A slice of heaven….

Curious Rascal
5 min readOct 1, 2023

One of my inner monologues entertains the idea of being slim. However the thought becomes preposterous when achievement of such entails abandoning of one of my first and deepest loves. Bread.

Thanks but no thanks; I’m very happy being a rolly polly.

I cannot believe I haven’t put pen to paper and rambled about this staple given my obsession of the wheat kind. Put into context. Bread is one of my desert island requirements or more realistically flour and a kidnapped baker is…..

Although I am partial to bread in it’s many forms — sliced, sour dough, brioche, croissant, roti, naan — toast is my go to. If I am not out and about, my lunch consists of perfectly chewy yet crisp bread slathered in salty creamy butter. It is one of my delights; a shot of pure contentment. It’s impossible to explain how the daily ritualising of this basic sustenance brings me such harmony. It is a mantra which needs no perfecting.

Although I regard eating copiously as one of my hobbies, the deeper interest in the making of bread is more recent and as with most good habits has been encouraged by a flour-fingered friend. She has been making the most scrumptious sour dough for many years. It astounds me something so good is created from the simplest of ingredients. Flour, water and a starter (which is essentially fermented flour). It is a passion but surprisingly also a science. And here’s the science bit. Complexity and judgement arises from adjustment of ingredient proportions, the kneading technique employed, the fermentation time and circumstance and the character of your starter. These decisions can deliver heaven in food form or a lump of inedibility. But irrespective, the assembled output from your effort is unique to you and your flair. How cool is that.

For many bread is an obsession. And why not; given some 60% of the world’s population eat bread on a daily basis and it is common nourishment to most cultures across the world. The Modernist Cuisine founded by Nathan Myhrvold (former CTO of Microsoft) has produced a set of five books, with 2600 pages on bread. Scroll on the internet and you’ll find an array of websites dedicated to dissecting sour dough making and achieving perfection. To be honest through those rabbit holes, it is easy to become a bit of a sour dough bore.

30,000 years ago bread of a sort was contrived as man learned to grind grain using stone tools. The Egyptians added fermentation and a baking oven to this process. Around 10,000 years ago wheat and barley were domesticated in the Middle East facilitating ‘bread’ production on a larger scale. This technique spread to other parts of the world. I’ve read the ability to generate a staple food sustained larger villages and contributed to stabilisation of society, moving away from the previously prevalent nomadic existence.

Beer and wine were used for fermentation in Europe and different forms of baking emerged. Bread was used for trade between people though it isn’t clear when it moved from being something slaves produced to a respectable occupation. In the 18th century, bakers were important members of society but if a baker was found to have lied about the weight of his loaves they were punished by being dunked in a lake or well whilst strapped to a chair! The UK bread company Hovis founded in 1886, synonymous with sliced bread, derives its name from the Latin ‘hominis vis’ — the strength of man.

In the 20th Century, advances in science eased the industrialisation of bread production which made possible greater quantities and consistency in many aspects of the staple. In 1928 Otto Frederick Rohwedder invented a machine that sliced and wrapped bread which became the norm such that there was public uproar when the US Government in an effort to conserve steel during World war 2 attempted to stop production. Unsurprisingly the phrase ‘The best thing since sliced bread’ Is used to describe how amazing something is in relation to this brilliant invention.

Small bakeries became very popular last century, but this century has seen a rise in people making bread at home which intensified over the pandemic. Some of this has been attributed to a need for crisis comfort. When we consume carbohydrates such as bread, it stimulates insulin production which supports the brain to intake the amino acid, tryptophan. This increases production of serotonin promoting calm and sleep. Or possibly it is simply the act of bread making offers the uncomplicated satisfaction of engaging many of our senses into the pleasure of producing something almost from nothing.

And there is another reason for undertaking this effort. The smell of fresh bread. It has been used to sell houses, to scent perfume, to encourage us to spend more in a supermarket, to persuade kindness unto others….. It must be a universal happy smell due to the chemical reaction of its formation and psychology. The Maillard reaction occurs In the process of making bread. It is responsible for the browned, complex flavours in toast, coffee, burgers, beer throwing off aromas we find attractive. Serious Eats states this: ‘The Maillard reaction is many small, simultaneous chemical reactions that occur when proteins and sugars in and on your food are transformed by heat, producing new flavors [sometimes hundreds of flavour compounds], aromas, and colors’. (For the detail orientated — this process is not the same as caramelisation). The psychological underpinning of this scent associates food with home and comfort and safety.

All sour dough starters need a name. We have called ours Justified Ancients of Mummu — or JAM for short. For those old enough to know this is derived from a 1990’s song by the band KLF. JAM is another member of the family. We regularly feed it and cajole it into trying its best (sounds like my lackadaisical approach to bringing up my cost centres….). JAM is very parochial — a Londoner through and through, which limits its vocabulary. My floury friend believes hers far more sophisticated having not only imbibed the air of England but as a well travelled starter also taken on a European attitude to life. Sorry did I say sour dough bore…..

Our family obsession encompasses other bread including Focaccia. We are practicing perfecting a recipe from a region in Puglia, Italy which has the most perfect balance of chewiness and crispiness. We have even bought our own bread stamper to mark the provenance of our home cooked wares.

And then there’s Chapatti, Naan, Brioche, Lavash…honestly does it look like i’m going to be slim anytime soon….?

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Curious Rascal

I'm keen to understand more of the world, people, history, science, making sense of the random because it helps me in life and improves my thinking.