The philosophy of bread and other stories
The thing I missed the most, during my stint in Manchester, was not the Portuguese weather and climate, strange as it may seem. I went there with a broken heart, running from that broken heart, and all of me was a cloud of dark, deep despair. The cold, grey days suited my mood, back then, that dreary landscape of endless clouds, the bruised skies, the constant rain. I could have written Draconian's "Arcane Rain Fell" from top to bottom, really, such was my doom, my gloom, and I reveled in it. Some things you just got to go through, you know, in order to grow, or overcome them. I went in search of darkness, and darkness I found. So I really did not miss the sunny seaside of my hometown nor the bright blue skies, at all. It was bread I missed the most. Good, crusty, crunchy Portuguese bread.
Whenever I went to the Co-Op, or Tesco's or Safeways, all I could find was packs of pre-sliced loaves that looked and felt airy and deprived of substance. I was out in the country, not in the big city per se, and there was no artisanal bakeries in the surrounding area. I remember once we drove over to a nearby town in search of an elusive bakery that was said to have the best bread in the surroundings, but we did not find it. I was aching for bread, real bread, and not slices of plastic dough as I called it, the whole time I spent there. I did not bake, I didn't even cook, at the time. I mean, I could cook, I had spent a year being a vegetarian and cooking for myself, but if I could avoid being in a kitchen, back in those days, hey, the better for it. I had plenty more to do back then, namely visiting every old church and graveyard I could. But I dearly missed bread, rye bread that was dark and redolent, slightly nutty in taste, like they bake in certain areas in Portugal. It was indeed what I most missed about my country whenever I was abroad.
And that has got me thinking about bread - again! I mean, it is the most basic food one can think of. It's basically nothing more than flour, water, yeast and salt, at its simplest form. And yet, it is so fulfilling, coming out of the oven piping hot, the crust breaking apart noisily, the redolency of its interior. Bread is an ode to the hearth, I think. It is a food that unites, one gathers around the table to indulge in some bread, it is a thing of primeval memory within the human race. Bread was made to be broken, and the meaning of such sentence says it all. Breaking bread. It is family, it is friendship, it is community. It is community, really, if you think about it, and there are still villages in my country - and I bet in yours too! - that have communal ovens for the baking of the bread. And communion is based on a piece of bread - and a glass of wine, but I am of the belief that bread and wine go hand in hand within a meal - when we come to catholicism. Bread is life, actually. Bread can save lives.
Philosphy aside, I am a firm believer that there is nothing better than homemade bread. I have said it plenty of times here and I will say it again. Bread is a whole world, come to think of it. There are so many types of bread, flat breads, hard breads, soft breads, white bread, rye bread, sweet and salty and savoury, filled with cheese, or cured meats, with herbs, or garlic... it is a whole world, out there, and I am fascinated by it. I recently came to the realization that even the way you fold your dough makes a huge difference in taste. If you make small, round balls of dough, your bread will taste sweeter and more delicate. Using the same dough, try making a loaf and the taste will not be the same, there will be less of the delicate sweet flavour to it, it will be more of a nutty taste, and the texture will also differ. And if you braid it, well, then, you're in for a treat. My favourite way is the braid, really. The bread will have a rusticity to it, a fulness of flavour, a taste that is kind of earthy, hearthy. Do braid your dough, sometimes, you'll appreciate the difference.
I remember the first attempts at bread me and my husband ever made. Mine was because we were having a dinner party where I wanted to have some homemade bread to acompany chicken al ajillo. It was a huge flop, in my eyes, but some of the guests sang its praises highly. The amount of yeast was wrong, the kind of yeast I used was also wrong, the bread did not rise as much as it was supposed, and it was a bit salty. My husband's first attempt was at baguette - yes, he always fancied himself some sort of Jamie Oliver, so why not go for something really hard? - because my brother in law had once made us some baguettes that were really good. That was back in the days he and my sister were still living in Portugal. My husband loved it so much he decided he had to learn how to make bread. My brother in law gave him the recipe and yet, it never came out just quite right. But he persevered. And he persevered. And now, his baguettes are to die for. Just ask our son, as that is the only bread he will eat, along with his father's bijoux.
So now we are a family that bakes, though we might not be a family of bakers. My husband says plenty of times that we should open a bakery, a speciality bakery, obviously, and I have questioned myself plenty of times if he is joking or being rather honest about it. I don't think this country would be the right place for such a venture, and I don't see how we could make ends meet as in my opinion portuguese people prefer things that are franchised and made in bulk to items that are handmade and different from each other. Maybe I am wrong, maybe we would be able to make a living out of it, but it won't even come to be a bridge we can cross, as the sheer investment is way beyond our reach. So we bake at home, for our pleasure, and if you want to bake these, well, you can find the recipe here. Just substitute 100gr of the white flour for 100gr of rye flour and add a cup of cereal, nuts and dried fruits mix. After braiding the bread, scatter a few bits of that mix on top of the braids before you bake them in the oven. It is a very nourishing bread, and satisfying as well. Or just ask me for a batch!!