‘He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven that a woman took and mixed into 30 pounds of flour until it worked all through the dough”.’
For all our gluten intolerances and panic about eating processed carbohydrates and avoiding starch in our diets to stay slim, bread is a staple in our diet that’s hard to replace. But like most of our food, we’re distanced from how it’s made and where it comes from. IP got all animated last week when we read this little snippet from one of the gospels. I’ve never really thought about it before, but as a breadmaker, she brought all kinds of information to bear.
Like the fact that yeast and leaven aren’t the same thing. Leaven happens by itself – add warm water to flour and within a few days it will start to ferment. There are living cultures in there that make bread rise without adding packets of yeast. And once you’ve got a leaven starter, it lasts and lasts and lasts. Some bakers are making sourdough from leaven that originated more than a hundred years ago. Still living. Still active.
You can divide you leaven and share it, without diminishing your own supply in any way. You can’t do that with yeast. It’s almost magical. It makes the making of bread a community activity as much as the eating of bread is. Sharing is at the heart of bread.
Bread is very simple – flour, leaven, water, sometimes a bit of oil or milk. And a lot of patience. You mix and knead very quickly, and then let bread dough sit and grow, while you drink tea and swap stories. You need a bit of muscle and the more you make, the more tiring it is on the arms. 30 pounds of flour is a lot of bread dough – enough for 30 or 40 loaves. Which makes the woman in the story pretty strong. And very very patient.
But I’d have had no idea where to begin if IP hadn’t shown me. Although on paper it looked simple enough, the knack is complicated. And a knack – so something you only get by trying and practising and being shown. You can’t read it, and understand it intellectually. You’ve got to get your hands in the bowl, have the dough stick to your fingers, feel it oozy and gooey and beat it up a bit and feel it gradually tighten up, even while you’re stretching air into it. It feels contradictory, but somehow it just works.
The bread mysteriously rises. IP showed us how to mix and knead the dough, and even though they were all similar recipes, some batches rose faster than others. We played with them, added lemon to one and pesto and cheese to another, rolled the dough into loaves or flattened it for focaccia. Unlike baking, it’s not something you time accurately for best results. IP knew by looking and by feel whether the dough was ready to be worked again or if it needed to be left.
The dough rises, then you work it again, and let it sit again. Drink more tea. Tell more stories. Sing some songs. Be patient.
Then you shape it and bake it. Simple. Complex. Mysterious. Basic. Bread.