Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

January 17, 2022
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Just loafing arround

Just loafing around

''Bread is the Mother. Everything is food, but bread is the mother. Your mother, my mother. Mother, mother, mother."

That's what prehistoric bakers in Mesopotamia chanted as they cooked their proto-loaves of bread on hot rocks 10,000 years ago. Or, so I imagined the scene for a show called Hot Food! which friends and I staged for the 1988 Edmonton Fringe Festival. Taking on the persona of a Sumerian baker is only one facet of my life as a hobby baker.

At other times I've baked Equatorial cinnamon buns north of Nairobi, coaxed sourdough to life at the chilly confluence of the Teslin and Yukon rivers, and, more recently, taught male friends to bake rosemary-scented focaccia or beer bread on Wednesday afternoons.

When I was growing up, my mother used to bake 20 loaves of bread every Monday. For her (and us) it was a weekly ritual no less important than laundry day. I don't think she chanted.

After putting in the first load of laundry, she'd retrieve a nine-kilogram bag of flour from the basement storeroom. By late afternoon, golden brown loaves would be cooling on last week's Calgary Herald.

My siblings I and knew this repeating miracle involved water, flour, salt, yeast, and a half a kilo of lard, but we couldn't entirely comprehend it. After a day at school, we were hungry for fresh bread, and distracted by the warmth of the kitchen, the smell of the loaves and the taste of raspberry jam.

It wasn't until I left home that I tried performing the miracle on my own. Two loaves of cracked-wheat bread made from a recipe in the Fanny Farmer Cookbook was my initiation into the rituals of home baking. No matter that the loaves were heavy, didn't rise much, and emerged from the oven looking like a pair of oversized doorstoppers -- these were my first loaves. A minor miracle, barely edible, but the bread wasn't that bad toasted.

The symbolic act of putting on the apron of home baker is enriched by three imperatives: bake often, bake far and wide, and share your bread. Baking regularly builds skills and gives insight into the meaning of "daily bread."

Baking anywhere and everywhere is an opportunity to share in and extend the network of hobby bakers worldwide. Sharing your bread with others means being generous with its sustenance, as well as the knowledge and ability that produced it. Since my first tentative effort, I've baked thousands of loaves of bread. Like my mother before me, I usually bake once a week, but only four or five loaves at a time. Unlike her, I don't bake much white bread, although occasionally, to honour the family memory, I'll make a batch of Auntie Zita's old-fashioned white loaves.

My perennial favourites are 50-percent whole-wheat, multigrain breads using flax, oats, sesame, sunflower seeds or dried fruits, almonds, walnuts and pecans. I also like James Beard's raisin-bread recipe (he presoaks the raisins in sherry). For special occasions I bake Jewish challah, Christmas stollen and double batches of hot-cross buns for Easter.

Over the years, my fondness for bread baking has been a strong impetus to travel. For my first experience baking in the southern hemisphere, I baked soft, bran pretzel rolls in Christchurch, New Zealand. While visiting my sister in Jakarta, Indonesia, we made a tasty batch of Heidelberg rye. Doing locum work in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, I baked a variation on cinnamon buns using halva and pistachios.

I seldom bake when in Europe, where independent bakeries are plentiful and the tradition of fine bread lives on. In France, Italy and Germany, I prefer to eat more bread than I bake. Searching out excellent bakeries is the complement to discovering good cafés. If you happen to be in Paris, visit the Boulangerie Poilâne. In Florence, I recommend Il Fornaio on the corner of Via Faenza and Via San Antonino. In Münster, try the schottisches Hirtenbrot at Bäckerei Tollkötter.

Curiosity about regional breads and a taste for crust and crumb will lead you to your own preferred places on a baker's pilgrimage. In rural Languedoc, I've been fortunate to make the acquaintance of an artisanal sourdough baker in the village of La Bastide d'Engras. Stefan Neugebauer named his bakery Le Fournil du Berger Bleu after his blue-eyed dog, Bob. Five days a week, Stefan bakes 100 or more loaves of organic sourdough bread, including traditional pain de campagne and a personal favourite of mine -- petit pain aux olives.

Over the years, Stefan has also been generous in sharing with me his knowledge of the fine points of levain (sourdough culture) and his philosophical commitment to making nutritious bread. My own loaves are better for knowing Stefan. I'm indebted to other teachers, including my mother and my sister, for giving me hands-on instruction. Others, like Joe Ortiz, James Beard and Jane Brodie, provided useful tips in their books on baking, bread and nutrition.

Before too long, a hobby baker is compelled to share the love of bread. I did one of my first bread-making demos for my son's grade-one class. The assignment: shape a small ball of dough into the initial of your first name. Eating the first letter of your name in the shape of a warm bun -- this can be a life-defining event for a six year old.

In Puerto Viejo de Sarapiqui in Costa Rica, I assisted Kevin Martinez, a teenager who bakes bread daily for the guests of his dad's B&B, the Po-sada Andrea Cristina. I showed him the technique of brushing the loaf tops with an egg wash, followed by sprinkling them with sesame seeds, just before baking.

When I lived in Fort McMurray, I used to teach a day-long Saturday introduction to bread baking at Keyano College. Many people are curious about bread making but are reluctant to try it on their own. What's more grati-fying than helping neophyte bakers overcome their fear of killing the yeast? Or watching the students leave at the end of the day, proudly carrying away bags full of fruit buns and cheese bread? Months later, I might run into one of my students in the supermarket only to find out their yeast anxiety had returned. A teacher's work goes on.

I have three tips for latent home bakers: don't use outdated yeast, buy a plastic dough scraper to help you work and cut dough on your counter.

Achieving the proper texture for the dough is a challenge for new bakers. If you are having trouble determining hard from soft dough, pause briefly while kneading the dough and, as a handy reference, gently pinch your own buns. That little pinch will also wake you up to the happy realization that the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves is within your grasp.


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