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To all the Bakers! Past, Present, Future and Imaginary

Claire, imaginary and past baker

After posting last week’s blog on one of my bread teachers, I recalled a quote from another baking hero of mine. The U.S. baker and author Jeffrey Hamelman1 says in his book Baking: A Baker’s Book of Techniques and Recipes:

What a wonderful feeling it is to turn and look behind us at the hundreds of generations who have baked before us and realize that we have inherited the accumulation of their experience. When we turn and look forward to the innumerable generations of bakers to come, we realize that we are at the fulcrum of this great balance, imbued with a deep responsibility to the future and hopefully equally imbued with gratitude to our colleagues from the past.

Jeffrey Hamelman, in the Acknowledgments of Baking: A Baker’s Book of Techniques and Recipes
The honest baker: Jeffrey Hamelman

The passage is a gracious acknowledgement of those bakers who came before us. It also bears the weight of responsibility to those who follow.

Hamelman’s words are also a testament to the sense of generosity shared by most bakers in my experience. They speak of the reverence good and honest bakers hold for their profession.

Confronting an imaginary baker

Here’s another quote, this one from my unpublished novel, The Song of Oswald.2 It’s spoken by Claire, a desperate young peasant woman who has just spent a night on the grounds of Boxley Abbey, near Maidstone, Kent. 3

Before the sun come up, I could smell bread cookin’ in the ovens.It made my mouth full of juices. I was so hungry, and I had to get my hands on some o’ that bread. I ran along by the river to the bakehouse.

The sun were comin’ through the wood, when I saw two bakers bring a big board outside. It were loaded with fresh-baked loaves, and they put them on a bench below the window for cooling.

They went back inside, and I sat there, lookin’ at all that bread. I was breathin’ heavy, and my mouth hurt. I wanted it so bad. And soon as I thought it was right, I ran out and took one of those loaves into my arms. Just one!

It were warm against my belly, hot on my bare hands and wrists. And the smell, the smell! It made me think of my dead ma and filled me with love like she used to do.

I was about to run back to the wood, but I was caught. A big hand grabbed my shoulder, an’ that very same baker got his arms around me an’ lifted me off my feet.

from The Song of Oswald

Women were not allowed on abbey grounds because of the temptation they posed to the male monks. But Claire spent the night hiding there out of desperation to find food. She had been denied alms by the abbey earlier that day, and her cruel father had threatened retribution if she came back empty-handed.

Precursor to Mildrith and the Happy Monk

I wrote this passage long before building Mildrith and starting the Happy Monk Baking Company. The wood-fired oven and the company came two years later. Yet here I find myself writing about the allure of bread and its decisive role in human life.

It comes through Claire’s senses: the smell of freshly baked bread from the bakehouse ovens through the oak wood. It ignites a fierce thirst in her to snitch a loaf even though the consequences of being caught were dire. She wants to eat. She wants to bring the loaf home and earn the love of her cruel father. But she also wants to savour the loaf, as it evokes powerful memories: the love of her mother and perhaps a sense of belonging in a harsh world. The bread offers sustenance, fulfillment and spiritual wholeness.

Later, the lascivious abbot mocks the sacrament by offering a starving Claire a bite from a loaf, as if it were the body of Christ and forcing her to drink a goblet of wine, his blood. In so doing, he defiles the abbey and church as cruelly as he violates Claire.

I had a romantic notion of life in the medieval abbey when I set out to write The Song of Oswald: the idea of renouncing all worldly things and devoting oneself to the spiritual life. It included pastoral settings, simple life of prayer, meditation and some manual work, such as tending the flocks of sheep or scribing ancient texts.

It also included baking the bread, milling the flour, brewing the beer, making the wine for the sacrament. But the Abbot of Boxley Abbey is corrupt, and in the end, a pathetic character.

The nasty baker in the novel

The baker who apprehends Claire, too, is not a generous or honest one. A baker in the mould of Jeffrey Hamelman didn’t appear the day I wrote this scene. I did, however, spend a lot of time imagining the bakehouse, the bakers, the production of loaves for daily meals and special buns and pies for feast days.

Selling bread at the market square

Those monks of Boxley bakehouse would have been among the generations of bakers Jeffrey Hamelman was thinking of when he looked back with gratitude and admiration. Most of them, we’d like to think, would have been generous and humble and not like the villainous baker who grabbed the loaf away from Claire.

Claire rises above the mayhem

None of the characters are satisfied with their lot in life by the novel’s end, including my woebegone main character, Brother Richard. Claire’s the exception. She’s a feisty one! She’s found a new profession.

Claire has become a baker! She bakes her bread in a cob oven she built from scratch and sells her loaves at the market square.

And she speaks of her bread just like the Happy Monk of Pender Island.

“Here you are, Brother Richard,” she says to my main character near the end of the novel. “A beautiful loaf that will satisfy your hunger. Crisp on the outside and soft inside and tastin’ very good, if I say so. I made it myself!”

So read into that what you will!


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#anadama #anadamabread #cornmeal #cornmealbread #metchosinbc #armstrongbc #stoneground #stonegroundflour #stonemilled #stonemilledflour #stonemilledbread #woodfiredovenbread #bread #realbread #naturallyleavened #baker #bbga #artisanbread #breadhead #breadmaking #sourdough #sourdoughbread #penderisland #southpenderisland #happymonkbaking #happymonkbakery #happymonkbakingcompany #southerngulfislands #southerngulfislandsbakers #southerngulfislandsbakeries

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#anadama #anadamabread #cornmeal #cornmealbread #metchosinbc #armstrongbc #stoneground #stonegroundflour #stonemilled #stonemilledflour #stonemilledbread #woodfiredovenbread #bread #realbread #naturallyleavened #baker #bbga #artisanbread #breadhead #breadmaking #sourdough #sourdoughbread #penderisland #southpenderisland #happymonkbaking #happymonkbakery #happymonkbakingcompany #southerngulfislands #southerngulfislandsbakers #southerngulfislandsbakeries
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Morning Breadsong (volume up!) A pile of Salish Sourdoughs just out of Mildrith, the wood-fired oven.
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  1. I wrote of Hamelman a couple of months back as “The honest baker” who is humble for one of his stature.

  2. I’ve written about my novel in this blog here and here.

  3. This was a real place, although the abbey no longer exists. Henry VIII destroyed it, along with hundreds of others, during the dissolution of the monasteries between 1536 and 1541.

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