God, I miss bread. I don’t eat it much anymore. Maybe it’s because so much of it is that pre-sliced, flaccid, crustless variety sweating into its plastic bag. But the real thing is always worth it no matter how much you long for sleep afterwards, your legs leaden and your eyes drooping like a bloodhound. We don’t eat as much bread as we once did, perhaps because we’re not going down the pit anymore, or walking up mountains on a regular basis. So we forget what sustenance it provides. And good bread is real food, a meal in itself.
I have a memory of bread, toasted. It was homemade. It came in a mound, brown and slightly dusty. It filled the room with the most extraordinary fragrance. The bread belonged to our new neighbours in Exeter. They were a family of five: two boys and a girl. She was my age. The fact they lived next door meant there was some sort of unspoken rule that their daughter should accompany me to school. I was about seven and I was new to the area, my parents freshly divorced. So I would hover in the doorway to the kitchen while they finished up their breakfast. And what a breakfast! I was still digesting my porridge, but I could have sat down and started all over again in this new place.
The smell of hot, cakey bread, the dark husks still evident on their plates, and jellied spoonfuls of the bitterest marmalade sliding over the top of creamy, salted butter – the combination almost brought me to my knees. It still does.
Freya – for that was her name – was given the task of ‘walking me’ (like a dog) along the back lanes to school. She lasted all of a day doing this. But still she went through the charade of leaving the house with me, walking to the end of the street and then when the coast was clear leaving me there. Every day at the allotted time though, I hovered and inhaled. I think there were seeds in the bread; it smelled nutty. A kind of charcoal splendour drifted daily from the toaster. I felt weak with longing.
They had a cat called Orlando who was an orange ball of hatred and bile. Like the rest of the family he carried about him an unmistakable aura of status. Our cat, Smudge, never stood a chance. They fought daily, one paw resting on the fence for balance, the other taking slightly camp swipes at the other’s face. It was obvious who would win.
Freya when the time came went on to her posh, all-girls school and I went to the local comprehensive. I never saw her again. Not properly. We did occasionally bump into the family. Freya’s mum did contemporary dance as a hobby (her dance group were on the local news!). Freya’s dad – an orthodontist – fitted me and my brother with braces. What a start though every day to eat homemade bread, toasted and smothered in some gorgeous preserve. The five of them sat there like warriors. How could you ever be miserable when you had a family like that?
Adapted from Rick Stein’s Food Heroes
1 tbs dried yeast
1 tbs dark soft brown sugar
450 ml (15 fl oz) lukewarm water
600g (1 lb 6 oz) wholemeal/whole wheat stone-ground flour
2 teaspoons of salt
20 g (¾ oz) butter, melted
40 g (1½ oz) walnut pieces
2 tsp sesame seeds or sunflower seeds
1 egg, beaten
To make a ferment or ‘sponge’, whisk the yeast and 1 teaspoon of sugar in 150 ml (5 fl oz) of the lukewarm water. The temperature is important; too hot and it will kill the yeast, but too cold and the yeast won’t activate. It needs to be ‘finger hot.’ The best way to achieve this is to measure two-thirds cold tap water, pour into a jug and top up with one-third boiling water.
Leave the yeast to bubble in a warm place until the surface has about 2 cm (¾ in) of froth on it. It will take about 15 minutes. It should begin bubbling after about 5 minutes – if it doesn’t, the chances are the yeast won’t work. Put the flour, remaining sugar and salt in a large bowl. Pour on the yeast ferment, the remaining water and the melted butter, and mix together until you have a soft, sloppy dough. Knead for about 5 minutes, adding the walnuts right at the end. You can toast the walnuts lightly in a dry pan beforehand if you would like to accentuate their richness in the bread, and also throw in a few more if you like abundance.
Cut the dough in half and form 2 fat sausage shapes. Put them into 2 buttered 450 g (1 lb) loaf tins. Cover each with cling film/plastic wrap or put in a large plastic bag and leave in a warm place for about 45 minutes, until the dough has risen to the top.
Preheat the oven to 230C/450F. Wash the tops of the loaves gently with egg (the dough can easily deflate) and sprinkle with the seeds. Bake in the centre of the oven for 25-30 minutes. Remove the loaves from their tins and return them to the oven for a further 5 minutes to crisp up. Leave to cool on a wire rack. Wrap in cling film/plastic wrap and freeze if you are not going to eat them right away.
Walnuts and flour
Walnuts admittedly belong to the quieter, fall months. I hope you will forgive this seasonal lapse – I wrote this during a white-hot, muggy spell in LA when it felt as if the earth would crack and we would be showered with all our possessions. The smell of autumn – hot bread, wet grass and cool cheeks – seemed preferable.
Now to flour – I know it seems obvious, but you can’t make good bread with the substandard stuff. Fresh, stone-ground whole wheat flour will transform a loaf from okay to unforgettable. Because stones grind the flour more finely than metal cylinders, there are more bran particles in the bread, which gives it a more pronounced flavour and texture (that lovely crunch). The germ is also more present, enhancing the flour’s nutritional value. The bread doesn’t last as long, though, because of the high oil content, so you have to eat it quickly (shame).