Still making bread
Three years ago I attended sourdough breadmaking classes, thinking it would change my life to be able to make bread at home. I wasn’t interested in getting off the grid or in keeping chickens. But I did want to know where my flour came from. And I was sick of rushing down to the shop just before closing to buy day-old plastic wrapped bread. Besides I rather liked the idea of the smells wafting round the house.
So I spent a day with a master baker in the Midlands – paid a visit to a wind-powered flour mill – and came home with a jar of sourdough starter. After baking a good many bricks, and lowering my family’s expectations dramatically, within a couple of months I’d got the hang of it.
Partly I got the hang of it by forgetting much of what I’d been taught. I’ve always been bad with instructions and this experience was no different. The main thing I decided was that breadmaking had to adapt to the life that I was already living, rather than the other way round. And so I made up a few rules of my own and let the rest take care of itself.
If I made bread the way the master baker taught me three years ago there is no way that I’d still be making bread today. I just wouldn’t have time to do it – being a slave to fermenting times would have tripped me up long ago. Instead I imagined myself back in colonial times, when making bread was a necessity to be fitted in alongside feeding the chooks and taking the washing to the stream. And it worked. The loaves still came out of the oven looking happy – perhaps a little sourer than shop-bought sourdough loaves, and if I was outside gardening they gained a slightly harder crust, but no more.
However I do understand why more people don’t make their own bread. Good flour isn’t cheap. Busy lives don’t flex for breadrising times. And yes, it is a hassle scrubbing sticky flour from my hands. But really the hassle goes deeper than this. Every time I put on my apron, throw a teatowel across the table and pour in flour, starter, salt and water, there’s a moment when I look into the bowl and feel slightly hopeless. How, I ask myself, can this mucky mixture – like something from the sandpit – ever come together to form a dough that I can handle and shape? And I know it’s not just me that has these feelings because the same expression flashes across my son’s and daughter’s faces when I ask them to mix the dough.
Every time I stand in front of my earthenware bowl with wooden spoon in hand I feel a moment of despair at the task before me – even though there has never been a time when the bread mixture hasn’t come together to form a dough that I can handle. I may have to add extra water or flour, but eventually it always does that amazing thing called binding – a small lesson that I carry over into the rest of my day.
And when I travel? To be honest there isn’t a day when I’m away that I don’t miss eating homemade sourdough bread. Everything else seems light and fluffy and somehow less real. And it doesn’t ground me in anything like the same way.
If you’re curious to try making your own bread, my advice is to take a class. Making bread is akin to learning to tie your shoelaces, aged three and a half. It’s a practical skill that seems overwhelmingly tricky at the beginning, and only slowly becomes second nature. And you need someone at your side who can give you the confidence to ignore all the things that you don’t need to know at the beginning, so that you can concentrate on relaxing and making something initially difficult, easy.