Our daily bread
Since the advent of breadmakers, it doesn’t surprise us, the number of people who say they’ve made bread. Most of them don’t stick at it for long. Their breadmaking machines, like museum relics, lie idle forever more, at the back of a cupboard.
I’m willing to concede that many of them were hauled out, dusted off and put to good use during the most restrictive phases of the Covid-19 pandemic. You only had to view the supermarket shelves empty of flour and the news items about people making their own bread, to acknowledge that there was a lot more baking going on.
People June talks to about making her own bread often assume that she uses a breadmaker. She tells them that she does: “I’m the breadmaker.” When making bread is an integral part of a self-reliant way of life, a person makes bread not a machine.
John Seymour, often called the guru of the self-sufficiency movement, published the first edition of The Complete Book of Self-Sufficiency in 1976. He said: “If you don’t have a freezer keep bread in a dry, cool, well-ventilated bin.”
A freezer is yet another modern convenience that we embrace wholeheartedly. It means June can make eight loaves at a time. Perhaps she is something of a machine! And once thawed (the bread that is, not June), our “dry, cool, well-ventilated place” is the fridge.
Thirty-two years ago when June started making enough bread to feed a family of four, she used the recipe and bread making process described in John Seymour’s book.
Let’s go forward by first going backward. Back to that infectious enthusiasm generated in us by John Seymour when he wrote about anything to do with the self-sufficient life. That man has a lot to answer for!
There is no reason why anybody, even somebody living in a tenth floor apartment, shouldn’t buy a small stone mill or plate mill and a sack of wheat from a friendly farmer, and grind his own flour and make his own bread.
Now there’s one way you apartment dwellers could be more self-reliant. As for this male, I have a good woman who would wrestle me for the privilege of making our daily bread.
I am reminded of the time, forty odd years ago now, when we were invited into the small, earthen-floored cottage of an elderly couple on the Greek Island of Sifnos. The husband made much of his wife’s strength, particularly when, at harvest time, it came to gathering up the olives by hand and carrying the baskets. He had just sufficient command of English to emphasise several times over that his wife was “strong, very strong.” She was of a short, stocky build and everything about her demeanor told us that he was right.
June is of average height and of slim build and what she lacks in physical strength she more than makes up for in energy and drive. That’s what I convince myself, anyway, having never volunteered to add my own muscle to the most demanding stage of the process – kneading 7.5kg of sticky dough.
So as not to deplete her energy before she had made much of a start, I was kind enough, those eons ago, to buy her a stone mill with a one horsepower electric motor. As I said in my last post it can grind five kilograms of fine wholemeal flour in thirty minutes. Now that’s a magnanimous gesture: the hand-driven mill was a fifth of the price!
Power assisted, “First, grind your wheat” is a challenge easily accomplished. Unlike that admonition, apocryphal but now part of the popular imagination, attributed to Mrs Beeton in her recipe for jugged hare: “First, catch your hare.”
“First, grind your wheat and rye and rice.” Not at all succinct anymore; I don’t think it’ll catch on.
- 2 litre jug organic wheat
- 2 litre jug organic rye
- 1 cup organic white rice
So, your grains are now ground and safely ensconced in the preserving pan. Once there, you need to mix in (but not the white flour at this stage), the other dry ingredients.
Other dry ingredients
- 1/2 cup gluten flour
- 2 tbsps yeast
- 2 tbsps salt
- 1 cup organic linseed
- 1/2 cup mix of organic sunflower, pumpkin and sesame seeds
- approx. 2kg white flour (to knead in later)
- 1 litre boiling water
- 1 litre goat’s milk
- 1/2 litre warm water
- 50g butter
- 2 tbsps molasses
- 4 tbsps honey
It’s time to pour in the two litres of soupy mix you see in the photo.
Adding the cold milk and warm water to the boiling water gives you a close approximation to blood heat, which is needed for fermentation to proceed. You get quite a rise out of it.
The morning sun on a day in late autumn streams through the dining room window and despite the cast iron woodstove dying out overnight, its cast iron casing is still generating residual heat. June leaves the preserving pan lid on with its air hole open while the yeast works its magic.
After sitting for about eight hours on the dining room table, the ferment is complete. It’s five in the afternoon and almost time to wrestle with some dough. But first she pours a little rice bran oil into the tins and smears it round the sides so that the bread won’t stick.
You’re thinking – that looks suspiciously like highly refined white flour on the dough mat. Although the preserving pan mix is entirely wholemeal, June finds that white flour is much better at this stage for absorbing the water. If you continue to add wholemeal flour, you end up with an unwieldy mass of dough that, despite everything, is still very sticky and difficult to knead properly. Looks a bit like ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’ porridge segment from Disney’s Fantasia. Believe me, June’s tried the all wholemeal thing and it’s not a pretty sight.
I have to add that she doesn’t normally use that nasty bleached stuff, but it’s been impossible to source organic stoneground white flour since the Covid-19 restrictions began. The sacrifices we make.
June’s in the middle of her weight training session when I take the photo. Once that 5.5kg mess of goo is on the move she can’t stem the flow. Mercifully, it’s a slow moving larva flow and the photo turns out okay.
Let the kneading begin. Not quite. That’s where that cone volcano of white flour comes in. Once enough of it is sprinkled over the surface of the sticky dough June can begin to work it. At this stage her fingers get covered with congealed lumps of soggy brown dough.
More sprinkling of flour and the hands start to dry out and no longer come away from the dough looking like alien appendages. She’s found the sweet spot which tells her it’s the right consistency for kneading.
June glances at the clock; the kneading process will take ten minutes. Her arms stretch to the far side of the mound, which now resembles a giant puffball; she grasps under it with her fingers and pulls it towards her. It’s a mixed message: hugging it in close and then pushing it away by pressing down with the heels of her hands.
“Do a quarter turn and then repeat. Do another quarter turn and then repeat. Ad infinitum,” she says. Looking on, I can see why it must feel like it’s never going to get there.
But it does. After ten minutes it’s ready for the poky finger test. Pushing a finger into the mass, it should bounce right back at you.
It’s alive and about to segment. June’s not going to let it loaf around. She slices that rather alien-looking mother of a pod down the middle and cuts a triangle off each half. The triangles of dough respond effortlessly to her bidding at this stage and are soon oval-shaped and ready to go in the two smaller bread tins.
More ovals are shaped until all the tins are filled with these baby pods. What is she incubating? I hope they’re friendly.
My weak jokes won’t get a rise out of them, but putting them on a plate rack above a hot fire will. An hour later and the first batch have risen to the occasion and are ready to go in a hot oven.
That’s my job – making sure the woodstove is “up to temperature.” As long as it stays around 200 – 210 degrees Celsius for the half-hour that they are in the oven, all should be fine.
And it is! Don’t they look bonny? Definitely friendly – thanks momma pod (and June of course).
June slides a knife between each loaf and the side of the bread tin. Upended, they tumble effortlessly onto the baking racks. A hollow sound as she taps on the base of the loaves tells her that they’re done. She leaves them to air and cool on the racks until bedtime.
One full loaf is kept out and put in the fridge. The others are torn in half, put in plastic bags and stored in the freezer.
As they say, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. I like treating myself now and then to something other than the unique porridge fare I usually have for breakfast. It’s hard to beat homemade marmalade on toast swilled down with two mugs of black tea.
That’s all from Little Owl Gully till next Monday. Bye for now and thanks for your company.