Every Friday on the wwoof farm in north western France where I spent six weeks last year, we would make bread. Our whole little ecosystem revolved around it: the fresh loaves would be sold at the market on Saturday and Sunday; the remainder made up our primary source of nutrition during the lean, cold month of May, when nothing was up in the greenhouse and the winter stores of vegetables were all gone. We would carve off hunks with a dull knife, slather it with unsalted butter, then fresh goat cheese, then sweet peach or kiwi or berry jams. This was breakfast. This was lunch. This was dessert.
The whole process started at 7:30 in the morning, with everyone crowding around the long table in the Stone House, quietly peeling 15 pounds of potatoes. After the goats had been milked, the cheese made, and the rams let out, we would reconvene.
The recipes are all on one old stained piece of paper, written in illegible man-handwriting; the proportions of salt to yeast to blended wheat berries or potato puree smudged and crossed out and written over—a decade of tweaking recorded on a single sheet. There are more types of bread to be made than there are sets of hands, but you pick a recipe and start in: sarazin, siegle, potitron, pomme de terre—châtaigne if you are lucky enough to find a jar of the sweet chestnut paste in the back of the armoire. Then it’s flour time.
“One hand to mix,” Jean-Yves, the farmer, injures, “ONE HAND.” The other hand adds the flour in heaps spooned out with a 1970s-era floral-embelished saucepan. You run your fingers through the slowly thickening basin of pumpkin puree as you heap more and more flour in. It feels like heaven; it feels like home.
Mitch asks, after three minutes with the buckwheat flour, “So, how do I know when it’s finished?” Jean-Yves gives him a disbelieving look and says, “When it looks like bread, and not like a swamp.” That is to say, you’ve got another 35 minutes of adding flour and mixing by hand before you can even heap it out onto the table and start kneading it. Just keep adding flour, Mitch. Just keep going.
You knead. (That is an understatement.) The dough rises; you weigh out 1160 grams, shape loaves, let it rise again. The oven is lit. And when I say the oven is lit, I mean: forty to sixty pounds of wood is hauled into the kitchen and stacked in the mouth of the giant stone cave to make a fire Prometheus would be proud of. We pause to admire the fire. Then we get back to work.
When the embers have died down and we’ve prepped six meals worth of food for the oven; when the loaves have risen to lofty heights, and the chairs are removed from the kitchen, the long-handled paddle comes down from above the oven and the race for heat retention begins. 45 loaves go into the oven in less than 5 minutes.
Then the rice pudding, the potato gratin, the cake, the ziti, the pizzas.
We lay on the lawn, waiting. We write a song about our absurd consumption of bread during the course of the week. And then, one hour later, the bread comes out just as quick as it went in, is covered in clean white linens, and the farmer from down the road shows up with his daughter right at 5 pm, to buy the first loaves of the week.
We sneak the tiniest demi-loaf of chestnut bread, just for us. It tastes like the woods in eastern France, like looking out over the edge of the earth, like bike rides and stone floors.
Bread Making. It is magical and mad scientist and down home and really, really tiring. But it is so basic, and so essential, and so right, too.