11th July 2013 - Gayle Lazda
Our baking bookseller, Gayle Lazda, who works at our Westfield Stratford City branch, is inspired by food writer Michael Pollan's exploration of the fundamentals of cooking to bake sourdough bread from scratch.
I've never really seen the point of food writing. By which I mean, books about food, which aren't about how to make food. I will gladly wade through pages of Nigel Slater's flowery prose because I know for certain that he is leading me towards instructions for making something delicious. But if that's not where it's going, then what on earth's the point?
That was my ridiculously greedy opinion on the matter anyway, until I read Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation. This new book from Michael Pollan, the author of The Omnivore's Dilemma and In Defence of Food (neither of which I'd bothered to read, obviously), tells the story of our relationship with food and the history of cooking through the author's own experiences of learning to cook. The old me would have wondered why anyone would want to read descriptions of other people cooking when you could be doing the cooking (and eating) yourself. And there were certain points - reading mouthwatering descriptions of whole-hog barbecue while thousands of miles and an ocean away from any that I might actually eat, for instance - when the whole thing did feel vaguely masochistic.
But for the most part, this was a totally inspiring read. And thinking about it, that makes perfect sense: reading Bradley Wiggins' autobiography isn't in itself going to make anyone fitter, better at cycling or more able to grow impressive sideburns, but I've no doubt it's inspired many people to work harder at all those things. This is exactly what Cooked did for me. Only with cooking, not sideburns.
After reading about Pollan's experiences, I wanted nothing more than to run away to the country to start a hog-roasting, bread-baking, cheese-making, sauerkraut-fermenting, beer-brewing commune. I unfortunately lack the requisite organisational skills to do so, so I had to scale down my ambitions somewhat. Living in a first-floor flat with no outdoor space in London also sort of ruled out the whole-hog barbecue thing, and I wasn't sure my flatmates would be up for me lining our bookshelves with slowly mouldering cheeses, so I settled on bread making as the best option, all things considered.
I'd made bread before, but only ever with sachets of fast-action yeast that pretty much ensure, whatever you do to your bread, it'll come out looking and tasting pretty much like bread. Michael Pollan, however, does things properly: harnessing the quite frankly alchemical powers of wild yeast and bacteria to make sourdough. That flour and water, left to their own devices, will slowly come to bubbly yeasty life and form the beginning of a sourdough starter is, as far as I'm concerned, magic.
I cheated on that magic, just a little, though, by getting a bit of starter from a friend. (It is cheating, yes; but it's also one of the wonderful things about sourdough - starters can, in theory, last forever, and you can pass on bits of it to other people for them to make their own starters from. There's something quite lovely about a loaf of bread having that kind of history to it.) You might think a jar of flour and water mixed together would not be that taxing a job to look after, but having never had a pet, and having brutally neglected every houseplant I've ever owned, looking after any living thing, even on a microbial scale, seemed a daunting task to me. I dug out my long-ignored copy of Bread Matters and read all Andrew Whitley had to say on the matter; I scoured the internet for photos of other people's starters to see whether mine was doing what it was supposed to; I sent a frankly intrusive number of paranoid emails to my sourdough-making friend demanding advice. I lost sleep. Over single-cell organisms.
But gradually, it started to bubble, until it was frothy with life. Now I just had to make it into bread. Making sourdough is a pleasantly slow process of mixing and resting, kneading and resting, shaping and resting, and then, finally, baking. My top tip: don't try and fit it around a bike ride and a trip to the pub. I found myself sleepily attempting to shape my wet dough into something resembling a round loaf at half one in the morning, and then waking up at six so that I'd have time to bake it before I left for work. So my hopes for my first attempt at a notoriously difficult process weren't terribly high by the time I got the thing in the oven.
But despite all that, in the end, I managed a loaf that was - perhaps not perfectly shaped, perhaps not as satisfyingly sourdough-y in flavour as I'd have liked - but was nonetheless a perfectly respectable loaf of bread. It rose, and it was more than edible, which for a first attempt, is not bad.
Michael Pollan talks about the satisfaction of making something yourself - the fact that 'cooks get to put their hands on real stuff not just keyboards and screens but fundamental things like plants and animals and fungi' - and he's right. I might not have got it totally right yet, but there's satisfaction to be had just in trying it.
Read Gayle's previous blogs on making: