Friday, July 2, 2010

Sacred bread

I hesitate before employing the adjective "sacred", in the case of bread, because its Christian overtones are overpowering. But it's surely the word I need. Bread has always been a vital substance in the most noble sanctuary that has ever existed: the home in which parents strive to feed their children and themselves. There were times and places (such as in early 19th-century Ireland) when bread was replaced by potatoes. There had even been a terrible period during which infected rye bread became the Devil's arm for torturing innocent peasants with the ghastly affliction known as Saint Anthony's Fire, depicted in this fragment of a painting by Hieronymus Bosch [1450-1516]:

This disease was finally conquered by clever monks whose hospitals and abbey were located in a lovely Dauphiné village not far from where I live. Their cure consisted simply of prohibiting the consumption of foul rye bread, and feeding their patients with pork broth.

In France, certain persistent superstitions (which I won't enumerate) remind us that we shouldn't fuck around with bread. After all, there are still hordes of magicians who claim that, with mysterious incantations, they're capable of transforming this archaic foodstuff into human flesh. Maybe I should speak rather of superhuman flesh, or even divine flesh. You know what I'm talking about: all that so-called transubstantiation bullshit, in which many otherwise sane folk claim to believe. In fact, I don't imagine for a second that they're really gobbling down cannibalistically a tasty little bit of Jesus's flesh. Besides, if pious folk all over the world have been consuming the Savior for so long, how come there's still a bit of him left? Is his flesh perpetually regenerated, like the missing tail of a lizard? What utter nonsense… and to think that people say they believe in that hogwash.

Let me get back to the "sacred bread" (inverted commas intended to remove all possible religious ambiguities) that I bake regularly at Gamone. It might or might not be religious, Christian, orthodox, Christ's transubstantiated body, or what the fucking hell… but my Gamone bread's bloody tasty. Just ask Sophia!

It's funny to admit that the initial phase of making Gamone bread consists in fact of my getting down on my hands and knees… but not to pray. I simply have to use a carpenter's hammer and a hunk of local tuff rock to break open a bowl of walnuts.

The recipe and the role of the bread machine are straightforward. Meanwhile, my dear dog is entitled to a few stray walnuts.

This photo is lovely. Sophia has put on white gloves (metaphorically, as it were) to handle that walnut, as if it were a rare delicacy, a treasure… which it is, of course, in Sophia's noble and generous mind (akin to that of an ancient Greek philosopher such as Socrates). At that instant, if my dog were a poet (which she surely is, in a way), she would be contemplating the opening stanzas of an ode to a walnut...


  1. We watched Griff Rhys Jones' program on Paris the other night. From memory, at least 80% of bread made in France is made by hand, while in England it's something like 20%. I imagine that Australia would be like England.

    We've been making our own bread for about 10 years now. Use a bread machine to mix the dough. Don't use bread mixes. Only buy Turkish bread, because we can't make it and rarely buy any other bread because we don't like it as much as our own!

    BTW, Sophia is a star :-)

  2. Thanks, Annie, for your reflections. How come I don't have any memories or don't recall any evocations of bread ovens at my ancestral Waterview (South Grafton) homestead? I don't remember ever hearing my relatives talk about wheat, or flour, or anything like that. I was just as dumb as suburban kids who imagine that milk is produced in factories.

  3. Remember, Bill, that our primary school classmate Betty Gregor's dad was the local baker? In those days the baker, milko, and greengrocer all did their horse-drawn rounds to deliver, and the bread was so good that there was probably never any thought of DIY breadmaking for townfolk. I can still taste the beautiful fresh-bread sandwiches that I used to make on the odds days (usually Wednesday before sports afternoon) that I'd ride home from high school for lunch.

  4. Yes, Ron, I well remember Gregor's bakery, located just to the right (I seem to recall) of our barber. I think there was a second bakery down on the corner of Skinner Street and the Gwydir Highway (Ryan Street) where Craig's Birdplace and Pet Shop is now located. If I remember correctly, a standard loaf of bread was composed of a pair of blocks, easy to separate, which meant that it was easy to purchase half a loaf. I retain no visual memory at all of Betty Gregor's father, which merely confirms, no doubt, that he was only visible during the early hours of the morning. There are many unanswered questions in my mind concerning the bread situation in our native place. I can't imagine that rural folk drove their sulkies into South Grafton every day to pick up a loaf of bread. Was fresh bread delivered, like milk, to outlying areas? What exactly was that concoction known as a "damper" (without yeast, if I remember correctly)? Was it a serious foodstuff, or merely symbolic Aussie tucker for individuals such as Ned Kelly, the Man from Snowy River and present-day tourists? What I'm trying to say is that it wasn't until I arrived in France that I learned that the production bread requires a magic substance, yeast, and an oven. For example, what kind of oven did Betty's father use to do his baking? If it was a wood oven, then how come we never saw piles of wood being delivered in front of the bakery, and smoke coming out of his chimney? (The same might be said for Harrison's cake shop in Prince Street, Grafton.) That's what I was getting at when I suggested that, as a child, I simply imagined that bread kind of grew on trees...

  5. I don't have any recollection of Betty Gregor's father either, Bill...and anyway I think it was the other bakery that delivered to my house, the two bakers perhaps having carved up the territory between them. Whatever, the bread just arrived, just like milk's at the supermarket for today's kids. I have a vague idea - and maybe it's from later years when I was teaching at Tumut and Gundagai rather than from South Grafton - that bread and other things might have been delivered out-of-town by a mail contractor, or with school buses, to roadside mail boxes (remember the boxes and upended 10-gallon drums on posts, hand-painting-labeled RMB with a number?). Or perhaps carried by the daily brown bus to Glen Innes, the silver bus to Armidale, the yellow bus to Woolgoolga, or whatever-coloured other buses went to Wooli, Yamba, Iluka, Copmanhurst, etc (when many of the main roads were still unsealed gravel). As for damper, I think I've only ever had it once or twice, probably at a touristy restaurant in Sydney, and probably nothing like Ned Kelly's campfire production. Getting back to the bakery, I think our barber next door was Tommy McDonald. I'm sure that at school we used to refer to him as Tommy, as in "I'm going to see Tommy for a haircut on the way home from school today", but I was always very careful to call him Mr McDonald to his face. However, one afternoon as I was climbing into the chair (by then old enough not to need the box that he'd put on the chair for little kids) I forget, and said "Hullo Tommy" or such-like. Immediately I felt terribly ashamed at my discourtesy and wanted to disappear, hoping he hadn't noticed. He didn't say anything, but I was sure to never ever thereafter address him other than as Mister McDonald. Sorry that I'm rambling on rather long here with thoughts that would perhaps be better left until such time, if ever, that I get to call in on you to share a bottle or two of your local red, some of your home-made bread, and some cheese, and to make friends with Sophia. However, I'm reminded of one late afternoon at home when Andy Pollack and Bobby Gregor were kicking a football around the front yard...and it hit the wires coming in to my house, shorted them, and down they came. Bobby disappeared very smartly, no doubt sensibly deciding that discretion was the better part of valour. My Mum probably had dinner ready, and then we were going down to the pictures at the Prince Edward to see High Noon (Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly), meaning that it didn't matter much that the Northern Rivers County Council couldn't come to fix things until next day. It was probably a warm night, before the air conditioning that people can't survive without today, and before fans too.

  6. Sorry, Bill. I didn't mean to send it three times. On the first two attempts I got a response that it was too big to go, so I kept abbreviating until they stopped chastising me. However it turns out that they were telling fibs each time, sending it anyway. Tricky buggers.

  7. It wasn't until I arrived here at Choranche that I saw, for the first time ever, a traditional wood-burning oven for baking bread or pizzas, and started to understand how such a device actually functioned. I was amazed to learn, for example, that the burning wood is located inside the oven, to one side of the stuff being baked. That's to say, I cannot recall ever having heard of, let alone seen, such a bread oven back in the Clarence River district. At Waterview, we had a wood-fuelled metal "stove" for daily cooking. In my grandparents' houses in Grafton, they cooked with municipal gas. Maybe, one of these days, I'll put this question of bread-making to Frank Mack, at the CRHS (Clarence River Historical Society). Talking about traditional food preparation, I cannot recall ever having seen a carcass of lamb being roasted on a spit in Australia. People boast about the Aussie BBQ tradition but, compared with roasting on a spit, BBQ steaks and sausages are urban Mickey Mouse stuff.

  8. I stumbled across this post searching online for my mother's maiden name. I thought you might be interested to know that Betty Keith nee Gregor passed away last October, her parents Allan and Doris both passed away in 1996, and her brother Bob is living in Los Angeles. I'd love to talk to some of mum's friends from school days if possible.