Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Naomi Duguid: Bread Over Time

Meeting Naomi Duguid in person at the Kneading Conference West 2012 was a moving moment: she has been an iconic presence in my life since I bought Flatbread and Flavors: A Baker's Atlas when it first came out many many years ago: here was a woman who dared. She dared to travel to the most remote corners of the world and observe cooks and bakers at work, collecting recipes. She did what most of us tied to a regular day job could only dream of and dream I did, a true armchair traveler, savoring each of her books as they came out.
Well, it turned out that she was just as moved to meet us, her readers and bread fellows. When she reached the podium to deliver the keynote address, there were tears in her eyes. She wiped them and whispered in the mike: "Don't mind me, emotion always comes first! It'll be over in a minute" and it was. But however quickly brought under control, her emotion added a deep resonance to what she had to tell us.
We have established that we all care about bread, she said. Now how do we translate that into action? Well, a time-proven way of looking forward is to look back.
We are standing on the shoulders of hunters, gatherers, growers, people who have looked for ways to transform grain into food that would sustain themselves and their communities. Solving the problem meant survival. Eventually they may have thought of using a rock (or a mortar and pestle) to make flour, so that they could make bread. They brewed beer, they rolled couscous, they made leavened or unleavened flatbreads. Perhaps they built an oven.
All of these people were deeply involved in and committed to the local production of grain.
Today as well finding ways to use grain to sustain life in our communities may make the difference between surviving or not. But how do you give "bread" (loosely defined) its value again? When you have no respect for the process, you have no respect for the product. How do we get back the sense of the special that we lost in the commodification of grain? 
As soon as you scale up production to a large scale, you dumb down the product. Predictability becomes the goal and the unpredictability of nature the problem to solve. Commercial bakers want their flour to be consistent, so we produce the lowest extraction flour where nothing alive remains. We lose flavors and varietals. We don't know the taste of the grain grown across the road.
Let's reverse the trend. Let's go back to our homes and bakeries and add at least two products that contain whole grains to our repertoires and at least one item largely made with another grain than wheat. A world of flavors is waiting...
In Tibet, whole grain hulless barley is roasted, then ground into tsampa, a very fine flour. This flour is then mixed with hot tea. With butter and salt added, it becomes a kind of instant bread. The story of tsampa is a tribute to human creativity, ingenuity and survival instinct in an unyielding environment.
Let's bring back respect in our relationship to grain: respect for the farmer, the miller, the baker; respect for our customers (be they our families or the people who actually buy our breads). Let's move forward with that relationship by incorporating whole grains into our baking and using other grains than wheat whenever we have a chance. 
***
The above is a synopsis of Naomi's address based on the notes I took as she was speaking. If any of you readers were there listening to her and think I forgot something important, please let me know (mc.farine@gmail.com) and I'll add it in.
Meanwhile I would like to share a story: when I was in elementary school in Paris, I had no access to a library. My school had no books to lend that I can remember. If our arrondissement had a public library (and I am pretty sure it did), we were never taken there. At my grandparents' house (where we spent most weekends), I had all of my father's and uncle's childhood books at my disposal and read and re-read them avidly but they were mostly boy books. At home I had girl books which were given to me for my birthdays or at Christmas. Those too, I read and re-read avidly. Among those, Daughter of the Mountains by Louise Rankin, a book about a young Tibetan girl which I obviously read in French (I had no English at all then). I remember my brothers teasing me mercilessly about the title (Momo, Fille des Montagnes) which, I admit, sounded a bit silly, even to my ten-year old ears.
But mostly I remember loving the book with a passion and reading it dozens of times over from cover to cover. To this day, I can taste the tsampa that Momo carried in a little pouch around her neck and survived on during her long and arduous search for her stolen puppy: it was so vividly described that I literally yearned for it.
As Naomi was talking, I had the feeling that some lose threads in the tapestry of life were weaving themselves together for me. I may never follow in Naomi's actual footsteps to far reaches of the world but I can certainly answer her call and spurred on by the taste and smell of the tsampa I remember eating vicariously in a beloved childhood book, open my baking to new flavors. I owe it to the little Parisian girl who grew up dreaming of life in the high mountains of Tibet...

17 comments:

  1. Farine, if you don't mind me suggesting something that could involve a ton of work: you should consider writing your autobiography

    If not to publish to the general public (which I hope you would do ;-)), to share with your family, particularly the grandkids

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  2. Hi Sally, I am not sure my autobiography would be very interesting... Sometimes I have the feeling I spent most of my life on the sidelines.

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  3. MC: Your writing makes for compelling reading. I look forward to reading your posts, they are as varied as they are passionate. I hope you someday travel to the mountains of Tibet to taste Tsampa. Please keep writing, you have a hungry audience waiting.
    Best regards,
    David Aplin

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    1. Thank you, David. You are very kind. I don't know that I'll ever get to Tibet but I might get to taste tsampa at a Tibetan restaurant some place one day. Or maybe even try and make it myself at home. That should be an adventure, especially if I want to add rancid yak milk as Tibetans do. They say it takes about a month to get accustomed to the taste and that once you are, you pine for it!

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  4. why do you do this to me? :)
    here I am hopelessly dreaming about bread again. it is so true that we have to give bread its value again. you know, what triggered my initial interest in bread was the new trend of considering bread "empty calories", a trend which is very strong now in Sweden. after reading in yet another magazine how to ban bread forever from our diet, something clicked in me. it was so wrong. all the culture which developed around bread. all the symbols and all the meanings. all to be forgotten?
    on a less lyric note, now that I do bake bread, I can notice how mediocre bread sold by bakeries both in Rome (when I go back) and in Stockholm truly is. no wonders that bread got this bad reputation considering what people are offered as bread, even from trendy bakeries (which here still over-knead and fill their bread with industrial yeast, even when the call it "surdegsbröd"). bought a pretty looking baguette yesterday, from possibly the trendiest bakery in Sthlm, and had to throw it away. the crumb was so chewy and dry that neither me nor my 3-year old could eat it. shall we start a revolution?

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    1. You are so on target on both counts, Barbara: the faddish disdain for bread and the fact that bread can be really mediocre even when it comes from an award-winning bakery. Both things drive me mad. So yes, let's start a bread revolution! By all means!

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    2. Barbara, there are some good artisan bakeries in Stockholm. However, some of the big and which market their selves as artisans, are really crappy. Come to Söderbergs bageri in Telefonplan, I apprentice there on weekends and the baker (Mattias Wallmark) is a true artisan!

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    3. hi Paulo, thank you so much for letting me know about this bakery. I was starting to loose hope to taste true artisan bread here. I will surely come to sample the bread and, gosh am I jealous of your week-end apprenticeship! :)

      MC: sorry for taking over your comments section. and happy and grateful that you do understand my little rant.

      barbara

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    4. No problem, Barbara! I am delighted to read about this artisan bakery in Stockholm and grateful to Paulo for pointing you that way. I wish I could actually go and check it out with you!

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  5. MC,
    Thanks for your wonderful writing – reading this post really does bring back Naomi's engaging and compelling address.
    It's so wonderful you got the chance to meet this lady, appreciating her work so much.
    It’s really lovely Naomi’s words caused you to remember that story you loved as a child.
    :^) breadsong

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    1. Thank you so much, breadsong! KCW was truly an inspiring event and sharing these moments with you and other passionate bakers made them even more compelling...

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  6. Good Evening MC:
    This is Mantana. Love your post! Thanks for sharing. You wrote so well and I felt like I was there with you at the Kneading conference.
    My friends in VA. are also afraid of eating bread. They exercise very hard and avoid eating any breads( too high Carb, they say). They drink diet coke, and other diet drinks always. They snacked on enrgy bars(full of sugar, fat and junks hiding itself under "good for you" wrap). It is sad. If they eat bread, it will come from the freezer! No wonder they don't like breads. Pity.
    mantana

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    1. Good morning, Mantana! Thank you for stopping by. I am so very glad you got to attend the Conference via Farine. I know you would have enjoyed every minute of it, had you been there. Like you, I stay away of these pretend healthful alternative to bread but I must say the bread we eat often comes from the freezer... I like to make more than one at a time, so one loaf always gets packed away and frozen and since I make a lot of bread, we have a lot to choose from, always handy to give to family and friends. It has been my experience that previously frozen bread is actually as good as fresh if slowly brought back to room temperature inside its wrapper (usually a zippered plastic bag which gets re-used over and over) and then re-crisped for 10 to 15 minutes in a 350°F oven. I find bread doesn't get stale that way whereas it does if allowed to stay on the counter. Do you have another favorite solution?

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  7. My Sunday morning read -- completed even before my first cup of coffee, which is rare. It's hard for me to describe, but when I read your posts, I am able to see again how important it is for me to do what I am most passionate about. I'm often distracted by what others are I gaged in and think at times that is a better path. I enjoy reading about your passion for bread. The pieces you write and information you share is always inspiring -- even though I do not get to bread making as much as I'd like. But I do incorporate the whole grains and other wholesome ingredients in mine when I do bake it because we aren't about white fluffy bread in any way. Thanks again for your writing. I appreciate it.

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    1. Kellypea, thank you for your very kind words. They made me very happy! I love sharing my bread adventures and now that I am retired, I have more of them and more to share.
      Re: iPad. The keyboard (or more accurately the spellcheck) drives me crazy too! But it is so tempting to quickly post a comment that it remains a handy tool and I love reading blogs on the iPad!

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  8. Oh heavens--this iPad screen gets the best of me at times. I meant to say "others are engaged in..."

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    1. I had already translated in my head... ;-)

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