STAFF OF LIFE


Beside soup and possibly love, bread is perhaps the greatest source of sustenance the world has ever known. You can’t live on love alone, but it is possible to live on soup and bread.

It was 9:00 o’clock on a sunny summer morning when a small group of bright-eyed women, aprons in hand, converged on my kitchen, all intent upon taking home a loaf of their very own homemade bread for dinner. It wasn’t a regular cooking class, just a few curious friends interested in finding out what was so mysterious about a food which had sustained humans from nearly every culture since they stumbled out of their caves. We were doing different yeast recipes, and each woman took her choice of one.

The variety of bread around the world is mind-boggling. From tortillas from Mexico to the airy croissant of Paris, each have their place in history and on our dinner tables.

Bread is politically correct, not caring if you are a Democrat or a Republican, or a Catholic or Jew. A few yeast cells in a bowl of flour and some water, in a suitable length of time, can transport you to nirvana. The added pleasure of bread making is the glorious smell of baking bread, better to me than the most expensive bottled perfume.

*******************************************************************************************************************************************

Once on a rainy morning in Paris a line of people drew me into the convention hall opposite Notre Dame cathedral where a large group of professional bakers were contending for prizes in their particular offerings. A good many were making sculptural renditions with bread dough. There were baskets, animals, flowers, etc. All impractical but beautiful.

The divine smell combined with the excitement and chatter of the great number of onlookers all engrossed in watching the expertise of the various bakers, was a morning I won’t forget. If you are a bread baker, or if your mother or grandmother supplied your daily bread you will know what I mean.

A week or so ago, I had made two kinds of bread plus a few jars of apricot jam. A grandson stopped by and promptly relieved me of a jar of jam and a loaf of bread. Clearly the smell of one or both were too much for him. I well remember my mother’s kitchen on baking day. It was like waiting for Christmas to come before she would allow me to cut into the warm loaf and slather it with jelly. It was a nice beacon to get me to hurry home from school on those days.

***********************************************************************************************************************************

In my own kitchen on our communal baking day, the several bowls were rising nicely except for one disappointed lady, whose dough looked sullen and unhappy with its situation in the bowl, so we had a vote and decided it might be better to toss it in the waste bin and she could try again. Given the unpredictability of yeast dough, the silly thing began to rise nicely while nestled comfortably among the leftover cabbage leaves! Not that it was planned, but cabbage can make a good biga, otherwise known as a yeast starter. Serendipitous.

We keep our kitchens so sanitary, and have all sorts of modern equipment to make baking fast and fun. We fuss over the dough trying to make it perfect. But yeast has a mind of its own and will do whatever it pleases.

In my first summer of staying with the Pueblo, I became part of the morning baking for the village. There were six of us working together to make about twenty-four loaves.

After the dough was mixed and while it was rising, a number of pieces of wood went into the beehive oven, and when the heat felt right and charred a small piece of paper, the dough went in. No timer, no thermometer, no bread pans, nothing fancy. When someone figured it was right, the first loaf came out and was thumped to see how it sounded, and it was pronounced done. Their people had been making bread the same way for centuries.

***************************************************************************************************************************************

My friend whose dough took a vacation in the wastebin, reminded me of that day recently. I don’t know if any of them still make bread, but I do. Every week. Drop over sometime and have a warm slice with butter and jam.

THE WONDER OF BREAD


The joyful pealing of the bells of Notre Dame de Paris formed a beautiful musical accompaniment to an early morning cafe au lait and beckoned us across the Pont Neuf in spite of the pouring rain.  A frequent and sudden occurrence in Spring, some people were equipped with umbrellas, and others like me just got wet.

A large tent set up across the square from the cathedral pleaded for us to join the group who were hurrying in to get out of the rain.

Our senses were immediately assaulted by the delicious warm smells of baking bread.  We had stumbled into one of those memorable moments of travel I’m always talking about.  This time a competition of Paris bakers.

There were at least fifty bakers plying their trade, some wearing the toque blanche, and all offering an invitation to tasteThe variety of things made with bread dough was amazing; baguettes, rolls, loaves of many shapes, and even sculptured flowers and an Eiffel Tower.

Meanwhile, the sound of the bells and the rain on the roof of the tent, mixed with the warm and comforting smells made me feel I could stay in there forever enfolded in the familiar and sensual scent.  Much better than French perfume.

I am a bread baker.  Some of my most delightful memories are of bread baking in my mother’s and my grandmother’s kitchens.  I hope those same memories live in my children’s memories of my kitchen.

Bread actually is the staff of life.  Every culture has been making bread of some kind since the beginning of time.  The ingredients are so incredibly simple I can’t understand why everyone doesn’t make it.  Flour, water, yeast and maybe some salt for taste.  Yeast flies around in the air begging people to use it to make their bread rise (or their beer ferment).  You can even make your own sourdough by fermenting grapes.  Just put them in a cloth bag, bash them about a bit,  add some flour and wait a couple of weeks.  Voila! yeast!  Of course you can buy it already packaged, and it would be faster but not nearly as much fun.

Not for nothing do they call it your “daily bread”, it has sustained people all over the world for millenia.  The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam touts “A loaf of bread, a jug of wine, and thou beside me singing in the wilderness”.  Possibly the reason they were doing so much singing had something to do with the jug of wine.

The slang word for money is of course “bread” and we absolutely do need that!  So put your money on homemade bread, it’s a Wonder.