(It's Sunday again. NotMiscellany time:)
Nearly thirty years ago, we came back from seeking our fortune in Boston to a job with career prospects in Britain – the Irish economy was then battened down in the last recession. In America, we’d been spoiled by choice in the miles of aisles in the supermarket two blocks away, so it took me a while to track down a decent wholemeal loaf in Newcastle Upon Tyne. The bakery was across the street from work and I was able to pick up a loaf during my lunch break or on the way home. The rhythm of this convenient arrangement was shattered when that bakery was taken over by a chain with pretensions towards world domination and my preferred loaf was no longer available – “there’s no demand” they said. So I got on my bike and cycled a mile in the wrong direction to track down another Mom and Pop bakery whose idea of what constituted bread coincided with mine. Only a few months later these venerable artisans retired and I was snookered again. But not for long. “How difficult can it be?” I asked myself, “like German beer, bread has only four ingredients – flour, water, yeast and salt – and only the first two (think chapatti) are essential”. After some trial and very little tribulation, my next bread-driven bike run was out along the coast road to an industrial park where I purchased 500 grams of dried yeast and a 10 kilo sack of strong white flour.
Apart from the occasional baguette, a very occasional sliced pan, I’ve baked all the bread for our family since – and he’s never had a lesson in his life. The thing is that it’s not difficult and bread is remarkably forgiving. Much easier than mixing cement. If you slop in too much water and there’s no flour left in the bin, then add oats. Add oats anyway; or wheat-flakes or rye flour; poppy or sesame seeds; onions, tomatoes or olive oil; raisins or chocolate chips. But you’ll find that there’s nothing better than a long-kneaded, well fermented, slightly over-proved plain wheat-meal loaf. You’re meant to bake most standard sized loaves at 200oC for 40 minutes but if you get caught up with something else and the bread bakes for an hour and 40 minutes it’s still edible – robust, crusty – but still edible. If the gas runs out after 25 minutes, it’s edible too; although you may need to finish the centre slices off in the toaster.
A few of years ago my second daughter read the packet of the standard 2 kilos of strong white flour that I now buy in the supermarket. “Suitable for bread-makers” she quoted. “What else would it be suitable for?” I asked, indignantly waving my floury hands in the air, “whitewash?”. Then I realised that they meant bread machines and my shoulders sagged. The message was that bread-making was so technically difficult and/or time-consuming that it required a machine to carry out the task. Well honestly! Even I can do it. Don’t get me wrong, I can understand wanting a bread-machine if you’re a not-a-morning person: you can load it up at night and set it on a timer so that you wake up to the smell of fresh bread but the loaf is a weird shape and the machine doesn’t bake baps.
But it is plain wrong to say that making yeast bread takes a lot of your time. My grandmother, along with many true-born Irish women, was able to throw together a loaf of soda bread in ten minutes from setting down her shopping basket, taking off her coat and getting an apron on – less if the apron was in the wash. Sure, yeast bread is not instant gratification: it takes more elapsed time than soda bread but each step in the process is separated by long chunks of intervention-free time when the vitamins are slowly released and the carbon-dioxide develops a perfect crumb. Waiting makes the finished product taste so much better and disappear so much quicker.
Every loaf is different, every loaf is good – baking it is a piece of cake.