It’s the end of one year and the beginning of the next, which we hope will afford some of the clarity and focus that we associate with the phrase “20-20”. More of that, and less of the tunnel-vision, the myopia, the sheer short-sightedness that has blighted 2019. Adjusting my reading glasses, I look back over the last 12 months to see what I can see. And two things loom large: Books and bread.
First thing to say is: You knead only one, but you need both. And — no apologies — this month’s column is heavy on the punning. And the pummelling.
The other thing to say is: It’s all about balance. There are heavy books, which give your reading mind ballast, something to chew on, that need a lot of digesting. In this category come books like Stephen Jenkinson’s profound meditation on the nature and meaning of mortality in the modern age, Die Wise. This is a book to be taken in small doses: Each page, each sentence takes a long time to savour and to absorb. It’s masterful, breathtaking and demands time and attention. Follow this up with something light and frothy — for me, this has to be Winifred Watson’s Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, which cannot be beaten for sheer joie de vivre.
On the ecological front, if you have the stomach for it, David Wallace-Well’s unflinching The Uninhabitable Earth is a must. But make sure you have an antidote — such as Rob Hopkins’s From What is to What if — to pull you back from the window ledge. Likewise, intersperse David Abram’s The Spell of the Sensuous with a light smattering of Mathangi Subramanian’s A People’s History of Heaven — a bewitching and hope-filled novel set in a Bengaluru slum makes the sometimes dense, if ultimately radiant, philosophy of the former sparkle.
The last year was a journey for me, learning how to make sourdough bread. I began 2019 producing barely edible bricks and ended the year able to produce — not every time, but close enough — loaves that were light, crusty, airy and fragrant. In the process, I have been initiated into the secret society of sourdough obsessives, and inundated with contradictory advice, implausible edicts, passionate defences, brilliant attacks. Never add salt to the dough, say some. It doesn’t matter a jot, counter others. Leave it to rise in the fridge overnight, say some. “The fridge?” shriek the warm-rise brigade. “Are you out of your mind?” And don’t get me started on the starters…
Now, the starter is the mixture of fermented flour and water that produces the yeast that you need to make the bread rise. It is the be-all and end-all of sourdough bread: Without a good starter, your bread is doomed. Add it to the patio since crazy paving is all it’ll be good for. But, get it right — and you’re on your way. There’s nothing quite like a happy starter to up your own happiness quotient.
Frothy, light, smelling slightly sour but fresh, my starter is coming along nicely. The yeast is wild — it’s there in the air around us: Nothing is added to the flour and water but time and warmth. And then more flour and more water. Rinse and repeat.
Some people call the starter the ‘mother’, which can lead to interesting conversations, like this one I had with a fellow sourdough aficionado I met at a party, who was telling me about a trip he and his wife recently took to the Caribbean.
“Of course, I took my mother to Barbados,” said he.
“How did she like it?”
“She behaved very differently, as a matter of fact. Different climate, I suppose. Took a bit of getting used to, but she settled in.”
It took a while for me to realise that he was talking not about his aged progenitor but a pot of glutinous yeast.
In Chaucer’s England, writes cookery writer Elizabeth David, yeast was sometimes known as goddisgoode, “bicause it cometh of the grete grace of God”. “These words simply imply a blessing. To me that is just what it is. It is also mysterious, magical. No matter how familiar its action may become nor how successful the attempts to explain it in terms of chemistry and to manufacture it by the ton, yeast still to a certain extent retains its mystery,” David writes.
Over the course of this year, I have developed a strong bond with my yeast, and that’s more than just the glue in gluten. You have to feed your starter (or your mother), and if you neglect her she will die. It’s a bit like having a pet. Or a child. Or a mother, for that matter. Look after your mother, and she will look after you.
The best thing about sourdough bread is that it genuinely feels like you are part of a continuous process, one that has been handed down from generation to generation and across the world. It’s a real miracle, this secret spell, of how to take elements — water, grain, time and fire — and conjure out of nothing (or so it seems) something wholesome, perfect, and, on every level, nourishing.
Books and bread. Bread and books. My new year’s wish for everyone on Earth: Plenty of both.
First published in The Hindu Business Line, BLInk Supplement January 2020