Monday, November 30, 2009

March 2009: The Pleasures of Bread

Foodies the world over know very well that bread is both a staple part of every diet, and a delicious pleasure that comes in wondrous variety. Every culture seems to think that its own version of bread is the best and looks with sympathy at those of other cultures who seem unable to produce “proper” bread and must make do with the inferior stuff that their bakers supply. Italo-Canadians have long called their English Canadian cousins “mange-cake” because the awful bread they get sliced and wrapped in plastic at the Supermarket looks and tastes more like some sort of cake than real (Italian) bread. When I was crossing the border from Turkey to Greece a few years ago, the Turkish border guard asked not if I had enjoyed the scenic and cultural wonders of his country, but if I would ever be able to eat other bread again now that I had tasted Turkish loaves.

Like beer, bread is made from a very small list of basic ingredients and has been part of the diet of mankind in one form or another for so long that its origins are lost. It has entered our languages, our religions, our art, and our politics, as well as our cultural identities.

All bread produced in Western cultures was at one time “Sourdough” bread – bread produced from a “starter” of flour, water, yeast, and “lactobacillus” that provided not only the rising power but also the distinctive taste of each regional variety of bread. To make a batch of bread, flour and water were added to the starter, mixed, and allowed to rise; a small portion of the dough was then retained as the starter for the next batch (some starters surviving many generations of family bakers). The remaining dough was worked into loaves and baked. This is the method that all bakers used until the 19th century, when scientists began to better understand the leavening process and developed yeasts that could be started quickly and reliably. These “Baker’s Yeasts” quickly became the standard, especially in North America, and sourdough bread, with its stronger taste and heavier texture became an artisanal specialty, produced by only a few bakers, like Jan Campbell-Luxton of Fonthill’s de la Terre Bakery.

Bread baking at home seems, to some extent, to be a matter of temperament or natural instinct. My mother, a wonderful pasty baker, would occasionally tackle bread, and the resulting loaves were more suited to paving than sandwiches. (By the same token, I know of several talented bakers whose breads are without fail light and flavourful, but whose pastry has the texture of a pizza box.) However, there are many aids for the home bread baker now, from starter kits to videos, dedicated TV channels, and shelves full of baking cookbooks that promise to make the process foolproof. And, if all else fails, most bread machines offer step by step instructions that involve nothing more complicated than dumping ingredients into a pan and pressing the start button; the results are very edible and provide the added bonus of a timer that allows the family to wake up to the smell of freshly baked bread (if you can master the complexities of digital timing devices).

There seems to be a resurgence of interest in home bread baking: a neighbour recently loaned me a DVD of Richard Bertinet, whose book Crust has become a bestseller. The video details his unique kneading technique that produces light and airy loaves and his sourdough recipe for gorgeous, rustic country breads. My own favorites are the old reliable Baking with Julia, Julia Child’s 1996 epic, and the 1984 Fannie Farmer Baking Book. But my shameful secret is that I sometimes use their French bread recipes in the “dough” setting of my bread machine and shape the dough into baguettes to bake in the oven instead of following the long and labour-intensive multiple kneading and rising instructions. I may lose my Slow Food membership over this.

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