‘I shouldn’t think even millionaires could eat anything nicer than new bread and real butter and honey for tea.’
So wrote Dodie smith in I Capture The Castle and I couldn’t agree more.
Bread has had a bad rap in recent years. We know that the industrially produced white, sliced pan is loaded with so-called improvers. These are chemicals and enzymes which preserve, bleach and volumise the bread. This might sound like an improvement for my hairstyle but surely not for my slice of toast. Even ‘freshly-baked’ bread is often misleading. The thaw-and-serve doughnuts or thaw-and-bake loaves sold from the supermarket bakery may have been frozen for up to a whole year.
Those long-lasting and chemically loaded loaves can do you no good. They can’t fill you up. They can’t satisfy your nutritional requirements or your hunger for a decent ham sandwich.
So, how can we reclaim our daily bread?
I found the answer at the Kerrygold Ballymaloe Litfest 2016. This annual event, held in the charming surroundings of Shanagarry, Ireland, celebrates food and food writing. It also educates and encourages discussion about where we, in the first world, are going right and going astray in our efforts to feed ourselves and feed those who go hungry.
The take home message, from Slow Food enthusiasts and eco-warriors alike, was an ethos of;
‘Going forward by going back’.
We all need food, every single day, so it’s understandable that we think about food all the time. However, our requirements are pretty basic and our bodies have evolved wonderfully to survive on the gifts of our miraculous planet; birds in the air, fish in the sea, green leaves, fruits, nuts, grains...when it’s all boiled down, there is little we need to add to that which we have been given. We certainly don’t need colourings or flavourings or sweeteners or preservatives. We don’t need wax on our lemons or uniformly-shaped cucumbers. We don’t need flavourless strawberries in winter and we certainly do not need to have our avocados peeled, mashed and re-packaged for us.
Mya Henry and Eric Werner have created a media storm by building Hartwood, a restaurant in Tulum, Mexico, with no walls, no running water, a zero carbon footprint and simply the best food of Mundo Maya .
Francis Mallman is an Argentine chef who uses traditional Patagonian fire and earth cooking methods to combine food and conversation in poetic alchemy. He advocates spending more time, as our ancestors did, staring into the glowing embers of a cooking fire as we gnaw the bones of an honoured beast. He says;
‘there is a collective memory of fire in our guts and we agree with it.’
Elisabeth Luard reminds us that all food is sacramental. We may not think about it but that is the way we are wired. Offering food to the Earth is the most primitive gesture of worship. The man turning burgers on the grill is high priest of the summer barbecue. Every slice of cake offered to a guest is a gesture of peace and welcome. Even the humble cup of tea carries a weight of meaning.
‘Ah, go on, go on, you’ll have a cup, won’t you?’
What, you may ask, is the place of bread in this progressive, backwards movement? Enter; The Common Loaf.
When I crept into the back row of a talk by Joe Fitzmaurice of Riotrye Bake House and Bread School, I had no idea that my daily bread was about to assume a crust of a different colour.
The Common Loaf is a movement, devised by Joe, to allow ordinary people, just like you and me, to make simple, honest bread. You don’t need any expertise at all or any expensive equipment. Joe provides tutorials that will have you creating your very own sourdough starter and baking a proper loaf of bread in just seven days.
I’ve had a promise to attempt sourdough on my long finger for years now. Joe put it up to me. I had no more excuses. It was time to bake bread.
Meet my baby:
I should add a little background here. I have, in a former life, been a microbiologist. In other words, I have had four years of detailed and very expensive training in how to deal with teeny weeny living creatures. Growing yeast should not present an enormous challenge. And yet, I have been nurturing my neonate sourdough starter like the most anxious of new parents. I’ve duplicated every step and made back-ups for fear that I will commit accidental infanticide.
My new baby needs regular feeding and tucking up in a warm place to sleep. There has been a good deal of massaging, patting and chatting to my little one. Every visitor has been invited to admire, but not touch, my precious bundle and I have taken more photos than any yeast child has a right to expect.
‘Your first bake will be fine but don’t expect perfection’, warns Joe.
Mine, while perfectly edible, was not exactly a triumph. I managed to fold a layer of dry flour through the centre which gave an interesting, marbled appearance but lousy mouth-feel.
Chalking that one up to teething issues, I carried on.
The second batch, in all honesty, was absolutely, flipping delicious. It was crusty, chewy, just slightly sour and ever so satisfying. My children, my human children that is, greedily devoured their microbial sibling and her bounty.
I fried sausages to the point of caramelisation, and made sandwiches with butter and brown sauce. I anointed the heels with olive oil and flakes of Maldon salt and chewed slowly while I contemplated the pleasure of simple things. I made toast, but oh, what toast this was. Butter and honey dripped through the holes, onto my fingers, leaving no option but to offer them up to Husband for a lick. There is no photo of the toast, we were otherwise occupied.
The third loaf, by Riotrye tradition, should be gifted to another. I’m afraid we ate it. I offer, in its stead, this knowledge to you.
The Common Loaf will take time and effort. You might lose sleep if you get up at night, as I did, to check on your tiny baby. You may become just a bit obsessed with her well-being.
It will be worth it. You will be rewarded with an atavistic satisfaction to rival Mallman’s pig on a spit. If you’re lucky, you may even win from your family a grateful round of applause. That’s optimistic, you might not.
Make this bread. It will do you good.