Mindfulness makes better bread (and doctors)

IMG_5945

Mornings are my  time. I love pottering around in the kitchen and, of course, it’s the time for kneading the sourdough. Over the years I’ve learned a lot about making bread and one hard lesson, when I was new to the game, was to leave things alone.  I was always prodding, poking and fiddling about with the dough at the time when it most needed leaving alone. But paradoxically I wasn’t paying the kind of minute attention to it at the right time either.

Recipes are essential, but they’re only the start – because it seems every batch of flour can be subtly different from the last in the amount of water it will need to reach the right consistency. So my recipe suggests adding 300g flour to the batter before kneading. In reality it might need anywhere between 320g and 360g to be right for my ‘everyday’ loaf. How I arrive at the exact amount is by trial and error.  300g will give a basic but very sticky mix, and for the first couple of loaves from a new batch I just add flour as I knead.  As time goes on I’ve got a pretty good idea how much I’ll need – today it was 340g, which was spot-on. Clearly different brands of flour can make an even bigger difference.

Frustrating as it may seem, the only way is to gain more experience – it takes time and attention to do it. In my kitchen I judge the consistency of the dough by the way it sticks to the wooden table. If I’m constantly scraping the table it’s too slack. If it’s not sticking at all it’s too firm – you’ll know that anyway because it’s so hard to knead. It’s just right when I stretch the dough, pushing it forwards with the heel of my right hand, while the fingers of the left hand are resting on the back of the dough, ready to make a quarter turn before starting again. The combination of light fingers and just the right adhesion makes the job easy. Too sloppy a dough will stick to the banneton and turn out like a pancake – all crust and no crumb. Too stiff a dough will turn out cleanly but it will have a too dense a crumb. The right consistency will (just) turn out without sticking, and rise triumphantly, the bubbles not being held in by the dough. As a drystone waller I once knew would say to customers who complained about the price – “It’s a pound for the stone and ninety nine pounds for knowing what to do with it!”

Every stage of the baking process prospers when it’s accompanied by minute attention to detail. As any student of Tai Chi or Chinese painting would tell you, true spontaneity springs from constant practice. I love the story of Charlie Parker being blown off the stage by a bunch of far more experienced jazz players when he was sixteen and full of his own importance. They just kept of changing key until ran out  of steam.  His response was to go out and practice until – much later – he was able to go back on stage and blow them off.

Time, patience, practice and multi-sensory attentiveness are prerequisites for good baking and – come to think of it – good medicine as well. I’ve had a minor heart problem for years and I kept going back to the doctors who would do an ECG and tell me that nothing was wrong. They looked at their data – never at me – and told me that it said I wasn’t ill. Over a period of years I never spent more than 10 minutes in the surgery and rarely had any eye contact at all with a doctor.  When we moved here I was advised by a friend to sign up with a practice that trained GP’s because the trainees were often terrifyingly up to date (my friend was a trainer herself). They also get 20 minutes for their appointments rather than 10.  So when it happened again I made an appointment and was assigned to a trainee. 20 minutes later he’d listened to me, he’d arranged for some monitoring via the local hospital and reviewed all my meds. During the 24 hour monitoring period I had four episodes that could have resulted in a heart attack or stroke – and I’d been having them at that rate for years. The technician who looked at the data said that she was always seeing people like me because my problem doesn’t show up on a straightforward ECG. Now I’m taking medication the risk is greatly reduced – just because that inexperienced trainee took time, stepped away from the preconceptions and listened intently to me. Would I prefer a more naturally based regime? – of course, and I’ll do my best to move sensibly in that direction, but for now it’s the pills.

So here’s a thought.  While we agitate constantly for new, expensive technology based medicine, would there be any mileage in training so many more GP’s that they had time to spend half an hour getting to know the big picture of the patients’ lives? That extra ten minutes may have saved mine and given me the time to learn more about making bread. I love the NHS and I feel for the overloaded GP’s who know they’re not giving what they’re capable of because they need more funding. And they also need a new kind of training that develops those scary skills like attentiveness, empathy and appreciation for the whole person ….. oh and let’s have a bit less hostility to four millennia of good old human experience.

 

Ordinary – must clean the hob!

IMG_20191119_092759My mother was very good at the forensic gaze. This morning’s kitchen would have troubled her, I’m certain, but I didn’t even notice that it’s pretty filthy until I put it on the screen. That’s the way of things, I suppose – most of our interiors (mental as well as domestic) would look pretty grubby and a bit random if we were to examine them with the cold eye of a picture editor. But we don’t, and I took the photo to remind myself of the great joys of the ordinary over and against the set-piece strutting that we’d prefer to have you believe about us.

The kettle rarely comes off the hob.  The Potwell Inn, surprisingly perhaps, runs on tea.  Recently we’ve increased our repertore of tea – black tea in the mornings, green tea most of the day and chamomile tea at night.  Since we took a break from the booze we feel better, sleep better and – well – drink tea. The way I make porridge would annoy all purists, GP’s and food faddists – made, as it is, with full cream milk, salt, and eaten with a bit of sugar.  However it lasts all day and reduces fridge-raiding which tends to involve lumps of cheese, so I suppose – on balance – it’s largely neutral. Today the kefir was left sulking in the fridge because it was the coldest night of the season so far and we both fancied something hot.

The loaf of bread is my cover for the grubby hob.  It wasn’t taken out of the oven until late yesterday evening. It was one of those doughs that wasn’t quite right – a bit soft but not at all sticky; not sticky that is, until I came to tip it out of the banneton when it growled at me and refused to budge. After a little stand-off I finally dragged it out, but it left a substantial dollop of dough behind and the loaf itself was far too soft to slash in the usual way, so it had a homeopathic tickle with the knife and went into the oven.  I’ve discovered over the years that making bread needs a similar mindset to making raku pottery.  Letting things be seems to work best. However the whole process involved a good deal of escaping rice flour – which is usually the best for releasing the dough from the banneton – mess which I couldn’t be bothered to clear up apart from a cursory wipe with a cloth before bed.

The ordinary, the homely is the warp of the enterprise of being human and the experiences of the day are the weft.  Together they make cloth – in my case probably some sort of rough old drill and in yours, possibly, evanescent silk. I hacked a crust off the loaf this morning and it was lovely – it was individual; itself. Like Ryokan’s poetry.

It’s 60p for the flour and £3 for knowing what to do with it.

IMG_6156

I’m adapting the reply from a drystone waller I knew, to a suburban incomer who had queried the price of a new wall “because it’s only made from stones”. Of course there are foods like caviar that can cost the earth (in every sense), but for the most part the raw materials cooks begin with are modest. It’s the alchemy of cooking that turns the base metal of the raw ingredients into something a lot better, if not gold.

I was musing on this today as I dried the old Pyrex bowl that I’ve always used for proving bread dough.  It was part of a set given to us as a wedding present, so it’s almost 53 years old and very scratched. All the other parts of the set have been dropped and broken over the years, but this one piece survives  and gets used twice or three times a week. Of course, logically the age or composition of the bowl can have no impact whatever on the rising of dough aside from the sentimental pleasure of using it.  To be honest, if I had an old slipware bowl of the same size I’d use that – but I haven’t got one.  The familiarity of old and trusted tools is only peripheral to the main task, but anyone who’s mislaid a favourite knife will know how difficult the most ordinary jobs can become.

I write a lot about food, but I don’t think I’ve ever written a recipe.  There are hundreds of bloggers who do, and I wish them the best of good fortune, but I can never quite figure out why some things work for me and – more importantly – how to get it down on the page. Take my ragu recipe, for instance.  This may be completely bonkers, but I think chopping the vegetables by hand with a very sharp knife gives a different and better flavour than whacking them into a food processor. Hand chopped onions don’t stew in the way they would if they were processed. It’s just possible that the way I chop them might make a difference, but how would I explain that in words without making cookery sound like nuclear engineering?

There are hundreds of little actons that go together to make a dish.  My mother taught me to judge the right thickness of a Yorkshire pudding batter from the sound it makes – it has to be just the right sound, and even though these days I always use a stick blender I still resort to a spoon to sound out the thickness – flop, flop, flop – perfect. I once asked a man in a Chinese supermarket what was the difference betwen ‘soy superior’ and ‘superior soy’? He simply picked up a bottle of each type and rotated it back and forth in his hand without saying a word. Point taken; it was all in the thickness.

So when it comes to sourdough – which is surrounded by a miasma of completely unnecessary magick anyway – my own recipe is utterly unoriginal, and adapted from a dozen or so books that mostly amounted to the same thing. In fact I change it all the time because I like doing experiments and, with a few exceptions, it tastes better than anything you could buy in a shop. I could be micro-critical of the loaf in the photo, the crust was a bit too thick because I forgot to turn the oven down, but that just gave me an incenive to be more careful. In matters of hydration – the proportion of water to flour – the only proper recipe would have to admit “it all depends”. You can only properly figure that out as you knead (yes I knead: not for me the desperately sloppy sticky method!).

But in my imaginary recipe, how do I express how the dough feels when it’s ‘right’? I always start with the same proportions which gives a sticky dough, and then, depending on the circumstances, I’ll add more flour a bit at a time until it feels right – and feeling right is a whole world of experience. I’ve never watched a ‘real’ baker knead dough, so I just use the same technique I used for clay. I hold the dough with the fingers of the left hand and and then push the mass out, stretching it with the heel of my right hand in a rhythmic movement using my whole upper body.  Then I rotate the whole mass by 90 degrees with the left hand and repeat the stretching action – it sounds much more complicated than it really is. To begin with it’s always too sticky so I use a flat scraper to release it from the table and keep going until the dough forms a coherent mass.  At that point I start to knead in small quantities of flour – a little at a time, and I judge when the dough is right just from the feel and from the way it sticks to the table. At the outset it all sticks horribly, but when it’s just right only the bit under my fingers attaches to the table. The dough, when it’s ready is still sticky but just – and only just – manageable. I sometimes wet my hands to move it into the bowl to prove. I suppose I could work out the exact hydration by weighing everything, but to be honest the composition of the flour can be a bit variable.  I had a miller friend who would not mill flour until he felt it was right – wheat grains have their personalities too.

And then there’s the proving, the moving to a banneton , the second proving and the cutting and baking.  Even what I’ve written makes it all sound so daunting and yet it’s easy – which is why I don’t do recipes. Do it, and then do it again and again and it’ll come right; no magic just experience.

You have to eat your peck of dirt

But not eating it won’t help you live longer

IMG_5937

It was my turn to prep the veg tonight.  We’d brought back a red cabbage, the last of the summer broccoli, carrots, beans – the usual suspects at this time of year – and they all went into the sink for a swill.  Generally we give the leaf veg a quick soak in salted water so any beasties float to the top – a couple of well fed slugs surfaced tonight. The carrots had got a mild attack of carrot fly and rather than reject them all I cut the iffy bits out – you probably know the score.  We cut any green bits off the potatoes but unless they’re green right through we eat the rest. Blackfly, whitefly, caterpillars we see them all and we try not to cook them, but if one or two slip through the net we don’t worry.  It’s an organic allotment and we don’t inundate our crops with chemicals, we just take the pests off. We don’t peel if we can help it and we don’t even scrub them with abrasive pads because ……

everybody needs to eat their *peck of dirt before they die –

Some are so fearful of dirt and bugs that I’ve even heard of people spraying lettuce with antibacterial spray but sadly the converse of the proverb isn’t true at all.  Not eating your peck of dirt might impoverish your immune system of challenges and make you less resistant to infections – I remember our GP saying years ago that we all washed far too much and then got skin problems. If the evidence of the Potwell Inn kitchen is anything to go by, we’re wading through an invisible soup of micro-organisms every day.  We use them to make bread and pickles and to preserve food for the winter. Our kefir helps to keep our gut healthy and it’s everywhere apparent that our immersion in the creatures with which we’ve evolved is, by and large an essential part of remaining well. I was reading this week that even the somewhat messy events of our birth can give our immune sytem a head start.

By way of a caveat I should say that there ae some micro-organisms that should be avoided.  My particular bitter experience has given me a useful aversion to campylobacter, which I’ve had three times – probably making me a candidate for the Darwin award. In every case I’d eaten processed chicken which I’d barbecued badly — that’s to say on the outside of the grill and in a strong wind. Yet another reason for thinking carefully about cheap meat! But a bit of ordinary dirt, or the occasional accidentally boiled caterpillar doesn’t pose an existential threat nearly as great as a kitchen full of chemicals and a careless chef.

And just to add an amusing postscript to my solemn pronouncements on sourdough loaves, I mentioned at the weekend that I’d started a loaf to cheer myself up after the theft of our coldframes. In my haste I forgot to put the usual 20% of soft plain flour into the mix, and so I was hoping that the resulting loaf would prove my theory that what’s needed is to lower the protein content of the flour a bit in order to get that sought-after open texture, and provide me with a ‘with’ and ‘without’ side by side photo so I could brag about my scientific method. However nature stepped in and I seem to have created two almost identical loaves. Ah well, I’m not as clever as I thought – as if I didn’t know that already!

*And if you were wondering, a peck is 1/4 bushel – but we all knew that didn’t we?  In American dry measure it’s 8 quarts, which is a lot to eat all at once so it’s probaby best to spread the load over a long healthy lifetime.

 

 

When in doubt – cook!

Well it took a bit of time to get going, but we spent the day with our family – sons, partners and grandchildren to celebrate a seventh birthday with Sunday lunch, birthday cake and presents; junior membership of the RSPB, inexpensive binoculars, a microscope; you get the picture – no pressure whatever.  Our son (not the proud dad one), who’s a bit of a prankster in these matters, had to be persuaded to drop the idea of a (pregnant) rabbit or a mixed pair of African snails, but there’s always another year!  No one ever quite captures the quiet joy of getting along together or the dubious pleasures of  “here comes the farmer” accompanied by screams of pleasure and “again Grandad”. Families don’t always work, and ours has had its share of ups and downs, but when fair family weather comes along it’s worth celebrating.

Home again in the relative silence of the flat, I weighed out the tomatoes we picked yesterday ready for another big batch – probably 10 litres of what we call “Hazan number one” – a sauce so good you could eat it without the pasta. Just now that might be a relief because we’ve had pasta for supper three nights on the trot, testing out freezable recipes for rainy days. I’d love to increase our repertoire to a dozen sauces because they can be used to beef up vegetarian recipes without the beef.  Pru Leith does an excellent vegetable stock in her “Vegetable Bible”, and I’m slowly being convinced that the move towards eating less meat doesn’t in any way mean sacrificing rich flavours.

Then, the nuclear option for cheering myself up – I started a sourdough loaf that will be ready to bake in just over 24 hours. The sight and smell of a newly baked loaf is one of the most cheering sights in the world – simple but life enhancing. If they knew how good this feels they’d tax it or make it illegal.

Do feel free to pass on the message!

 

Sourdough? – bring it on!

I overheard a young bloke in the supermarket the other day explaining to his girlfriend that one particular brand of something or other was better ‘because it was higher in protein’.  Most of us who have struggled to bake a sourdough loaf that looks and tastes like the ones that go for £3.50 at the local ‘artisan’ bakery, have turned instinctively to higher protein flours.  Protein is the ingredient that turns into gluten and gluten is the stringy substance that gives the loaf texture; holds it all together.  If you’ve ever tried to make bread with ‘soft’ (low protein) cake flour you’ll have seen the result is far from satisfactory – it tastes like cake – drrr.

Industrial bakers like high protein flours because, as someone in the industry once said, ‘it’s the cheapest way of making water stand up’. But most industrial bread is densely textured and fine grained.  The enviable artisan sourdough of our dreams has a much more open texture whilst still maintaining strength and texture.  The answer is so simple it’s almost unbelievable. The best way to get a loaf like the ones at the bakery is to substitute about 20% of the total high protein flour with soft ‘cake’ flour. I can’t give exact figures because it will depend on the particular bread flour you have, but trust me I’ve experimented for years and this does the trick.  When you see sourdough loaves advertised as containing ‘three flours’  it’s probably nothing more secret or complicated than the mixture of high and low protein flour in the main mix with the small amount of rye flour in the starter. What the soft flour does is to weaken the gluten to the exact point where it will allow the big bubbles to develop.

I’ve totally given up on the idea of 100% wholemeal sourdough.  Maybe I’m thick, but every time I’ve tried it, (dozens), it’s come out like a doorstop. If you believe that eating nice food is a foody distraction, and if you can afford to get your snapped off teeth crowned regularly that won’t be a problem. I remember the ‘Grant Loaf’ from the 60’s and 70’s.  It was certainly a bit of a statement then, although modern bakers seem to be claiming to have invented it. They’re not trying to do it with soft wholemeal flour, though.

This loaf takes about 24 hours from start to finish and the best advice is to leave it alone as much as possible. Of all those hours, I don’t suppose the actual amount of kitchen time amounts to more than an hour, and that includes baking. It’s made with organic flour, tap water, seasalt and a tablespoon of olive oil and the levain was started years ago with a little bit of rye flour and whatever it was that blew in through the window.  The biggest downside is that it tastes so good we eat a lot more of it than we should.  There is a slight glimmer of hope, though.  It seems that white sourdough bread has a similar GI (glycaemic index) to wholemeal, i.e. it doesn’t make your blood sugar skyrocket.  Naturally the homemade jam on it does but hey! …

 

Welcome back, old friend

IMG_5274The oven, having been pretty much out of action for a month has been repaired and this was the first sourdough loaf I’ve been able to bake during that time. Judging by the amount of spring and the look of the crust, it hasn’t been heating properly for ages and consequently the steam function wasn’t working either. Terry, the repair man, hadn’t tackled one like this before but with a combination of laptop, owners manual and persistence he dismantled the door and replaced the broken part. And so the household routine and the proving/kneading regime harmonised once more so that with very little effort the loaf was started early yesterday morning and the loaf came out of the oven around mid-morning today in time for us to go up to the allotment until 5.00pm.

This is an absolute mongrel of a recipe involving rye flour, bread flour and soft cake flour along with a little sea salt, a tiny bit of olive oil and a starter that I made years ago and just keeps going. After experimenting for years this, finally, is a loaf that Madame really likes and so we don’t waste any and it’s never around long enough to go stale. Coincidentally it also makes the best panzanella ever during the summer when we have plenty of basil and tomatoes.

This principal, of growing and cooking things we really like seems to me to be one of the best justifications for the Potwell Inn kitchen. Bearing in mind that I was five when post-war rationing finally ended, I simply didn’t have any exposure to any imported vegetables and fruits.  I was 21 before I tasted garlic and so my life in food has been one revelation after another. Our children take food diversity for granted and their generation (two of them are chefs) has evolved ever more baroque affectations to tickle the palate.  But for me Escoffier was always right – “Faites Simple” should be a battle cry against ornamentation, and so I’ve always preferred the simplest ways of preparing the best quality ingredients, and if we can grow them ourselves that’s even better. Fortunately I’m a cook not a chef and so the Potwell Inn kitchen has an exclusive clientele of two most of the time and occasional guests now and then.  And if anyone turns up their nose because there isn’t a cold smoked quail’s egg balanced on top of three game chips and trio of sausages, they don’t get asked back!

So with bread under the belt, as it were, we were off to the allotment where the pea netting was put up, the potatoes were ridged up and a good deal of potting up and transplanting was done. It’s been an exceptionally dry year so far and although we’ve had a couple of soakings, I was surprised when I was planting out young lettuces at just how dry the soil is.  It’s lovely that we can enjoy the warm sunshine but it’s odd to be needing to water quite as much as we do.

Meanwhile the coldframes and greenhouse are full of young plants looking for a permanent space to grow in and the asparagus is throwing up more and more fronds. We shan’t take any more this year but feed it up and mollycoddle the bed in the hope of even greater rewards next season.

Thinking space at the Potwell Inn

IMG_4384After a lifetime of being up at 5.30am we’re now a lot gentler on ourselves, and I generally get up at 7.00.  When we were both working full-time, Madame would leave the house at 7.00am and then I would have a couple of hours to think, read and write before the random demands of the day commanded my attention. But now those precious couple of hours have settled into a new routine where I get up and make tea for us both, and then I head for the kitchen or my ‘study’. As long as I supply occasional coffee and stick my head around the door now and again Madame is happy to read while I get on with my thing which is noodling around.

IMG_4272It’s surprising how much time it takes to feed the sourdough starter, check all the seedlings and make sure they’re happy, strain and feed the kefir and, on bread days, knead dough.  Then there’s reading and planning and working out what’s needed on the allotment and what we need to eat most urgently.

Allotmenteers live by a rather different set of food rules because – if we’re not going to waste the things we’ve grown – we need to even out supply and demand either by eating more of the vegetable in surplus, or by preserving it in some way against the day when there’s none of it to be had. In late summer we look at the enormous purple sprouting broccoli plants that have occupied their inordinately large patch of ground for an eternity, and wonder why we bother.  We’re inundated with all the good things the autumn can give us and we find it hard to fast forward to a day like today when we’re longing to have the first taste.

Although we’ve still got kale, savoy cabbages and red cabbage in the ground they represent last season and the broccoli is a foretaste of new, tender growth.  But that leaves the problem of what to do with the laggards of the last season. The answer today is to cut one of the larger savoy cabbages and make sauerkraut. IMG_4828Yes, as Madame pointed out, you normally make it with gigantic summer cabbages that weigh 25lbs and need a whole barrel to themselves; but I don’t see why you shouldn’t make a couple of pounds with a Savoy and see what happens. After all, theoretically, you can ferment anything with enough carbohydrate in it to get the process going. So I’m off to the allotment this morning to check whether the drip watering system in the greenhouse worked earlier on, to take the temperature of the hot bed (they’re like children, you know), and to cut the cabbage and bring it back to the kitchen.

My wonderful cistern watering device needed a tweak first thing because I’d attached the supply strip to the wrong side of the cork and there was too much of it submerged.  This hi-tech gadgetry is very demanding! The weather here at the Potwell Inn in beautiful, but difficult for us gardeners because it combines growth inducing warm days with frost at night – a potentially dangerous combination, but yesterday we had our first picnic of the year on the plot.  Being at the bottom of the slope we get less direct sun than our neighbours at the top but on the other hand we’re protected from high winds by the same trees that take our sun.  The worst problem is that we’re in a frost pocket which demands attention to our earliest crops – we use a lot of fleece. As we left we noticed that the site was busy with allotmenteers but there wasn’t a lot of work going on.  It was catchup time – another of the hidden benefits of growing things.

Sulking sourdough and marmalade

IMG_3535It’s inevitable when you make bread regularly that just now and again you’ll get a batch that refuses to play. This isn’t just a problem with home baking – I can remember many occasions when we lived in a large village that still had its own bakery, and occasionally there would be a queue outside the door because Brian (the baker) was having problems with an overnight batch. You could hardly blame lack of experience in his case because he’d been baking in the family business since the days when he delivered the bread to the outlying hamlets in a horse and cart. A dud batch can affect anyone.

In my instance yesterday it was entirely my own fault because I didn’t feed the starter as I usually do, 24 hours before mixing the sponge. Cue for a sluggish fermentation that really never caught up and a dense loaf that just felt wrong at every stage from kneading onwards. It still tasted alright but fell short in every other respect.

In the past I’ve lost a batch through using out-of-date yeast and even well out of date flour. Sometimes being thrifty just lands up wasting time and money. The weather and the temperature can have a huge impact and the smaller the batch the bigger and more rapid the effect can be.  A large batch can withstand sitting in a cold draught for ten minutes where a small, one loaf batch will plummet in temperature.  Too much salt will slow a fermentation right down and spoil the flavour anyway and then, keeping a benevolent but not fussy eye on the way things are going can prevent a loaf from blowing.  Sourdough, being a slower method, won’t be hurried whereas adding extra yeast to a yeast bread can speed things up at the expense of keeping quality. The same goes for sugar which is quite unnecessary in sourdough anyway. I’m sure any of these variables could be eliminated with a pile of measuring instruments but I’d never bother. Mistakes are a great teacher.

IMG_4830The season for cod roe seems to have come and gone without me spotting any at all  but as for marmalade I had an email from Potwell Inn friend Mags who had read my piece a couple of weeks ago.  She tells me she boils the fruit whole for 2 hours before removing the pulp into a muslin bag and slicing the peel.  She says it’s less time consuming and in any case makes better flavoured marmalade with less sugar – so tomorrow I’ll give it a go and report back on the results. The new batch demands another dozen new jars – I really thought we’d never have to buy another jar or lid but somehow all this preserving and pickling has used them all.

Daily bread!

IMG_4819Here 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.