Bake a Difference

 ,  |  Updated: February 26, 2015 14:17 IST

Bake a Difference

'You are rooted in the moment of making bread, its phases and rituals. It can't be hurried.' Photograph: Gareth Phillips

Still searching for the recipe for happiness? How about flour, water and yeast?

I was kneading bread dough when I heard that my mother was dying. Well, to be precise, I was kneading when my sister's call came to tell me that there were only a few minutes to go. I couldn't answer, because I was wrist-deep in a bowl of very sticky rye sourdough: one of a production line of 40 loaves that day at my home-based micro-bakery. It took a few seconds of washing off the bread gloop to get the heart-breaking voicemail. I never finished those loaves.

That terrible moment, viewed at a couple of years' distance now, makes me smile. Not only did my mother teach me to bake, so everything to do with it remains comforting and nurturing, but it underscores one of the key reasons making bread is so good for you: you really can't do much else while you're baking.

I've taught nearly 1,400 people to bake in my domestic kitchen in Cardiff, in small groups of four or five, and I see the transformative effects of bread-making in every single class. No matter how people arrive for a day of baking - and mostly that's frazzled from a long, stressful week, but it includes the full spectrum of emotions and situations, with some in recovery from serious illness and trauma - they leave looking and feeling different, beaming as they carry warm loaves home.

For Julia Ponsonby, author of The Art of Mindful Baking, it's all about the immersive nature of baking. "People feel incredibly empowered by baking bread. It's really creative, satisfying and good fun, the physical act of kneading bread and seeing it rise," she explains. "When you knead, it's giving your hands an exercise, which is really good for us, and it gives us a connection with being patient - it's almost a meditation. It's a natural slowing process; you are slowing your actions down but you can still have your thoughts at the same time, so you are freeing up mental space for doing other things with no noise interrupting you."

Elisabeth Mahoney

Elisabeth Mahoney: 'There is something deeply therapeutic about bread.'Photograph: Gareth Phillips

Those key elements of creating a space outside of the frenetic day-to-day and using your hands in direct contact to make something, when many of us rely on keyboards and screens to make things happen, apply to other realms as well of course: other types of cooking and cake-baking, art and the whole craft revival, knitting and sewing, growing your own. All of these home-based activities have flourished in the austerity years, with their affordable basic materials and 1940s nostalgia vibe, and they are almost always about sharing the results with others - as gifts, dinner, or at the very least a smug Facebook or Instagram post. But there is something deeply therapeutic about bread, and for Ponsonby that connects it directly to mindfulness.

"Breadmaking is an intrinsically mindful process," she suggests, "both consciously looking at your ingredients, getting the right balance of flours, and the meditative aspects of the process to make something healthy. Mindfulness is about the awareness of others, awareness of ourselves, to look at our surroundings or ourselves with new eyes, to take our blinkers off."

This philosophy underpins a week-long workshop Ponsonby is co-hosting next month in Devon, which unites meditation, mindfulness and baking. I co-teach day classes and retreats (in Wales, Bristol, and London) that unite bread-making and dynamic yoga for the same reasons: there is an enjoyable profoundness and sense of achievement about bread-making that marries with other reflective practices that stretch you in different ways.

These are all, crucially, about time. Mirroring the rise of the "slow food" movement, the resurgent interest in bread that doesn't come pre-sliced in plastic is about detaching yourself from smartphones and emails, deadlines and panic about everything you haven't got done. You are rooted in the moment of making bread, its phases and rituals. It can't be hurried - especially not sourdough, which brings the added palaver of making a starter to use instead of yeast, keeping it alive, panicking about it being dead, and feeling bad if it conks out because you already gave it a name. "Stan's dead", a friend texted me last week. It took a while to remember that Stan was her sourdough starter and even longer to word the condolence text in reply.

But these rituals connect us to what we are eating, and how it's made, and that's why they are freeing and vital. There is also the good old-fashioned fun of waiting for your loaf to come out of the oven, and the brilliant get-out clause that, however it looks, you can always use the cover-all term "artisan", which you can't do with fancy cakes. Making bread takes you outside of whoever you might have been that day, that week, just for a bit.

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I learned the hard way that making bread is about more than what you might be mixing in the bowl. For several months after my mother died, I couldn't bear to bake - this was highly inconvenient given the day job - and I got as close to phobic about it as I've been phobic about anything (except seaweed and frogs, both of which deserve it). I cried into dough, threw dough away because I couldn't face it, paid someone else to bake for me - just because the process was etched on me as a reminder of someone I'd lost. That's why it's good for us, and makes us happy. It makes us think; it makes us talk; it makes us reflect on where we are and who we are. It means something.

Mindful Baking, Mindful Food is at Schumacher College, Dartington, Devon, 23- 27 March. There are Stretch + Knead bread and yoga day classes at Hamilton House, Bristol, on 11 April and The Arc, London N1, on 19 April, and a weekend retreat of yoga and sourdough bread in Monmouthshire on 8-10 May.


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Tags:  Baking