Tag Archives: bread

Hands of the Moon

I’ve made bread for years, but in winter especially, my bread has not come out well – it doesn’t rise properly and comes out squidgy when cooked. It wasn’t room temperature, others making bread in the same conditions get good results. For years I assumed I was doing something wrong – I was told there must be things wrong with my technique – but not what!

Then in a random conversation about comics a few weeks ago, Tom mentioned a Japanese comic about baking (anything can be heroic, in comics) and a young man possessed of ‘the Hands of the Sun’ – hands at the perfect temperature for making bread. It got me thinking.

I have cold hands, especially in winter. I inherited poor circulation from my paternal grandmother. But also like her, I’m a good pastry maker. Bread needs warmth to stimulate the yeast. Pastry is best made cold. The temperature of a person’s hands are going to make a lot of odds on this one.

I have the Hands of the Moon. And so I make good pastry but struggle in winter with bread. Two mysteries solved, and with no need for blame, no issue with my technique, just a simple reality of my body that makes me good at one thing, not so good at another.

I love the term ‘Hands of the Sun’ – poetic, delightful. There is no doubt a perfect body temperature for bread making, and it’s going to be warm, because yeast thrives on warmth. And the colder your hands, the better your pastry. My circulation-troubled Nan was an awesome pastry maker. I’m not sure if ‘Hands of the Moon’ exists as a concept in Japan, but it seemed the obvious pairing.

The stories we tell about ourselves, the language we use and the we way we make sense of our own lives, abilities, challenges and experiences shape the journey for us. I used to consider myself a lousy breadmaker. Now, I have Hands of the Moon, and a totally different story about who I am and what I do (in the kitchen at least). There are plenty of things we have no control over (like my skin temperature) but I can shape the stories I tell to myself about who I am, and that is something available to all of us. Sometimes it takes some help to point us in the direction of a better story, but once we start looking, it can be possible to let go of the beliefs that make us feel small and unhappy, and find instead stories that celebrate who we are and what we are able to do. Stories that help us live our lives.

No-Knead Bread

See my first attempts at No-Knead Bread here. The 2nd batch was much better than the first. Have just started on my 3rd batch, will let you know if I’m improving.

This bread is very easy – once you understand about yeast temperatures which I dare say many of you already know. And it tastes great, even when you don’t get it quite right. Am looking forward to getting the hang of it so I can introduce some rye flour.

Does anyone know how to make the basic sourdough – from scatch? I want to do the whole thing, not start with a piece of the previous dough.

writer artist gardener shaman
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Celtic shaman – Elen Sentier The Lough Pool Inn

Bread

In my part of the world, corn is ripening and it’s very much the time of grain harvest – a big part of rural life, pre-industrialisation. We’ve just passed Lammas (loaf Mass) the festival marking the start of the harvest. So, time to think about bread.

The theory goes that the first people were hunter gatherers, and that following the herds evolved into herding, after which came agriculture. Settling to grow grains led to both bread and beer – the two mainstays of culture and civilisation. It’s worth noting that ‘culture’ and ‘cultivate’ are words that belong to both agriculture, and society, and this is probably not a coincidence. ‘Companions’ comes from French, meaning ‘people who share bread’. The way of life we have, and the social structures those bring are very much about bread, and beer. Owning land, and storing grain creates power structures, the need for warriors, in a way that wandering about as nomads doesn’t. If the Gimbutas theory of a peaceful, goddess worshipping matriarchal society, replaced by a patriarchal, aggressive society has any truth in it, the transition from nomadic to agricultural would seem a logical occasion for this. (Academically unfounded as a theory, this, but very popular with feminist goddess worshipers and a powerful myth. I have mixed feelings about it.)

Once bread became established, it became the single most essential foodstuff and the core of most people’s diets. From all those Biblical bread references ‘man cannot live by bread alone’ etc through to the ‘let them eat cake’ response to a bread crisis… bread, and the availability of it, has been a key requirement for social stability and human comfort. The Romans kept their poor quiet with bread and circuses, and even now when there are so many food choices available, a threat of shortages will send people scrambling to buy loaves.

I wonder sometimes, how different the history of humanity would have been had we not embraced bread and beer as staples. Much of the countryside has been shaped by agriculture, and so much of our culture is informed by cultivation. Grain meant settled life, which in turn enabled ownership and a greater interest in dwellings. If you have to carry everything with you, then you can’t own much. I suspect that our whole idea that individual people can own segments of land has everything to do with agriculture. What kind of creatures would we have been had we not gone down this settled route of ownership and cultivation? What kind of societies would we have built? How much of our culture, the good and the bad, derives from this specific historical choice to settle.

Whatever choices we make into the future, we cannot undo the past and a long history that has shaped landscapes, communities, creatures and people to a remarkable degree. We can’t go back and choose differently. But it is important to remember that the way we do things now was not inevitable. There were other choices, and there still are other choices. With growing populations and wildly increasing demands, we are going to have to rethink ‘culture’ in every sense.

Next time you grab a loaf off the supermarket shelf, spare a moment to think about the weight of history in your hand. Bread has shaped the world as we know it. The choice of what to have for breakfast was always a momentous one, full of ethical implications. What does your slice of toast mean for the future of humanity? The most ordinary seeming things can be the most important and essential, and should never be taken for granted.