Ah! but what do you yearn for secretly?

IMG_4779Some years ago we were in Uzès where – as is almost universal in France – you could buy brilliant bread. There was every shape, size, flour, yeast, baking method and texture you could imagine so it was a good place to think about what constituted a good loaf, and I don’t mean a Good Loaf in the sense that there might be some hierarchy of goodness only known to the connoisseur.  I just mean the bread I like best, and it was in Uzès that I began to realize that the eyes could seduce you into buying something that was nowhere near as good as it appeared. There were loaves a metre long and weighing 3 or 4 kilos that the baker would cut you a piece from. There were loaves with crust like razor wire and there were tooth snappers, and the bread you most lusted after was often pretty indigestible or stale by teatime.  Afficionados and people who write books on this subject will purse their lips and inspect what they like to call the crust and the crumb for its adherence to their particular prejudice. They may comment learnedly (and loudly) on the merits of the true San Francisco sourdough and you may well feel that there must exist, somewhere in Paris, a standard perfect loaf in a glass case alongside the standard kilogramme. This elevation of an ordinary domestic skill to the level of high art not only inflates the price but sets up as a standard a highly specific style that stifles all alternatives.

So we need to ask ourselves what kind of bread we yearn for secretly and then try to make it. Sometimes I want nothing more than the cheapest and most refined and steam baked white loaf in the shop so I can toast it until it burns black at the edges and then I can eat it slathered with salted butter. Actually that turns out to be suprisingly difficut to make without a small factory adapted to the Chorleywood procees – “the cheapest way to make water stand up” as one wag put it.

But one thing has become canonical for no reason than I can work out. I suppose most people will know that ciabatta was only invented in 1982 in Verona, and that it was only invented in response to the popularity of the baguette. The open texture of the baguette and the even more open (ie full of holes) texture of ciabatta have taken the bread world by storm and so they have become something all home bakers must force themselves to reproduce in every loaf unless they are to live in shame and the fear of a visit from the  bread police. But ……

It doesn’t have to be like this.  The crust and the crumb are variables you can control if you choose to do so.  I feel a certain sense of pride when I knock out a sourdough loaf that looks exactly like the ones in the £35 coffee table book, but then all too often the crust is razor sharp and toothbreakingly hard, and the huge open textured crumb dries out rubbery and then hard as rock in 24 hours.  The only way to satisfy the exacting customers (if there were any) of the Potwell Inn (if it existed) would be to bake every day and frankly I don’t have the time – even though I do, in fact, exist!

And so after a good deal of thought and several expensive retreats I wish to announce that I will no longer be a slave to fashion even if my friends stop talking to me.  I formally eschew the temptations and allurements of the gospels of Bertinet and Tartine and I loathe and abominate the works of Hollywood and the colour supplements.  And if anyone dares to ask me what’s on the menu I shall reply “bread” with a curl of the lip and a toss of the head and I’ll enjoy what I bake with the butter running down my chin and the strawberries coasting across the limpid surface of the toast like schooners  in full sail. I know how to live, I do!

On a mission??

A digression on the downside of being rather more opinionated than is good for me. I’ve always been something of a fundamentalist – in the traditional sense of needing always to go back to basics. So there’s an instinctive progression of thoughts and ideas with me that functions like a microclimate. Here’s an instance.

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I’ve been baking bread on and off since we were first married so that’s fifty two years give or take. My first port of call whenever I want to do something or learn a new skill is to read everything I can get my hands on. But not for me the exotic and elaborate confections that please the eye and get photographed in the Sunday supplements . I want to dig down to the simplest instance of my quarry. For years it was a cottage loaf like the ones my mother would occasionally buy at the bakery. It took me about ten years to learn that bread dough positively thrives on a bit of neglect. I was always fiddling, prodding, turning and looking for the trick that would yield the Ur Loaf, the Dead Sea Scroll of the living bread. Eventually I forgot to fiddle, got too busy to prod and neglected a loaf. It was the best I’d ever managed.

But somehow I’d slipped into a puritanical fundamentalism that forbade me even to glimpse at a different way of doing things, or using a new ingredient. I suppose if you’ve ever been forced to eat half-mouldy, wholemeal onion bread (“I’ve never tried this before”) and attempted to control your gag reflex while smiling weakly and saying “mm delicious” you might be suspicious of novelty. But that’s a cop-out, it was me really, clinging to the raft of certainty in a roaring sea of possibilities and ingredients. I wanted a monogamous relationship with the loaf I’d always longed for and only found after a perilous journey through hardship and loss.

Some time ago, because there was nothing else left on the shelf, I bought a sliced loaf (mea culpa) of Bertinet’s sourdough, malted, multi-seeded Notting Hill Carnival bread (I made some of that up!) It was delicious. So I bought a bag of the same sort of flour and baked a loaf in a bread machine. I felt like a complete culinary slapper , but it was good. As Robin (my psychotherapist) would often say to me “what on earth is wrong with that?”. “Never let the perfect drive out the best” – exceptionally good advice for me. My parents abandoned my sister and me to a Primitive Methodist Sunday School when we were young and impressionable, hence the psychoanalytic psychotherapy to help me out of the shackles I was dragging around, like Mendoza dragging his armour and weapons around in “The Mission”.

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Last year I was very much looking forward to the arrival of the Katz book since I became inflamed with the thought of fermenting things. When it arrived I read Michael Pollan’s foreword, and skimmed through the text. Suddenly I was back in the world of the Whole Earth Catalogue and it felt good that in the midst of the madness of Brexit and Trump there are other voices not yet surpassed and crushed by neoliberal orthodoxy. We shall push back with pickled gherkins and sauerkraut!