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.
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…