For Christmas this year I was given a massive series of books dedicated to molecular gastronomy, which I read over the course of four days, 15 hours a day. The scholarship alone positions the books as unlike anything ever written before, as if NASA and Michelin had had a love child. Chapters on how to turn eggs inside out, solidify a cocktail using algae, cook with dry ice, the premise behind all of it, How to dazzle in the kitchen using science.
But as I read, my brain began to talk back with the high-tech images there on the page, the recipes given in meth-lab milligrams: I could live a full and content life if I never ate anything spiffier than bread. I still feel giddy each time I pull a steaming and crackling loaf from the oven, as if something unspeakably magical has just happened in my life.
Each and every time, the sense of wonder has never gone away.
Which is amazing, if you think about it, as with just 4 ingredients, flour – in our case here in Puglia- hard durum wheat, water, yeast and a little salt, bread is mostly likely man’s most impressive achievement to date.
If you follow its development throughout human history, it probably went something like this: someone spilled some gruel on heated stones and noticed the aroma. Some of the pourage was eventually held back or forgotten about and then baked after it fermented from wild yeasts in the air. Then someone arranged rocks to refract back the heat of a fire.
And since then, for good bread, very, very little has changed.
The wood fired oven’s design at the castle where I teach bread baking is the same as those that were used 3,000 years ago. Aside from maybe the wheel, the pulley or even a good kiss, it’s hard to think of anything else that has been so unimproved upon in human history.
And once the bread oven was mastered, it become central to human gathering, the very centre of Western Civilization. (You can admire how hard-wired this is into all of us at your next gathering, when you notice that everyone has left all the other rooms in the house for the kitchen).
All throughout European history, it was the first thing you built, even before the church, every bit as important as a source of fresh water.
And while bread is certainly elemental in nature, that doesn’t mean that it’s always easy. Even here in Southern Italy, in unheated houses in winter, bread won’t rise because of the cold. Historically the answer was to take the rising mass to bed with you, using the human body and bed clothing to maintain the adequate temperature.
I did this for a few weeks over this winter, the pleasant and yeasty gestation under the sheets and thick woolen blankets, likely the closest I’ll ever come to feeling the profound satisfaction observed on the faces of mother hens.
I have around 25 different pignate in my three kitchens in the Salento but most of time I return to just two, this green, modern one above, and the 75-year old pignata below. Like cast iron, or the covered version, enamelware, earthenware excels for bread baking, as it’s really the oven, made small. The fired clay is thick and dumb and slow to heat, but once it’s there, it holds onto the heat for a long time, distributing it evenly. (It’s the same force that makes them great for making gelato as well, only that it’s the cold that they cling to, once chilled).
The ceramic vessel is pivotal to the cooking of Puglia, and indeed, much of the south, and it’s surprising that no one has used them for baking bread, historically. The recipe that I teach is one I’ve modified from an American’s recipe, Jim Lahey at Sullivan Street Bakery.
His original recipe just might be the biggest revolution to happen to bread since the home gas oven. What’s so impressive about it, apart from its ease, is how well it can be adapted to making pane pugliese, or bread in our local style. It’s as if it had always meant to be like this, the marriage of the open-mouth pignata and the yellow crumb, crusty loaf.
We now bake all of our own bread at the school, the giddy vapors rising up off the kitchen table, solicting smiles unlike anything else we make.
It is, I think, the final comment on ‘modern cooking’, and what molecular gastronomy ultimately lacks: That the baking of fresh bread remains so timeless and perfect, so stitched, sewn and profoundly embroidered into Western civilization that no other foods satisfies as deeply.
It’s something to keep in mind when the press overpraises the next celebrity chef. Or his truffled carrot-gelè, macerated in a flux capacitor. Or the celebrity chef after him, and her spinach merengue, configured down in CERN.
All of this will come and go but good bread will always be there for you, replenishing your humanity in tiny satisfying bites of crunching crusts and airy crumb, its gifts, available to every generation, ever since we’ve ever been.