The moment we knew the plague had reached our shores we went all medieval - no, we went pre-medieval, pre-historical even. For within a day of the first case being announced, my local supermarket was stripped of flour and yeast. If the capitalist god wouldn't give us our daily bread we'd bake the stuff ourselves.
Bread's a fine old word and it doesn't mean just bread. It means all forms of sustenance. The breadwinner brings in what the family needs to live. A nation's best soil is its breadbasket. Bread and circuses are the two things essential to appease the mob. If either goes there will be discontent. Stones will fly at palaces. There must be bread.
Bread's just the seeds of grasses milled into flour, mixed with water and baked. It's always been with us and it's barely changed in millennia. Miller and Baker are ancient surnames.
I'm neither miller nor baker. Like millions I once bought a bread-making machine. I filled it as directed, left it on overnight and woke to the smell and sight of a plump little sandwich loaf. Twice. Then I stuck the thing in a cupboard until I could forget how much I spent on it whereupon I tossed it.
Why? Because breadmaker bread wasn't better than supermarket bread. And it didn't have the redeeming virtue of being something I'd made. The machine had made it.
In France 40 years ago I lived next door to a boulangerie. It baked the sort of bread you bought two of: one to eat at home and one to eat on the way home. It was bread as bread ought to be.
A few years ago I thought I'd like to make baguettes. It couldn't be that hard. It was that hard. Every loaf I made was stamped with the word failure.
But hope rises like dough, and when the virus arrived I thought to join the throng of breadmakers. I had flour in the cupboard. I had water in the tap. I had a thousand bread recipes on the internet. And every one of those recipes called for yeast.
Yeast is the stranger in bread, the plumping breath of a baking god. And I didn't have any. Neither did the supermarket. I asked an assistant when they'd be getting some and a woman who overheard us said, "why don't you catch your own?"
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"Catch my own?"
"It's called sourdough. Look it up."
I looked it up.
"Mix a cup of flour," said the internet, "with three-quarters of a cup of water, cover, put in a warm place and expect a miracle."
The miracle to expect was the capture of yeast, not commercial yeast, not dried and reconstituted yeast, but circumambient yeast, yeast from the air, yeast unique to the particular place I inhabit, my very own yeast.
It would settle on the flour and water mix and feed on it. I would know when I had caught it because I'd see bubbles. And once I saw bubbles I had to feed it for a week, feed it flour and water which was all it asked, and keep it warm and it would thank me by just multiplying.
And after that week it would be an organism of its own, a beast that when fed could double its size in a morning , a yeast-pet I'd name and keep alive for ever and a day. In San Francisco, so they said, there were sourdough yeasts as old as the United States.
Having made my yeast-trap I barely slept, was up at dawn to take it from the cupboard, slip the tea-towel off it and behold - no bubbles whatsoever.
Be patient, said the internet, I was patient. And lo, on the third day, I had bubbles. Not many of them admittedly, but bubbles, perhaps 20 little yeast farts. I fed the thing according to instructions. On the fourth day a few more bubbles. One the fifth it turned red and stank. Throw it out, said the internet. I threw it out and locked the door behind it lest it follow me back in.
The internet has many voices. Most had an opinion on sourdough. I started again with different quantities. I put a starter in the oven with the light on to keep it warm. I put one high in the pantry where only the mice go. This morning, two weeks after I started, I had four on the go. Two had a few bubbles. Two had none.
When I went to the supermarket this morning they had yeast. Reader, I bought some. I shall bake.