There is something about the smell of fresh bread that you just can’t beat. It’s one of the simple joys in life, an aroma that reminds us of the little things that matter.
As a child, I lived next door to a bakery. I had to scale a wall and then carefully ease down onto the yard next door where the bakery delivery vans were parked, sometimes using their bonnets to lean on.
It was a magical place, full of metal urns in which the milk was delivered three times a week. The empty urns were stacked in the yard and had a sourness I can smell to this day. But nothing could beat the smell of the loaves being baked in the ovens wafting through up the street.
There were large sacks of white and brown flour, plastic bags full of raisins and nuts, grains and sultanas, all used in their combinations and permutations and put into big aluminium commercial mixers, where the milk and water were added.
When the bakers were happy, the big mix of dough was turned out onto vast tables and, with sleight of hand and the slash of a knife, just the right amount of dough was tossed into a scales, and then effortlessly into a waiting baking tin.
The bakers themselves were always covered in a white dust, almost with a deathly pallor producing such a staple of life. Their eyes, however, always seemed the only earthy thing about them, piecing through the flour-coated eyelids. Rarely did they talk, but the whole thing was a well-oiled machine, turning out batch after batch of crusty loaves. Sometimes, the lads working there would give this imp a loaf almost straight out of the devilish oven. I swear I burnt my hands so many times then, trying to scurry back over the wall and home with the hot, crusty bread.
I’ve tried to bake bread myself, with some success. Recipe books tell you that you know it’s done when you knock the back of the upturned load and it makes a ‘hollow’ sound. I think I’m always afraid to knock it just right for it never seems to have that certain bass note that sings a perfectly baked bread.
The perfect loaf
For a while, there was a fad for all-in-one bread-making machines. All you had to do was plug it in, set the temperature, then add flour and water. Shops sold the packaged bread mix and made the job so simple. At least that’s what the advertising said. I’m not so sure it was that simple, as the machines have gone out of fashion.
When I bake my bread, it never seems to be light enough. It’s not so much heavy either, just not fluffy enough with the folds that soak up butter when it’s slathered all over. The professionals will tell you that humidity affects the recipe, so too the temperature of the oven, the water you use, the ratio of flour and the brand, quality — it all comes together to make the perfect loaf.
I’ve tried making things like naan and chapatis on tawas and on the barbecue, but they never seem to turn out right either.
Some of the best bread I’ve tasted was in Hanoi, and the baguettes were a hangover from the colonial French times. Gladly, the practice of bread-making survived all the turmoil that country endured these past seven decades.
In Libya too, in the back streets of Benghazi, the bread and bakeries were second to none — again a cultural and culinary nod to the influence of the Italian regime there in the 1930s.
But the best bread that I think I’ve ever had was on the rare occasions when my mother would bake.
Everything else pales in comparison. What I wouldn’t give right now for a simple slice of the best thing in life. I’m just a half-baked baker.