The New Normal: Baking bread in an age of isolation

The New Normal is a four-part series that explores some of the ways our lives have changed as a consequence of Covid-19. As we wait for a return to our familiar patterns of life, we are beginning to understand that our lives have changed forever, but not necessarily for the worse. Human beings are really good at adapting to changing circumstances. Part 1 of the New Normal opens the oven door to explore the cultural renaissance of baking bread and our desire to prove that we can take survival into our own hands.

In the face of the brutal facts of illness, death, growing poverty and isolation, it is entirely reasonable to want to return to something like our recent past, something we might, for want of a better word, call "normality".

Governments want it, corporations need it, the economy demands it, but there is a gentle yet insistent voice that can be heard just above the clamour saying, "I'm not completely sure I want to return to normal".

In moments of quiet reflection people might be thinking that the old "normal" may have been a touch overrated.

There is now a growing recognition that the lockdown might have put us in touch with some part of ourselves that we may have forgotten or let drift.

For many of us, lockdown life seems less hectic. There seems to be less noise, less traffic, cleaner air.

And amidst the absences on the supermarket shelves, there are opportunities for the imagination to take hold, chances to be inventive and find the satisfaction of creative solutions.

When we 'break bread' we may be expressing our brotherhood with others, but we may also be making peace with our enemies.

Solutions that are not "digital", not owned by Amazon, but owned by us, owned by our past, our traditions and our ingenuity. It is our magic.

For French chef and breadmaker Phillippe Kanyaro the essence of bread is freshness.

"When you eat bread it should be made today, it should be fresh," Mr Kanyaro said.

"It should not be a week old, not be three days old. If you see bread in the shop and says it will expire next week or next month, don't buy that bread.

"Buy a bread that says it will expire tonight. Bread should be made today and eaten today.

"If you go to France you will see there are so many bakeries. Almost a baker in every street.

"The French people will buy the bread in the morning and then they will go and buy more bread in the night when they finish work.

"Most of the time the bakers know exactly how much to bake because they have regular customers.

"Sometimes you might go into such a shop and you see six loaves on the shelves and you want to buy one, but the baker won't sell it to you, because it is for the regular customers and that is the best way, that is the way it should be."

Bread is one of the oldest man-made foods. It dates back to at least 10,000 BC and its journey to the present has involved a lot more than being something good to eat.

It has been an enduring metaphor for fundamental survival and redemption.

When we "break bread" we may be expressing our brotherhood with others, but we may be also be making peace with our enemies.

Bread is central to the religious ceremony of communion in which it represents the body of Christ, but it has also had less exalted references.

Machiavelli's advice to a new Prince was kill your rivals and keep the public onside with "bread and circuses".

Marie Antoinette, perplexed at why anyone would want to chop her head off, and been told it was because the people had no bread, proved she was completely across the issue by famously declaring, "Let them eat cake".

In modern times it has become a term often associated with money: "What do you do for a 'crust' Jim?", "Hey brother, can you lend me some 'bread'?" or, "I need a job where I can earn more 'dough'." Don't we all.

When, last month, the supply of bread in supermarkets began to run low, the absence of wonder white triggered some ancient drum beat in our collective psyche, and people by the thousands began rediscovering the ancient art of bread making.

Last time I looked #breadmaking had racked up well over half a million posts and flour sales have gone through the roof.

All of a sudden, it wasn't bread that was in short supply, it was flour and yeast.

Bread is as complex as the world it feeds

The baking of bread raises idyllic images of the life of a family kitchen, the amber glow and warmth of the oven on a cold morning, a type of sensory paradise full of rich and dreamy smells, the work of loving hands and caring providers.

But just as we were drifting off into that dream, some morbid kill-joy historian will tell you about a disease called "ergotism" which was caused by consuming rye bread that had been infected by a nasty fungus and killed about 40,000 Germans in 994.

It was a great plague that produced a "loathsome rot" and caused people's limbs to drop off before they died. Victims suffered a neat collection of insanity, vomiting, and gangrene.

This ergot-tainted rye bread also had some interesting side effects. It brought on hallucinations and led people to go dancing madly through the streets, babbling gibberish, foaming at the mouth and generally having a good old time.

Well of course, we couldn't have that, so we blamed the women, called them witches and burned them at the stake, or drowned them, or hung them.

Breadmaker Phillippe Kanyaro.

Breadmaker Phillippe Kanyaro.

Remember the Salem witch hunt back in the 1690s? Yes, you guessed it... too much ergot, and old Satan cut loose and they had to hang 19 good folks to clear the air.

When you buy your loaf of white bread at the supermarket it probably won't make your limbs fall off or get you hung, but it may not be the best decision you can make regarding your health.

White supermarket bread uses highly processed flour and additives which reduce nutritional value. Preservatives are used to give the bread a longer life, refined sugar is added and food colour. You can add some bleached flours and chemical additives to that.

The general vibe from the health industry is too much white bread can contribute to obesity, heart disease, diabetes and even cancer.

All of which has made bread the devil in disguise.

But what you can't deny is that the bread you buy in a supermarket is cheap, very cheap, and the bread you buy in a boutique bakery can be expensive, very expensive.

So while you are temporarily housebound why not touch base with your ancient relatives and bake your own. It will be fresh and you will know what's in it, so it will be as good for you as you want it to be.

But Phillippe Kanyaro warns that bread is very addictive and doesn't need to be eaten with everything.

"I see people eating garlic bread when they sit down for dinner.

"I don't understand this.

"For dinner bread should be like a sponge. When you finish your meal you wipe your plate with the bread to get all the flavours left on the plate.

"You're not supposed to be gorging it with cheese and garlic before your meal.

"I always remember when we used to have a bowl of soup, we would eat our soup and the bread was there on the side of the table.

"There was no butter on the table.

"I can't understand why you put butter on bread.

"But anyway, when we finished the soup, we used to put a little sea salt in the bowl, a little cracked pepper, a tiny bit of red wine, stir it in, drink that, and wipe the plate with the bread. Beautiful."

This story Bake us this day our daily bread and deliver us from evil first appeared on The Canberra Times.