There – I thought that the headline would attract some small interest! The loaf, by the way, is a fifty fifty wholemeal/white sourdough mix that I made last year. As you see, it makes a lovely – if rather close textured loaf – but I rarely bake it because the flavour is so intense it tends to overwhelm whatever you eat it with. Our everyday recipe is a combination of rye starter with organic white flour which, over 36 hours, develops a lovely rich wheat flavour without shouting at you. Barely a week passes without me learning something new about baking and although occasionally when I’m in a tearing hurry I’ll use the bread machine (I’m not a fundamentalist Sourdough Savonarola), slow is always best, and if – through lousy organisation or sheer idleness – I resort to the supermarket, I invariably experience buyers’ remorse.
Any sort of food, but particularly bread, seems to embrace far more than calories and glycaemic index. It forms a cultural space where memories and experiences jostle with history; even sociology and anthropology. Hearth, home and heritage; journeys abroad or even unexpected food closer to the kitchen all combine in a cloud of metaphor, where cooking and eating become a performance that can wake you out of lethargy or melancholia and set you on your feet again.
Last night we watched a lovely Greek film called “Green Sea” which explains perfectly what I’m struggling to write. It concerns a woman who has completely lost her memory apart from being able to cook despite having no sense of taste. She washes up at a working peoples’ seaside cafe and cooks food so beautiful that it brings alive, occasionally to tears, the people who eat it. It not only recovers the memories of the customers but it eventually restores her own when she has an epiphanic experience with a teaspoon of honey!
You may have noticed that I read a lot of books. On my desk at the moment are MFK Fisher’s “The Gastronomical Me”; “Welsh Food Stories” by Carwyn Graces, “Welsh Fare” by S Minwel Tibbott; “Beard on Bread” by James Beard and the recently published “English Food” by Diane Purkiss. On the shelves there are many dozens more. These are all books that explore so much more than recipes – but express cultures too. Films, in many ways, have a unique part to play in this exploration. I could – off the tip of my tongue – name ‘Couscous’, ‘Chocolat’, and Stanley Tucci’s ‘Big Night’ in which there’s a wonderful single shot scene involving his character cooking an omelette from scratch whilst conducting an argument with his brother. There’s ‘Babette’s Feast’, ‘Julie and Julia’ also starring Stanley Tucci with Meryl Streep and more recently ‘Bear’. Then there’s ‘Bagdad Cafe‘ – I could go on for ages. One day when I’m in the mood I’ll make a list.
So now, finally, I get to the pancheon thing. For fifty five years to the month, every loaf I’ve baked was proved in a Pyrex bowl. It was a wedding present given to us by my mother’s closest wartime friend. It’s grown into an icon for me; scratched to the point where I can barely see through it. But I’ve recently become so paranoid about breaking it that I’m finding it increasingly hard to use. It’s the only object whose use spans our entire marriage and I’ve got this irrational fear that something terrible will happen if I drop it. I’ve written before about my mother’s “little sharp knife” – a unique piece of bone handled but otherwise inconsequential wartime utility ware – that does it too. The few dressmaking knick knacks I still have from her working years – thimble, pincushion and so on have the same quality – and the sound of a sewing machine in the next door flat send me into rapturous childhood memories.
I need a new proving bowl, but finding one has become faintly obsessive. Fifty years ago I visited one of the few surviving local slipware potteries in the country at Wrecklesham. It finally closed down about ten years later after the claypit was sold off for housing land and the market for traditional slipware collapsed under the competition of pyrex, melamine and more glamorous (?) kitchenware, oh and the complete absence of skilled throwers . I’ll write more about that visit another day. They were still – just about – making a few pancheons for trendy interior decorations but they were way above what we could afford.
I’ve looked on and off for years for one, but the problem is that they’re very expensive when bought from antique shops and – not knowing when they were made – there’s always the suspicion that they’re lead glazed. Any acidic food left in them could lead to lead poisoning. It’s a shame because that glorious amber coloured and unctuous glaze is quite difficult to replicate without lead flux. But then, miraculously and almost certainly due to the surge of interest in home baking during Covid, one or two potteries have seen the gap in the market and begun to produce hand thrown slipware pancheons once again. Why bother? Well, for all the reasons at the top of this piece. Of course you can prove your dough in any old container, but bread making occupies a cultural space as well as the usual culinary one; and those of us who bake get tremendous pleasure from working within that almost extinct culture using traditional tools and equipment, and of course I trained as a potter when I was young – which is why I visited Wrecclesham all those years ago. Buying a new pancheon joins two of the threads of my life together. Best of all I’ve found a pottery less than twenty miles away that’s making them and as soon as they reopen in January I’ll be down there to check them out (fussy customer!) and if they’re good – and they look very good online – I’ll retire the Pyrex bowl and start afresh. It won’t do anything for the bread but it’ll do a lot for me.
More recently we found a potter called Nathalie Hubert down in St Quentin la Poterie in Provence and we bought some of her lovely oven/tableware which radiates sunshine into our flat whenever we use it, and then we invariably begin to talk about our travels there. Cooking, eating and sharing memories over a few glasses is at the heart of human thriving – not an optional extra for the wealthy. In fact the wealthy always lose out because they don’t have to struggle to learn the skills and find the money, they just flash the wad and it all falls into their laps, and straight out again. Of course it’s hard work excavating history, reading, practising, watching, talking and learning from the people who really know. But as Aneurin Bevan once famously said to a heckler – “If you’d just shut up and listen you might leave this place slightly less stupid than when you came in”