A night ferry on a rough sea over from Civitavecchia to Cagliari, the capitol of Sardegna. It's raining heavily here and the damp air makes me cold to my bones. It's strange because it's hardly cold compared to snowed-in,-no-heating home, but somehow the cold is exaggerated by the presence of (for me) 'summer' vegetables in season and the saturated colours that the normally sun-bleached umber, ochre and burnt Sienna houses have taken on in the rain. My host, Tore', takes me to meet baker Emilio, who I'll be spending tomorrow morning. We buy some semolina-dusted foccacine (they look to me like little ciabatte, very light and nicely chewy) and take them up to Tore's apartment. Tore', my friend's uncle, is an aggressively generous host. There are no half measures in his servings of malloreddus (very savoury Sardo rice grain-like pasta) and there's always another course.
As we eat our way, thankfully slowly, through more food than I've seen in over a month – counting Christmas – we discuss the book I've just finished reading: Good, Clean and Fair, the 'manifesto' for a new attitude to food by Slow Food founder Carlo Petrini. Immediately, Tore' leaps to criticise ideas that I'd considered rational: “You must handle Petrini with pincers!” Similarly to several Italians with whom I've discussed this book, Tore' is sceptical about Petrini's motivations. Petrini must have a hidden agenda (i.e. he's in it for the money, like all those Politicians). When I put forward Petrini's idea that we can be active in re-implementing and safeguarding good practice, the response is always “Why change?” and never “why not change?”, it's always a shrug of “what can you do?” when we've already ascertained that there's something to worry about. What about young people, I ask, when every other advert on TV is for Mulino Bianco and Kinder? (These are respectively the Italian market-dominant industrial bakery with an unconvincing bucolic image, and that chocolate-egg maker cum single-portion snack provider for low attention-span 'healthy'-eaters.) “What can we do? Food is pleasure, you can't say otherwise.”
“And another thing” – Tore' wags a finger at me – “what's wrong with genetic modification, anyway?! It's only a speeded-up version of evolution!” Bingo! I'm trying to make some sort of tortuous analogy where a genetically modified wheat, or even just a plant from a different environment, is planted out and grows so fast is blocks out the light, stunting and killing the other plants... and I realise that it's the same with new and imported foods generally. That which hasn't evolved along with everything else in an environment has not stood the tests of that environment, and the other organisms in the environment haven't stood the test of it. This is how we end up so confused in our shopping and eating, it is the imbalance caused by novelty.
I told you it'd be tortuous. What all this comes down to (rather than, as it may seem, me being just scared of the 'new', of multinationals and industrialisation) is the well-supported hypothesis of Michael Pollan – In Defence of Food – that we should be defiantly anti-fad. Evolution is slow. I love bread because my mother has always made it. When I went to university and started eating Cambridge-process 'French' bread, it made me so ill I gave up bread... and anything wheat-based, completely, including my mother's bread. I'd forgotten to be intuitive and become reactive. I'd forgotten what I knew was good. So, in a way, Tore is right to be so reticent. Perhaps we will return to what we know is good, eventually. Can we afford to wait for the 'lack' to be felt, though? My friend Andy Forbes, baker and researcher, has an interesting insight into this question. He talks about the break in the chain of British baking culture, when the institution of the 'National Loaf', and 'National Flour' served to wipe out knowledge that had been accumulated over generations. My longstanding concern has been that the time it could take to forget what we originally depended on, trusted or knew was 'good', might be shorter than the time it takes to realise what we're missing.
However, in terms of the manufacture of good food, I am beginning to see things a little differently, with a lot more hope. I meet bakers who have inherited knowledge and, though it is venerable in its vintage and durability, it's weak because it can consist of beliefs held without question. I have begun to think that there is no grand secret to tap into, or to be lost, nor any fraternal bond that keeps standards up. There is only the magic created in each individual case. There are processes to copy or take inspiration from, and there are recipes and business plans that work better than others, but they can be modelled. Before, I was blaming the break in the chain of 'traditional' baking for the absence of some sort of (dare I say?) moral element in the production of food. (By 'moral', I mean, as Petrini defines it: good, clean and fair to everyone from the farmer to the consumer.) Now, I'm pretty convinced that that never really existed, seeing as everyone always feels like they're the victim of someone else in the 'food chain'. I'm wondering instead if this is an important opportunity to realise my responsibilities as an individual, to my own standards.
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.