So after weeks of feeding the Jabba AKA starter, I’m ready to bake. Pro bakers use specced up steam ovens to bake their bread. The steam forms the crust so you don’t end up with sort of balled sock bread. My dreamy baking sensei Chad Robertson, has come up with a method where the dough goes in a superheated casserole dish, with the lid on. The dough steams in the sealed dish, a crust forms, then you whip off the lid and brown all hell out of the loaf.
I’m reading these instructions while my kitchen fills with a heady aroma. Not that of baked goods. Not the milky tang of fermenting dough. Not even the cheap deodorant and old wine sweat smell of myself in any environment over ten degrees centigrade. It smells like the inside of a badly built cadium smelter. I have had to turn the oven up on full. This is Saturday morning so all three of these kids are sat around the kitchen table having breakfast. What smelt before of toast and apple juice has gone. Now it smells of melting rubber and a bonfire of Chinese takeaway containers. My wife is looking at the carbon monoxide alarm and fully expecting it to start sounding the klaxon. Now she’s looking at me and she looks furious. My baby son’s eyes are watering. I love my family. I really do but I have been ‘working’ on this bread for weeks. It will be worth it in the end. If we survive. The only words ringing in my head are: Bhopal, Union Carbide, Pripyat!
I am disorganized. Where others make lists or plans, I make mess and mistakes. The pictures in the Tartine Bread book show baking as a mellow, lightly flour dusted zen series of gentle movements on wood surfaces. It’s shown as a reflective, meditative craft. Not in my fucking kitchen it wasn’t.
My family flee my baking mania. As my wife reverses the car away, my eye is drawn to the exhaust fumes….PRIPYAT!
Peering into the grimy oven door, I can see nothing. It’s black. I can see my face, and I look ill. It’s taken too much time now. I must complete the task. I am scowling through the gas clouds at the Tartine Bread book now. Damn Chad. Damn him and his buff arms and his mellow ways! THIS is bread! Carnage, heat and fumes. I pull the now almost molten casserole dish from the oven. It’s been in there for twenty minutes too long now. I grab my first bowl of dough (the recipe makes two loaves so this whole awful process has to be repeated). The dough has risen perfectly. My ‘working’ of the dough the night previous has given me a dough that looks like Chad’s. I may not look like Chad, but this dough does. I try and tip the dough into the fiery dish. I see visions of arm skin peeling off in crispy strips like a Papua New Guinea KFC dish. The dough is in. The lid is on. I’m sure some of the handle has melted and is stuck to the oven-glove. No time now, my knees are on fire! Back into the maw of Satan with you burning dish bread vessel!
Then I watch the timer on my phone count down. That sweet ‘Marimba’ tone trills out and I’m back into the furnace pulling the lid off. The hair on my arms has been singed pubic but the smell is different. Yes there’s burnt hair and toxic ICI emissions but now there is a new note, bread! Now my kitchen smells like the only remaining bakery in downtown Baku, Azerbaijan.
Then I watch the time on my phone count down again. That sweet ‘Marimba’ tone trills out and I’m back in the furnace pulling the bread out. The hair on my arms has vanished. My arms look like my six month old son’s arms. But in my hands, oven-gloved, there is a loaf of bread. It’s a proper looking, OG, sourdough-ass, artisanal pimped-out loaf of country bread, that I made and baked properly. Immediately I envision a life as a chill, buff, master-baker. This may be Chichester but it feels like Napa or Marin or Santa Cruz. Basically I’m a tan Californian and yeah I juice and surf and hike, I’m known to hit a kayak or two and catch trout with string and do tantra in a teepee under starlight in a forest. I am human kale, people. I am Big Sur. I know how the Earth talks y’all. It’s all good. Organic, artisanal, Farmer’s Market, gluten, carb-loading, wicker, hemp, hessian sacks, Google on a mellow global village tip. Tomatoes that actually taste of tomato. Kids with weird names, Toto, Aliceband, Wickett. Green tea, hand made, natural fibres, weather……
All this purity, all this vibe, man. From bread.
Then the smoke alarm went off and I remembered I had to bake the other fucking loaf.