Finding ways to create something beautiful in the dark nights of a complex world
June 19, 2022

Lessons from the Breadlady


The heat of the past few days has broken with sweeping skies filled with rain and lowering clouds. Join me tonight, as we reflect on life on water in the heat of summer, listen to the poetic words of one of our listeners, and discover the wisdom of making bread through the words of another listener and Robin Wall Kimmerer.  

Journal entry:

 14th June, Tuesday.
“The day starts fresh with clean skies and grasses that glitter with rainbows.
 Beneath the rushes, a moorhen fusses.
 The air is scented with summer wine.”

Episode Information:

Bread about to proofFreshly kneaded dough (earlier today) about to set aside to proof.

fresh from oven
The loaf fresh out of the oven

This episode features the writing of two listeners; Margaret Jacobson and Sue ‘Breadlady’.

I read the poem ‘The Colour of Water’ by Margaret Jacobson and a post by Sue on her love of bread. 

I also read a small extract from:
Robin Wall Kimmerer’s (2020) Braiding Sweatgrass published by Penguin Books.

I also refer to Five Minute Bread: The revolutionary new baking method: no bread machine, no kneading! by Jeffrey Hertzberg and Zoe Francois and published by Random House (2010).

Bread cut A slice of 'white'

I also refer to a video created by boat vlogger 'CountryHouseGent' that features the soothing sound of a vintage canal boat accompanied by video of a cruise along a canal.

Country house gent thumbnail

The video can be viewed on YouTube and is titled: Relaxing Vintage Engine Sound Canal Boat Sleep ASMR

General Details

In the intro and the outro, Saint-Saen's The Swan is performed by Karr and Bernstein (1961) and available on CC at archive.org.

Two-stroke narrowboat engine recorded by 'James2nd' on the River Weaver, Cheshire. Uploaded to Freesound.org on 23rd June 2018. Creative Commons Licence. 

Piano and keyboard interludes composed and performed by Helen Ingram.

All other audio recorded on site. 

Contact
For pictures of Erica and images related to the podcasts or to contact me, follow me on:

I would love to hear from you. You can email me at nighttimeonstillwaters@gmail.com or drop me a line by going to the nowspod website and using either the contact form or, if you prefer, record your message using the voicemail facility by clicking on the microphone icon. 

Transcript

JOURNAL ENTRY

14th June, Tuesday.

“The day starts fresh with clean skies and grasses that glitter with rainbows.

Beneath the rushes, a moorhen fusses.

The air is scented with summer wine.”

 

NEWS FROM THE MOORINGS  

We are nearing the longest day. The sky to the north east is still washed with a dusk of mauves and purples - the colours of a ripe Victoria plum. The light of June days is reluctant to leave us. But, on the night air, wind flung rain drops, large and wetting, make the lacy white elder, cow parsley, and hog weed umbrellas tremble. 

This is NB 506812 Erica, narrowcasting on a summer's night, canalside. 

The rain is beginning again, come into the dry and stay awhile. We'll listen to the rainfall on the waters outside, making the dark surface hiss and bubble, spin some tales. The kettle will soon be singing and the biscuit tin is close to hand. Make yourself comfortable and I am really glad you could come. 

MUSIC

After a week in which the sky has predominantly been blue, blossoming blooms of castling cumulus clouds, today the sky is a great slab of marble, veined and discoloured with silvery greys. It is hard to imagine that this time yesterday, we were sweltering in a thick soupy heat and listening for distant thunder. But it is the type of light that draws out the colours of the ox-eye daisies, the mallow, vetch, and knapweed glow. 

All day rain has been sweeping in on a northerly wind. Drenching and dousing the hedgerow that lines the towpath of the dust that has accumulated during the week. The air smells fresh and the wetness of the reeds is sharp on the skin as my arm brushes passed. The ducks are out. Circling midstream, chuckering and preening, squabbling and feeding. A small group, clustered at the bank, digging into the mud and sifting the weeds. 

Earlier tonight, I sat writing. Listening to the rain rattle. There is always something calming about it. Rain drops pattering and streaking the glass porthole by my head. The alders swayed gently. I sat watching the steam rise from my tea mug as the darkness pooled. 

The temperature difference between tonight and last night is 25 degrees. 

 

Over the week, the temperatures have been gradually rising. The heatwave was coming. Hot air from the continent was flowing northwards carried on the back of hot south-westerly winds, a Spanish plume of scorching heat. 

Yesterday, was the hottest day of the year so far. It reached 32.7C (91F) in East Anglia. Hot, but not unprecedented.  

I’m always a little bit uncomfortable talking about extremes in temperature that we experience. I recognise that in some places a temperature of -10 degrees centigrade (14F) is nothing. In fact, it can be a balmy midday high for them! And that when I am taking about temps in the 30s (85F) it again will seem very unnoteworthy. I am also very aware that many countries right now are experiencing some truly worrying extremes with some very high temperatures in parts of the US and India.

Having said all that, yesterday was hot. 

I have noticed for a while that there is a strange phenomenon when it comes to cabin temperatures. I can’t quite work out why, but, when the thermometer edges upwards into the high 20s (around 80 F) – even towards 30 degrees - and outside there is a midwinter’s gale bansheeing down the canal, with sleet driving onto the ice crusted ground, I gleefully rub my hands commenting how wonderfully warm and cosy it is in here, and give the stove a riddle with the poker. However, in summer, when the outside temperatures are climbing into the 30s (85F) and inside the cabin is showing 26 or 27, I am hanging out of the doors or duck hatch, reaching for every fan and cooler we have, complaining about how insufferably hot it is!!  

 

There are two popular misconceptions about living on a boat and which often come up when chatting to people about it.

One is – “It must get really cold on a boat in winter.”

The other is – “It must be really nice and cool on a boat in summer.”

For both, the reverse is true.

Yes, it would be true that without any form of heating, it would be cold on a boat. But so too in a house. The advantage with a boat is that it is easier to heat and keep it warm throughout.

However, the problem – certainly with more traditional or older boats – is not in keeping it warm, but keeping it cool in the summer. If you just happened to be moored just right and the wind is blowing in the just the right direction (and at right strength (so that you can open your bow and stern doors at either end and the wind can blow through then it’s no problem.

I personally find – and have also found that a number of boaters share this feeling – that very hot weather can pose a much greater problem than a very cold spell. This is particularly the case if, like me, you are not a fan of a lot of heat.

Of course, we do have an advantage of being able to move. Finding a shady spot at which to moor can make a huge difference. Although, it is always a trade-off with the solar panels. Nevertheless, it can be surprising the difference tree shade can make. It is not just screening from the glare of the sun. They also create their own micro-climates, which brings with it a cooling breeze.

However, some days, like yesterday afternoon, when the sky’s blue was bleaching out to a heavy and sticky, chalky white, there is little point in moving and all you can do is open all the doors and windows, utilise any coolers that are onboard and keep cool that way.  

The heat has not just been affecting us. While the foliage and vegetation still remains deeply green and offering cool refuge, I heard that one of the cygnets was seen to be struggling. Early that morning on my way to work, I had seen all three swimming together among the reeds and thought this was a good sign. They were becoming independent. However, later in the day, one of them appeared listless and was left on or near the nest (which tends to be the family's crash pad when they are visiting). Later the rest of the family had gone off. When I heard about it, it sounded horribly like avian flu. Listless, head hanging down, etc. However, two of the boaters managed to catch the cygnet - the parents were away. and they took it to Cyril the swan man - who you might remember from last year when he helped repatriate our Cyril after he had got separated from his parents. Apparently, even in the cool of the car, the cygnet began to perk up a bit and revive. Cyril's thought that the problem was probably heat exhaustion and dehydration and was very optimistic that it would pull through. His plan is to take the cygnet to a place near Banbury and release it there, once it has recovered. It would not be safe to try to do it here as the parents would reject it and possibly try to kill it. 

The rest of the family seem to be doing well - and survived the heat of yesterday

LESSONS FROM THE BREADLADY

A couple of weeks ago I said hello to ‘Sue Breadlady’. Sue has got back to me to say that actually her name isn’t Sue Breadlady. It is Sue, but ‘Breadlady’ is a name that has been given to her as she makes a lot of bread.

Sue went on to write about her bread baking. I would like to read it here as I think her words touch on a lot of things about life.  

“I bake many types of breads and sell my loaves at the local farmers markets. As word spread from mouth to mouth of my bread, the buyers began to call me, the breadlady. One customer commented to me, " you must really love bread." Later I thought of what she had said, and asked myself, do I love bread or do I love making bread? So, I pose this question to you. Let me explain how I make and eat my bread, then you tell me.

My sourdough breads starts the night before bake day. I use natural aged yeast that I make myself. I feed my yeast by carefully measuring equal parts water and bread flour and then combining it in to my 11 year old " Mother" starter. I carefully cover it then tuck it in for the night in a cupboard that comes in at a 65°f or 18° c.

The next morning about 5:00 am, just in time to hear the songs and whistles, of the red winged blackbird, being answered by the Carolina wren and the proud crow of a far distant rooster. I turn on the lights of my small, but well stocked kitchen, tie on my colourful pinny, and wash my hands with care and diligence of surgeon.

I gather my ingredients flour, water, salt and last and most important, the bubbly yeast.

With the steady hands of an alchemist, I begin the careful weighing and mixing of the ingredients. Bread is made of flour, salt, water and yeast. Simple and basic ingredients, on their own nothing special, yet together they make the last supper of our Lord, the prisoner’s meagre yet sustaining meal and, when mastered, the smell from it baking can make the mouth water and tummy growl.

Once the few simple ingredients are combined, the real work begins. The kneading and kneading and kneading to point the arms are weak, is not for me. I have a heavy-duty kitchen-aide mixer.

Once the ingredients are well combined, I knead the dough by hand. Feeling the dough, its texture, the amount of moisture and the elasticity is most satisfying. As the dough is stretched, pulled, folded and sometimes slapped onto the work surface, the dough changes texture. It begins to soften and become more elastic. A chemical change takes place. I won't bore you with the actual chemistry, suffice to say, it makes bread yummy.

Once the smooth and now soft texture has been manipulated it’s time to let the dough rest and the yeast must now feed. Covered and set aside, it rests untouched.

Returning an hour later the smooth soft dough has doubled in size, caused by the gas produced by the feeding yeast. These bubbles produced by the yeast is what gives bread its soft texture.

Repeating the stretch, fold, knead and slap with another 3 hours rest and rise, the dough is to be shaped. I love shaping the loaf as freehand. No binding the growth in a pan or tray. I like my loaf tightly shaped in a boule or round shape then another hour or so rest.

Again, the dough rises for the bake then swiftly scored with a razor. The score represents my signature as the baker, the same as an artist signs their work of art. My score is the letter S, for my birth name Sue.

A quick spray of water and into the pre heated 450°f or 233°c double decker pizza oven, onto the hot pizza stone, for 50 minutes.

About 35 minutes into the bake, the smell of fresh baked bread waffles through the house.

My best mates, Chewy, a 12 year old black and tan long hair chihuahua and Teddy, a 2 year old brownish red long hair chihuahua, are sitting in the kitchen, noses high and twitching, waiting for their share. They too love bread. Would that make them breaddogs?

With the entire house smelling of the delicious oven captive, my mouth watering, my tummy growling and the dogs at the ready, the timer rings out. The boys look at me and their tails begin to wag. I don my red oven mitts, open the oven door and am engulfed in the heavenly smell of my bread. Reaching in I pull out the perfect sour dough loaf. Dark brown top with my initial shining through. The entire loaf is crusty and with a quick turn and a few taps on the bottom of the loaf, the expected hollow sound brings joy to my ears.

Close the oven, turn off the heat and my pups are sitting up straight, paws waving up and down in their usual begging position.

Every recipe you read for bread says, let cool. BAWAHAHA.

One of the best things in life is a fresh hot loaf of bread, with the end cut off and covered crust to crust with butter. First bite is mine. Oh my, the warm bread, the melted butter are dancing on my taste buds. Mmmmmm. Who on this earth could resist this delicious moment.

A bark from the impatient pup, Teddy, brings my feet back to earth. I pinch off a small piece for each of waiting helpers.

I bake approximately 30 to 40 loaves every other week to sell. Each loaf is hand kneaded, baked, tapped, packaged and sold to my many customers. Each loaf gives me joy, knowing that my loaves are giving others a slice of heaven."

 

What I love about Sue's account is that it describes the act of baking as not just a creative act (certainly not just ‘cooking something to eat’), but one that, at times, resembles a dance, where the whole body and senses are brought into the act, almost a religious – or at least spiritual – practice; something that carries a sense of sublimity and transcendence about it. It’s almost, an embodied liturgical or even alchemical ritual, a meditation. In all this, there is also something wonderfully earthy, prosaic, pragmatic about it. Something that has been so rooted in our cultural histories that takes us back to our ancestral past.  

 I too make our bread - although it is a simple loaf - a recipe that describes itself as '5 minute bread' and it pretty much is that. A pound of flour, two teaspoons of dried yeast, half a teaspoon of salt, a tablespoon of oil (but optional) and 350 mils of water – yes, I mix imperial with metric - I'm that sort of cook!! Knead until elastic. I fully relate to the physicality of kneading the dough that Sue describes here, feeling the warmth, smelling the rich yeasty scent (that is, somehow, warm, homely, comforting. Being sensitive to the changing textures, the shifts from stickiness to elasticity and back again, sometimes a number of times in the process.  Then putting it somewhere warm to proof until risen. Adjacent to the stove in winters is perfect. Once risen, knead for about 5 minutes more and then put it in the oven at around 220 degrees centigrade or 425 degrees Fahrenheit. Our oven in the boat, I think, runs hot. According to the conversion charts that works out to be about gas mark 7, but I have found just a nudge about gas mark 5 is the best. Bake for 30 minutes and you’re done! 

These almost ritualised daily or weekly acts are important. When I was reading Sue's words, I was instantly reminded of something that Robin Wall Kimmerer wrote about in her book Braiding Sweetgrass

She described how her father started every day by pouring the first cup of that morning's freshly brewed coffee onto the ground with the words "Here's to the gods of the Tahawus." She had assumed that this ritual had its roots in the ancestral past. It was a link to her heritage, her identity and as importantly to her place. It became so part of her life, that as she grew up and left home, she too began to adopt it. Faithfully carrying on the ancient traditions or her people. 

She was therefore, at first devastated and angered to hear her dad's explanation of its origins. 

[READING]

Sue and Robin Wall Kimmerer have each articulated something important. These small, local, personal even, rituals of the everyday, ground us in the earthiness of our lives. In that sense they are deeply spiritual and mythic. 

Sue – I think Breadlady is the perfect name for you. And to answer your question, do you love bread or do you love making bread? I don’t think you can separate them.