Friday, 7 February 2014

baking with the zen masters

When I was a teenager I had the usual boiling cauldron of teenage angst going on, the sort that causes outbreaks of black lipstick, skull earrings and listening to the same song on repeat for, oh four hours or so.  In 2001 when I was no longer quite a teenager A whole new You by Shawn Colvin was released... I loved that cd, listened to it straight through (I was evolving you see) and then listened again.  My favourite song turned out to be not the title track but a song called Anywhere you Go, a short musical meditation on finding your place in the world, a theme I could identify with as a young transguy not yet out and wondering where I was headed.

 One line stuck with me, I often muttered it under my breath when having a bad moment "chop wood and carry water" it said to me "keep going, pick up your foot and take a step, keep talking and moving and you'll find a way".  Bread is like that line for me,  I (despite testosterone therapy) am not a born wood chopper, but I can take raw flour, water and salt and turn them into the staff of life, how much more zen can you get?  In the same way that a perfectly stacked wood store is satisfying (bark up or down? pyramids or square?) the feeling of looking at racks and wires stacked with crusty, flour speckled and crackling loaves from the oven is much the same.  Your hands worked it and made it and there is the product of your energies cooling and singing.  They will leave your hands and be passed from person to person (in an ideal world) to the end consumer.  A piece of you goes with them (ok I'm sorry, I'm sounding like a hippy here) your Will to create a wholesome bread that truly nourishes every part of a person, body and soul matters.  If you didn't just pull a sick bag from under your desk you may be a community baker.

 As you'll gather baking for the community is what I want to be doing and I continue to take baby steps towards that goal.  In the meantime I'm very lucky, you see I get to fill in time in the home of good bread.  When Andrew and Veronica from Bread Matters moved about four miles from my house I was stunned.  What crazy world was this where a person I admired for their skill and real commitment to bettering our food system just turns up here?   I had long pined after the courses on offer in Melmerby, poring over the course guide each year and imagining being able to afford to go, but never believing I'd actually meet this godfather of real bread.   I'm less awed now, less fanboy at a concert more happy citizen of a diverse community that believes in the importance of bread.

 I got to know Andrew and Veronica better as we worked with a community group to start a community supported bakery on Whitmuir farm.  They were very real and warm.  The bakery started and I worked there a few months as lead baker.  But I was in the wrong place with the wrong people, and no amount of warm bread vibes could cure that.  I mean it when I say make sure your whole group defines community in the same way you do, ditto radical, different and socially inclusive. 

 I do however spend some of my time volunteering at Bread Matters.  I go in on days courses are running, usually in the morning and weigh down ingredients for the budding bakers who will arrive later.  The woodfired over is snapping away as it builds heat for the baking and there is an air of quiet busyness and preparation.  After weigh downs I often hoover, or peel and chop vegetables and fruit for the midday or evening meals.  These jobs are no less to me than baking a loaf.  They are not nothing, they are not unimportant.  I enjoy cleaning the potatoes, as I scrub and peel I think about the bakers and my wish for them to feel cared for and nourished.  When I wipe down oven trays I imagine the next course and want the participants to feel as if this is just for them, clean and new and ready.

 I love seeing parts of the courses as they run, the people on the fundamental courses getting their hands into the dough for the first time and feeling it stick and cling, kneading (forever it seems!) and feeling the dough come alive under their hands.  My favourite though is the Baking for the Community course which is running this week (tommorow is the last day).   There is an energy in the room, none of the people are there to create a purely profit driven business, they believe in something more.  It's a pleasure to work there listening and dreaming as loaves are kneaded, baked, discussed and tested.  The business side of things investigated and digested over tea and coffees at regular intervals.

   Tommorow is the team bake day.  the bakers split into two teams, discuss products and decide on running orders then bake them as though in a commercial bakery situation.  I think it is one of the most invaluable experiences on the course, you can tell someone how it feels to have bread overproving and nowhere to bake it, but experiencing an oven jam is more memorable (experiencing it and learning to avoid it and deal with it using timing and temperature) and visceral.  It's great to see the comradeship that has built in the last few days coming together and baking.  Shared bread, the baking of or the eating of brings a sense of wholeness to a group, it doesn't matter that you are very different people, the bread is there, the bread is real.  Chop wood and carry water, listen to the world breathing and make some bread.