I’m fond of the homely rituals that come with midwinter, Christmas and New Year. I especially love decorating the house, putting up and taking down the tree and rediscovering cinnamon angels and glass baubles with their tender, freighted memories of other Christmases shared with other people in other places. It’s a time of so many emotions, but ultimately it’s a time when I want to give thanks for life and love, for those around me and for those who’ve gone.
Among the most ancient of Christmas tree decorations in our house are a small snowman and a smaller Santa Claus which our son Freddie made from sourdough and painted when he was five. Sourdough is clearly a material with a long life, because both are as fine as the day he made them, which was more than eighteen years ago – though I dare say the mixture contained a lot of salt!
The persistence of sourdough got me thinking, and this year (since I’ve recently started making bread again) I’ve invented a new – for us – homely ritual: making a sourdough loaf to bread us into the New Year.
Today’s recipe is for a sourdough that uses a rye starter, with organic white flour added at the dough-making stage. Somehow the mix of fermented starter which has captured yeasts from the environment (I’m learning to keep the starter going and take a small amount of it which I ‘feed’ and use as a base for each loaf), organic strong white Suffolk-milled flour, water from our new county and finest sea salt seem to make a wonderful set of symbolic ingredients to combine in a nourishing loaf that will carry us into 2019. The fermented starter holds what we take with us from 2018, including the care I have taken to feed it. The strong white flour represents the raw material and hope we bring to a new year. The water is literally the stuff of life. Salt – well, that brings savour and healing and the idea of longevity, and so much more.
Kneading the mixture this morning, I thought about all the work and joys of the past year, all the work and joys of the year to come and I folded them in together. Now I’ve left the loaf to prove and rise magically in a warm place at the centre of the house. Tomorrow morning, once I’ve knocked the dough about and left it to prove again, I’ll bake it in a hot oven and the entire house will fill with the scent of bread. The best of 2018 will rise to meet the New Year and we’ll rise to taste it.
May 2019 bring you good health, joy, peace and love. Happy New Year!
And here, for good measure, is a delicious poem:
Bread by Richard Levine
Each night, in a space he’d make
between waking and purpose,
my grandfather donned his one
suit, in our still dark house, and drove
through Brooklyn’s deserted streets
following trolley tracks to the bakery.
There he’d change into white
linen work clothes and cap,
and in the absence of women,
his hands were both loving, well
into dawn and throughout the day—
kneading, rolling out, shaping
each astonishing moment
of yeasty predictability
in that windowless world lit
by slightly swaying naked bulbs,
where the shadows staggered, woozy
with the aromatic warmth of the work.
Then, the suit and drive, again.
At our table, graced by a loaf
that steamed when we sliced it,
softened the butter and leavened
the very air we’d breathe,
he’d count us blessed.