fresh, tiny broad beans) and the workshops are closed. This crisp, delicate bread doesn't have to be made year-round because it lasts so well. It is made by rolling out a leavened dough into very, very thin rounds. These are stacked, interleaved with cloths, allowed to rise and then baked individually. Put into a hot oven (450-500C), the rounds puff up instantly and the baker must, quickly while the bread's still soft, cut through the edge to make two separate rounds, which then get cooked again separately. The paper-thin (hence the name) breads are then stacked again to flatten them, and allowed to cool and dry out.
Carta di Musica is good just as it is, or with a knife-tip of ricotta scraped over its semolina-gritty surface. It was traditionally the long-lasting sustenance of shepherds, and was also dampened until soft and used as the Sardo version of pasta cannelloni and lasagne. I like it most heated in the oven with a bit of olive oil and lots of salt. Tore' smacks the middle of the round sheet of golden Carta to shatter it, then we eat the salty shards with the red wine. The Italian language is very rich in onomatopoeic words, and the ones that leap to mind are croccante (crisp) and sgrannocciante (crunchy).

Madeleine (Dilly) Boase