A Tale of Bread

Nic Steenhout‘s photo of fresh-baked bread sent me more than 30 years back in time.

Fresh bread out of the oven. Smells enticing. Where's the butter?

I’ve always loved baking bread. I know I learned to bake bread when I was a teenager, but I have few recollections of those breads. I know some were sweet and most were incredibly flat and heavy despite being baked in a form and using yeast. I may have been heart-broken, but my dad never complained. The bread disappeared completely when in his care. I wasn’t afraid to experiment, either. An uncle was coming over for dinner in my early bread-baking years, and I thought I’d make some special dinner rolls. I added blue food coloring, blue being my favorite color. To my great disappointment, no one wanted to eat them!

Years later, I became more conscious of the beauty of the creation of bread. It wasn’t doing something fancy like adding blue coloring. It was the awareness of the amazing science that happens when you mix flour, yeast, and liquid. I feel like an artist when kneading the dough. Without thinking about it, I visualize the mouth-watering finished product as I blend the ingredients with my hands.

There is a real sense of creation when making bread. I was always fascinated by the power of the yeast. If I added the yeast to a bowl with warm milk and butter, I loved to see the tell-tale bubbles that appeared on the surface of the mixture. Leaving a small ball of dough in a bowl and finding it doubled an hour later is always a moment of magic and beauty.

My Bread Tale from the Past

My best bread-making adventures were on the road to India. In 1978, I traveled overland from Denmark to India and Nepal. Our journey started out in a rush to get out of Europe ahead of a winter that would be one of the biggies. We left Denmark on 1 February 1978 and crossed the border to Nepal from India on 4 March 1978. Most of the time, we were driving all day and all night. Our breakfast along the way was always tea and bread. The bread was baked fresh every morning. Inside our converted 1955 Bedford bus, we had a stove that ran on bottled gas.

I would rise from my spot in the giant bunkbed at the back of the bus every morning at dark o’clock. An important item in our luggage was a 50-kilo sack of whole-wheat flour. We also stocked up on fresh water each day. I prepared the bread using our dining table to knead the dough, and then I placed the dough in a bowl, covered it with a dishtowel and set it by the heater to rise for an hour. I sat with the driver and navigator, watching the road flow by under our wheels, waiting for the bread to rise. When ready, the dough was kneaded and shaped into loaves and put in the oven to rise a bit more. Then, I turned on the oven to bake the bread. It was probably terribly dangerous to have an operating gas oven inside a bus, but I have lived to tell the tale. To top things off, I filled our giant kettle with water and put it on the burner to boil. Open flame inside the bus. Yeah, well, this was 32 years ago. Back when you could eat raw cookie dough…

When the water boiled, I made the tea and started to wake people up. The driver quickly found a place to stop (easily done as we were in sparsely populated areas and there was little traffic.) I could pull the freshly baked bread out of the oven and onto the table, where it was topped with a bit of jam before disappearing into seven hungry tummies – all washed down by tea. YUM!

Bread just out of the oven hits all of your senses. What a way to start the day! Thanks for triggering a delicious trip down memory lane, Nic.

3 thoughts on “A Tale of Bread”

  1. Wow! You got my salivary glands and memories working overtime there, Karen. I’m the daughter, granddaughter and great-granddaughter of bakers. My Dad and Grandad used to bake bread in a wood-fired oven and watching the dough rise and seeing, smelling and eating the final result was just heaven for me. Most of today’s bread in the supermarkets is nothing like REAL bread; fortunately, in Australia we have lots of ‘hot bread’ shops where you can get crusty loaves with lots of flavour. They’re still not quite like the stuff my family made in that wood-fired oven, but they come close.

    I love your references to cooking the bread and boiling the water in a moving van! Those were the days — we all thought we were invincible and the ‘safety police’ weren’t even thought of… God forbid we’d try something like that today, but I’m sure at the time you thought it was a great idea 😉

  2. @Rhonda – I love the story you add – I didn’t know about your baking background. Denmark has a huge tradition of bakers – Danish pastry and all that. Unfortunately, fewer want to go into the business. Starting work at 2 AM isn’t all that attractive. Also, mixes are prepared so you buy sacks of flour already premixed, meaning very few do mix all ingredients from scratch. Trendy bakeries are popping up with sky-high prices. It’s not impossible to get a decent loaf of fresh-baked bread each morning, although who has time for lingering over a meal like that, except on Sundays. Many workplaces have a tradition of having breakfast together one morning a week. It is always bread with butter, jams, and cheeses. When people take turns buying the bread, they get competitive and see who can find the best breads. The collegues benefit from that attitude. 🙂

    When you are 19/20, you are invincible!

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