It was many months ago, but it has been sitting uneasily on my mind. A close associate had been developing skills and knowledge of baking bread and relishing in the finer points of home-extracted coffee. A keen critical and vocal mind, I also know of him as a gourmand and proud of building expertise in any of his networking, academic and cultural endeavours. Occasionally he would post the product of his barista and baking efforts on social media, until one day (maybe coincidentally) when an individual posted a comment ridiculing the him for wasting time in such banal un-intellectual pursuits. The sub-text being that home-based labour-intensive activities were of lesser value than public cerebral ones.
This was someone clearly uninitiated in the historical importance of breaking bread in COM-PAN-y; someone likely inexperienced in the sheer sensory pleasure of developing skills of observation, patience, and perseverance when pitted against multiple changeable elements; someone who is yet to feel the deep satisfaction of providing delicious, warm, fragrant abundance for family and close friends.
Home-baking bread is about learning from (not about) natural processes. It teaches humility in the face of natural variables of humidity, time, altitude, heat, and how gluten, starches and sugars transform as bacteria and yeast work their magic. We are the enablers of this process, but never the overlords.
Just as pets teach us how to love and be loyal, producing food by harnessing natural chemical and biological processes, working with live yeasts and bacteria teach us that there is much we do not understand, and much that we should not aim to, and cannot, control. By gently observing and working together with these natural processes, nudging them this way or that, rather than attempting to subjugate them to our whims and fictitious mastery, we come to a profound realisation that we live in a symbiotic relationship with the complexity of nature. We have a part to play to create a magnificent abundance that industrial processes merely attempt to mimic.
These pursuits – whether they be bio-intensive farming, fermentation and preserving, cha-no-yu, noodle-pulling, metal forging, distillery… – are far from banal, they call upon a sensitivity and an intellect which over time becomes artisanal mastery. This is a mastery not of what we work with, but of ourselves.
In a modern lifestyle, we rely for our day-to-day pleasures and nutrition on centralised, industry-based agri-business, and our choices are dictated by government policies and limited by what corporations decide will sell and which are cost-efficient to produce, store, package and transport. Production decisions are made based upon a range of variables which do not necessarily weight nutritional content or health benefits ahead of shelf-life and transportability. For such reasons, paw-paws and loquats rarely hit the supermarket and 75-90% of products on supermarket shelves in the USA incorporate either soy or corn in the production process. Our taste-buds have become used to foods that are mild, salty or sweet and no longer appreciate the bitter, the acrid, the tart, the sharp, the aged, the gamey, the herbal, or the malty: whatever happened to choice?
Refusing to trust or participate in our centralised, top-down system of food and food-like substance delivery, the Food Movement is growing in voice and influence. Farmers’ Markets, even in Hong Kong, are burgeoning, and even if back-yard production is not possible, herbs and vegetables in pots on windowsills are becoming popular; not much effort is needed to enhance nutritional diversity on our plates. We are regaining our connection with food production.
So, about that bread; as more people in the over-developed world are learning of the nutritional hollowness of mass-produced staples, about being over-fed and under-nourished, they are reclaiming control of access to good food.
Bread brings people together and has long been implicated in revolutions: baking it is no trivial matter.