Here at the Potwell Inn I bake sourdough bread about three times a week during the winter when the timetable of starting the sponge first thing in the morning fits best of all with our timetable, although we might have to slow the final rise down a bit (24 hours later) if we need to be at the allotment early. That’s more of a problem in the summer when it’s warm all night, and so I bake a little less often. Regularly baking bread soaks into the warp and weft of kitchen life and becomes much more than the sum of its parts.
Although dough thrives on a bit of neglect, it also demands attention to detail. My recipe has evolved over the years since I first tried it, but it’s unforgiving of mistakes. On Christmas Eve I was in a rush and added a bit too much salt, for instance. Salt really inhibits the dough, and although the loaf was OK there was an undertone in the flavour that diminished its appeal. Getting the right hydration can cause problems too if you don’t pay attention. Different flours take up different amounts of water and so you can only know if it’s right by the texture of the dough. All the books say the dough should be as soft as you can manage but if you try to make bread with a dough that’s just that bit too soft, when it comes out of the banneton it will flatten out like a cowpat. I try to adjust it so it’s just – but only just – sticking to the table but pulls off easily with the aid of a scraper. If it’s too easy to knead – ie too stiff – it will be easier to handle but it won’t be able to rise to its full glory. There are other tricks I play but that’s not really what I want to write about today.
Because there’s always something else going on. Ten minutes kneading can become a meditation, with the everyday mind quietened by the purposeful movements of the arms, hands and body. I remember reading once that religiously inclined French people would make the sign of the cross over the new loaf before cutting it. For all the visits we’ve made to France – which is a determinedly atheist country for the most part – I’ve never once seen that action, but it stuck in my mind because it suggested that, religious or not, the new loaf should be treated with special respect because it provides so much of what we need. It feeds us in the process of baking and it feeds all equally in the eating. Flour, water, salt, and a little oil along with the ferment which is a kind of gift because you can’t make it, only accept it as a gift. If I can shamelessly steal a religious concept, baking bread is a sacramental activity because the loaf becomes:
The ‘outward and visible sign of the inward and invisible grace”.
Which, if you think about it could equally apply to any number of activities like growing an allotment, cooking, brewing beer, writing to a friend or even darning a torn sweater! Did you know that the familiar phrase “daily bread” is the best that all the scholars have managed in 2000 years when they attempted to translate the little Greek word ‘epiousios’? I like to drag it out of retirement in our weary culture and translate it as relating to the things we really need in order to flourish, bread being among them but also the almost spiritual practice of making it and sharing it with friends and loved ones. It’s being fully human, there on a plate in front of you.