“Memories, even your most precious ones, fade surprisingly quickly. But I don’t go along with that. The memories I value most, I don’t ever see them fading.” Kazuo Ishiguro
Making deliciously moist, soft loaves, which are multi-purpose breads with long shelf-life is a thankful activity, as one can bake bread enough for a week as they are great for becoming sandwiches, being fried or accompanying soups or sauce-filled dishes. The best way to create artisan style, old-world European rustic loaves is to start with a soft, wet naturally leavened dough, and to bake it in a hot oven. In my grandparents’ younger days the wood fired communal bread-ovens were the traditional way to produce artisan style bread. The oven held steam from the loaves to produce a rich, caramelized, delicate crust. The high temperature of the walls bakes the interior of the loaves without drying them out. After a couple of hours the oven continued to hold heat at lower temperatures, that was perfect for baking pie and pastry, making various community-baking projects each time the oven was fired up.
Many older people still remember outdoor brick ovens from the countries they came from, almost anywhere in Europe, but in most parts of the world, the old communal bread ovens are falling into disrepair or are already gone.
Building wood-fired bread ovens created for communal use would certainly be one way to bring slow, excellent bread back. An oven is a story magnet. People rarely pass by the oven when something is baking without stopping to talk. This means that the natural inhibitions of strangers about speaking to one another are overcome by the natural desire to tell what one knows about the bake. Such stories recollect smell, taste and physical movement. Layer after layer of memories: my grandmother used to test the small wood-fired oven for the right temperature…she marked all her loaves before and after baking…the oven always had to be very carefully opened…being a child I had to collect the kindling from my grandfather and take it to my grandmother in a beautiful homemade wicker basket…
The wicker baskets – in many different shapes, colours and sizes – were made by my grandfather and I often used it for collecting all sorts of treasures, like chestnuts. In the area of Hungary where I grew up and in the area of Romania where my husband grew up, chestnuts were plenty, beautiful and tasty. I remember my dear grandfather as he used to roast chestnuts early in the morning, peel them and put a handful of them in my coat pocket, still warm, to accompany me on the walk to school…Eating and using chestnuts in baking bring back many fond memories for both my beloved husband and myself.
“I can only note that the past is beautiful because one never realises an emotion at the time. It expands later, and thus we don’t have complete emotions about the present, only about the past.” Virginia Woolf
200-250 g cooked, mashed chestnut
500 g flour
2 tsp salt
2 tbsp oil
200 g mature sourdough starter
200 ml water mixed with 50 ml yogurt
1 tsp sugar
10 g fresh yeast
Weigh out chestnut once cooked and peeled (alternatively, use canned version). Pour liquid ingredients, including the starter, into a large bowl, then sprinkle in the yeast. Stir in the sugar and leave in a warm place for about 10 minutes until a light foam appears on the surface. Mash the chestnuts with the oil in the saucepan until they’re as smooth as possible, then stir in the yeast mixture and salt. Mix well with a wooden spoon and gradually add the flour, a few tablespoons at a time, stirring well before adding more. When the dough becomes too stiff to stir in the flour, turn it out on to the work surface and knead the remaining flour into the dough. Knead the dough for 10 minutes until soft and pliable. Place it in a lightly oiled bowl, cover loosely with lightly oiled cling film and leave to rise overnight.
Knock back the dough and shape it into a rough ball. Flatten the ball on a floured surface until it is about 2cm thick, then bring the sides up to the middle and turn it upside down, to give a shiny, tight surface to the bread. Sprinkle on some wholemeal flour on the outside of the loaf, for additional texture. Place it on a lightly oiled and floured baking sheet, rough-side down, and leave to prove in a warm place for about a further 60 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 220°C. Score the dough with a knife and sprinkle the top with flour. Bake the loaf in the center of the oven for about 45-60 minutes until well risen and crusty on top. Cool on a wire rack.
“God gave us memory so that we might have roses in December.” J.M. Barrie