Staff of life - Baltimore Post-ExaminerBaltimore Post-Examiner

Staff of life

No, not the folk who toil at Wal-mart, but bread. White, brown, wholemeal, seeded, pumpkin, rye, sourdough, pumpernickel, pitta, tortillas, matzo, chapahti, unleven, sliced, crusty and even a variety called “Bergen” filled with natural phito-oestrogens (linseed, flax) aimed at women in the menopausal time of life are among the many, many varieties of the staff of life.

As a former victim of menopause, I can testify from personal experience that such foods would only have a noticeable effect on menopausal women if loaded into a 50-pound artillery shell and fired at women from the waist downward.

Enshrined in The Lords Prayer, we exhort God to provide us with a daily ration thereof that we might live. But curiously, we do not ask for it to be accompanied by either butter of polyunsaturated spreads, olive oil or hummus. Nor do we ask for any fillings, kosher or otherwise, that we might eat of a daily sandwich.

Cottage rolls

The smell of fresh bread is one imbued with much power. Estate agents in Britain advise that to increase the chances of a house sale, bread should be freshly baked when prospective buyers come to view to give a greater feeling of “home,” and I have strong and fond memories of the smell of the bread crusty rolls my father would buy on Saturday mornings after finishing a night shift.

Clocking off at 6 a.m. after an eight-hour shift he would stop on his way home at a local bakery and buy cottage rolls fresh from the oven which he would fill with fried bacon for his breakfast. Although I was only 4 or 5 years old at the time, the smells of those two foods, combined as they were into the ideal breakfast snack, would rouse me from my bed before my mother was awake, to climb downstairs to spend time in the early morning with my Dad.

In later years, as an adult, I worked for one summer in a bakery near where my dad had worked. This was not a small bakery, nor even one of the many new small artisanal bakeries springing up around the country, but a massive industrial affair, with two huge, hundred yard long fully automated ovens churning out tons of bread per hour in sweltering heat with deafening noise.

At one end vast batches of dough were made by emptying sack after sack of flour into mixing machines on a cement mixer scale. Combined with fats and yeasts it would then continue its processing until it was billeted and extruded into its baking trays. Depending on the type of loaves to be produced lids would be placed over the dough or removed according to type.

Proper crusty bread.

Occasionally a lump of dough would hit you on the back of the head. Looking around, amid the deafening noise of industrialized baking, you would find no clue as to your assailant, and so, to extract any form of revenge, you would have to select a target at random from the opposing machineries crew and hurl your own doughy missile at him.

Things got quite bizarre at the end of the oven where the bread was sliced and bagged. Here, workers wore white paper hats shaped like army forage caps with some vague notion of hygiene in mind. Watching endless lines of bread passing by, however, has a strange effect on people’s minds, and soon the “baggers” were taking a single slice to cover each ear which they tucked under the rim of their hats, giving them the appearance of a group of the Dalai Llama’s helpers marooned in an industrial wasteland.

This became the fashion after a while and competitions quickly arose to find the most abnormal and extreme headgear by the addition of a wire coat hangers which pierced the paper hats, onto which at various levels further slices of bread were hung. It was as if Salvador Dali had designed industrial headwear. As bizarre and swelteringly hot as this summer was, it was still carried out to the overwhelming smell of freshly baked bread.

Rye bread

In the late 1970s I lived in an area of Bristol blessed by the location of a Polish delicatessen which sold rye bread baked by the Kolos Ukranian Bakery in Bradford, England, and delivered twice weekly to the shop. The loaves were substantial semi hemispheres of dense rye bread that could be cut to your desired thickness depending on your choice of filling. Pastrami needed thinner slices, bacon thicker ones. Regardless of choice of fillings this was a tasty bread with a hint of caraway that enveloped a wide variety of sandwich fillings the way your favorite plump aunt’s hugs do.

These days my wife bakes bread herself, usually once a week, in batches of three loaves at a time. She makes a mixed white flour and wholemeal flour loaf mixed with sunflower, sesame and pumpkin seeds. These are substantial loaves well able to kick the crap out of any pasty white supermarket bought, filled with fresh air loaves. They have the advantage of being able to withstand being spread with cold butter without tearing. They are the Chuck Norris of the bread world, as opposed to the Pee Wee Herman fayre planet Tesco and other supermarkets supply.


They are loaves baked in proper well-oiled loaf tins the way God intended. Manly loaves filled with roughage enough to scour the most meat clogged of bowels clean. Bread that has taste and character. Bread that fights back. Bread that suits both meats and cheeses with egalitarian ease. Bread that can mop up the best of soups and stews. Bread that is untroubled at the thought of wiping a plate clean of a robust curry or chili.

It is a reassuring bread. In a world in which uncomfortably high numbers of people manage only a sandwich for lunch – usually a cardboard and polythene wrapped abomination made of vile boiled white sliced bread supporting withered lettuce as a lamppost would a street drunkard – come lunchtime I hold my head high, knowing that in a world of slipping standards, my sandwiches at least will resist the withering effects of moist salad and hold their crusted heads high proud of the fillings they contain.

So there we go, I finally got round to it. Bread as a source of personal pride, nay, even national esteem. There is doubtless somewhere some Scottish Calvinistic aspect to all of this, given my wife’s heritage, but in this case I forgive her this day, her weekly bread. She bakes a damned fine loaf.

As I am watching England  and France end up in a 1-1 draw  in the European Football Championships, I am reminded, interestingly that the French word for friend – “Copain” – comes from the practice during Napoleonic times of the French Army bakers baking loaves big enough for two soldiers at a time. The loaves were to be shared, thus, your closest army colleague shared your bread or “pain” as the French have it, so he became your co-breader, or “Copain”.

Another interesting fact, is that French baguettes are so shaped because it makes them easier for them to stick up their French arses.

Toodle pip!



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