On why I bake bread

Food politics
On the spiritual art of making bread

I made a couple of sourdough loaves yesterday. They started out the night before in a mixing bowl, a ladleful of starter mixed with flour and water. More flour in the morning, salt, kneading, proving, shaping, baking.

24 hours of waiting went into those loaves. Slow food, indeed.

This batch was different from the last. Not as sour, and lighter, with a higher, softer crust and bigger holes, the Holy Grail of the sourdough baker…cutting that loaf open and finding big gaps made my breakfast.

It would have been easier to pop out to the shop for a loaf, even easier if I’d sent one of the kids to get it for me, but speed isn’t the reason I bake bread.

It might sound odd, but bread making is a kind of loose communion for me.  It’s a time I use to relax, to reflect.  There’s time involved, and structure, and action.  There’s space to think.  There’s time to just wait.  Waiting is under rated.  If it’s done with patience and purpose, it can be a means to many ends.  Lots of things get worked out when I wait for a bread to rise or as I work through some frustration or other by kneading, pushing, pulling a ball of dough for ten minutes or so.

Bread making is the most elemental form of cooking, it’s an ancient art that’s changed little over the years. Yes, there’s a lot of science in a commercial loaf, but that’s not what I’m talking about, nor are many commercial loaves ‘bread’ in the way I understand it. I cook little else that has such a strong sense of the basic, of the very essence of being, of being alive.

I’ve been baking bread for years, and the small thrill of slicing into one of my loaves never leaves me.  What will it be like?  Will that little tweak have worked?  Will there be holes?  Please let there be holes…  Its exciting, a small discovery, a little victory.  You don’t get a sense of personal triumph by opening a bag of sliced white.

My bread repertoire is fairly narrow.  I use a good, basic recipe, that lends itself to white, wholemeal or seeded loaves, and then there’s a reliable sourdough that’s improving as the starter ages.  My bagels are pretty good, and I can turn my basic recipe into a passable focaccia or naan.

The best bread I make, though, is a simple French baton, a light baguette with a crisp crust and a deep and earthy taste.  It’s worth the eighteen odd hours it takes to make from start to finish, and it knocks any supermarket approximation for a six.  That might all be in my head, but that’s part of the point…it’s a good bread because it’s my bread, my baguette, something I made myself, something that has soul.

I’m going to carry on making bread.  I hope to do it for the rest of my life.  I want to be an old man, kneading a dough in the same way I’ve done for fifty or sixty years.  I want to shape a loaf, let it prove, bake it, and I want it to taste the way it does today.  I want to be using the same sourdough starter then as I am now.  I want that starter to live in my fridge for decades, and, every now and then, I want somebody to take a small part of it and start their own starter, a child of mine.

But most of all, I want our kids to understand where their food comes from. I want them to see the magic of a rising loaf, to plunge their hands into a soft dough, to shape a boule and to eat toast, knowing that they’d had a part in the making, in the process. I want this to be normal, to be the way things are.

And I want them to carry on themselves, for them to show their kids how bread is made, just as I showed them.

I want this to be my gift to them.