What have William Cookworthy, my everyday sourdough and organic chemistry got in common?

 

This is not a pub quiz question since it’s so personal no-one else but me could possibly know the answer.

Just for the record, the answer to my silly question is ‘time and temperature’. Actually thanks to David Green, one of the most inspired teachers I ever had, I’ve had William Cookworthy cluttering up my mind for decades in a more or less heroic sort of way. I don’t suppose many people, with the exception of museum curators and porcelain collectors have ever even heard his name but he’s the archetypal eighteenth century rags to riches and back several times Quaker entrepreneur. He was born in Plymouth and was apprenticed to an apothecary in London, but had no money for the coach so he walked there!

To cut a very long story short, back home and supplying ships, he got interested in making porcelain – everyone was at it at the time because there were vast fortunes to be made and lost, and if you could get it right you could become wealthy. He could import one essential ingredient, kaolin i.e. China clay, from America, but it was expensive and without the benefit of any geological maps – William Smith’s first geological survey wasn’t published until 1815 – Cookworthy found the mineral on Tregonning Hill in Cornwall. I went there once hoping to find some China clay, and it was just another gorse covered Cornish hill but I remember the smell of coconut from the warm blossom and the sound of stonechats interrogating the earth. 

Was it luck or a sharp eye with Cookworthy?  It was said that he got the idea from watching tin smelters patching up their furnaces and asked the tinners where they got the clay from. China clay is very pure and free from metal oxides and so it didn’t stain the porcelain or add impurities to the tin. The purity meant it could be taken to previously unattainable temperatures. My personal connection is that Cookworthy eventually bought a share in the Bristol Pottery which, when I was a child, was known as Pountneys and our next door neighbour, Jim French, was a glaze dipper there –  a beautiful illustration of six degrees of separation. 

The early porcelain makers soon discovered that the secret of making it was that both time and temperature were involved, and they were instrumental in much of the early research into minerals – there’s an amazing display of various ores in Truro museum. If you have a small propellor emerging from the top of your head – like me –  you’ll love it, just don’t take your children.

Why is there such a fantastic array of minerals all made from the same basic stuff? Once again, aside from whatever metal oxides and impurities were around at the moment the molten rock emerged from the core of the earth it all depended on time and temperature – how fast did it cool and how long was it in some kind of active phase? What happened to it over the millions of years that followed, was it washed into the sea by erosion, or pressed by the movement of the earth so that it changed its entire structure? That’s why copper can be extracted from a whole array of different minerals. Why did China clay come to be so pure? – I’ve no idea and I don’t suppose William Cookworthy did either, it just worked.

So why bread then? I can produce a batch of morning rolls in two hours by hand.  I suspect that sliced bread, made using the Chorleywood process takes half that time.  A slightly more respectable home made loaf could be done inside a working day, and soda bread in an hour.  But my everyday sourdough takes at least 24 hours and it could be allowed to take more, because breadmaking too is a time and temperature process. We like crusty bread because the crust is often the only part of the loaf with any flavour at all.  But when you leave a sourdough to ferment for 24 hours so many subtle processes are going on that every crumb of the bread is both healthier – white sourdough has roughly the same GI as wholemeal bread – and every crumb tastes rich and round, and is full of the flavour of ripe grain berry. Worth waiting for.

Where’s this all going, then? Well that just leaves my uphill struggle with organic chemistry.  I was getting totally bogged down in the sheer number of compounds out there.  It seemed that every species of herb had dozens of them with unpronounceable names, and it wasn’t until I thought about pottery minerals earlier that an answer of sorts popped into my  my mind, for instance in garlic, alliin reacts with allinase to make allicin, the bit that does you good. Why does it do that?  because when you crush it, the reaction takes place……. and why does it do that? ……… because it can!

Isn’t that so wonderful it could bring you to your knees? The fact that at the atomic level these simple molecules have atomic spaces on them and so like an unimaginably complex lego set they can combine into ever larger and more complicated molecules which might just be the ones we need to make good bread, good porcelain or a cure for human diseases. The time might vary from nanoseconds to aeons, and the temperatures from the icy cold of space to the heat of the sun, but out of these elementary particles emerge the ten thousand things and from the ten thousand things comes the zen saying:

That the self advances and confirms the ten thousand things is called delusion That the ten thousand things advance and confirm the self is called enlightenment. Ten thousand things represents the entire world.

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A single flower from a hyacinth shot with a macro lens. Pure poetry.