Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Bread stories

Man cannot live by bread alone, a little bit of butter is also necessary. This is how I feel as I go through a frenetic phase of bread making and tasting.

Bread has always been taken seriously though we never really evolved to eat it. But somehow it has found its way into cuisines western and eastern and intertwined itself in the very culture of countries, into festivals, revolts, romances, poems and stories.

"How can a country be great if its bread tastes like Kleenex?" wondered Julia Child. Undoubtedly more poetic pieces have been penned. The abysmal taste of American bread has always puzzled tourists, but there are certainly pockets of good artisanal baking. From one of these comes the book 'The Bread Bible', which I have recently added to my growing collection of cookbooks.

Four hundred and thirty pages of instructions! It is well written and contains recipes from various parts of Europe and America. As I read and knead, shape and bake, smell and taste fresh bread, I marvel at the simple combination of starch, yeast, liquid and heat which conjures up these marvels.

Strangely enough, as I go through recipes for western breads, I also begin to understand concepts of making Indian breads (which are rarely fermented, and if so, are done using air borne yeast).

Immersed in pondering the nature of starches (I recently made a nice potato and buttermilk bread), the gluten content of different brands of wheat flour, the use of butter - melted into the tender Jewish challah, softened and added copiously to brioche, kept cold but pliable in croissant. The rich overtones of olive oil and herbs, sundried tomatoes, cheese in Italian breads. And the sweeteners - honey, sugar, raisins, dates, caramel, apricots, bananas - the list is unending. Though one of the most satisfying breads (both to make and eat) is the French baguette - with its crusty exterior and simple flavourful interior. I am still trying to work out a good way to make it in India's warm climate and trying to imitate the hot steamy baking conditions in a small electric oven.

Bread making is an exacting task for professional bakers, perhaps that is why mechanization is now the norm (yes! even in France!!) and perhaps that is why nothing seems to surpass a fresh hand made loaf, baked at home. With all this hard work, I can only sympathize with Viennese bakers of yore, who were governed by a municipal law that punished dishonest bakers by Bakershupfen - the baker would be tied to a long pole, tilted over the Danube and dipped into the icy waters for a period of time that depended on the nature of his misdemeanour. The other option was to place him in the Mehl Markt (the Flour Market) and let irate customers pelt him with insults in the form of verbal and physical missiles! One day one might unearth a waltz that had been composed to commemorate these occasions...

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