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...

Madeleine (Dilly) Boase