Sunday, February 8, 2015

Inspiration...The Bread Exchange

Basque Sheepherders Bread

Hello!! It's been a while since I penned a blog post - the truth of the matter is that my inspiration has waned and I've been waiting for a new wave of interest to find me so that I would feel the impending desire to write again and write about something worthwhile and interesting...

Recently, I heard an interview on BBC news while driving home from work one evening that stopped me in my tracks and caught my interest in a way that even surprised me. The story, featuring Malin Elmlid, a Swede who’s based in Berlin, discussed her love of sourdough bread and what a cultural key bread can be to discovering so much about so many - the common and edible thread that weaves together almost every culture on the planet. She even turned her desire to bake and trade bread into a lifestyle that's since garnered a book deal, The Bread Exchange, elevating her recognition within the International food community. 

As a Celiac, this interview might have been reason to switch to another channel on Sirius XM given the intense discussion around sourdough and naan, both which I clearly can't eat in the traditional sense of baking. Yet the feeling that came through to me as I listened to this woman discussing the touch, smell, feel and passion of baking bread was intoxicating. I wanted to hear more about her Bread Exchange and how on earth trading loaves of fresh bread with perfect strangers across continents could evolve into a multi-cultural exchange, and a life-changing experience.

It's true that science can trace back the creation of bread to nearly 30,000 years ago. Bread, in all its various forms, is the most "widely consumed food in the world". Not only is it an important source of carbohydrates and protein (from gluten), it's also compact and portable, which helps explain why it has been an integral part of our diets for thousands of years. More than 12,000 years ago, primitive people made flat breads by mixing flour and water and placing these "cakes" in the sun to bake. Later, bread was baked on heated rocks or in the hot ashes of fire. As empires rose and fell the evolution of bread was intimately connected to the ancient cultures of the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans. At one time it was said that the Greeks baked over 50 different varieties of bread. It is also said that Columbus brought the first known loaf of sourdough bread to this country in 1492. 

The value of sharing bread is "borderless" and symbolic, both culturally and religiously, around the world. It's also the staple food in the majority of cultures, and like people, breads have regional and national characteristics that influence. Growing up in a Basque family, bread was always present at our table and social gatherings. We learned early on about Basque Sheepherder's bread, hearing tales my grandfather, “Chichie,” would share about baking that bread in a Dutch oven while living alone as a young man in the mountains of rural Nevada and Oregon tending sheep. It was not only a staple in his diet, but his cultural companion to boot. 

Artisan breads at the Burlingame Farmer's Market 

A diagnosis of Celiac Disease changes ones' relationship with bread...entirely. Personally, I've made peace with the loss of real sourdough, Italian Focaccia, fresh Parisian croissants and yes, Sheepherder's Bread...that was until I listened to this BBC story and learned more about The Bread Exchange!  

As the news story continued with baker/author Malin Elmlid, she spoke more about her experimental baking late into the night that would happen after working a "regular job" in the fashion industry by day. She started giving away her breads to friends, colleagues and strangers, which then transformed into travels and trading breads for say, concert tickets or sailing lessons, or being invited into a family's home in Kabul, Afghanistan to partake in a meal. The experience of arriving in a strange land with nothing more to offer than a loaf of bread might sound unwise, even naive, however; Malin goes on to express how the sharing of bread is "borderless" and opens up people's hearts and minds, breaking down cultural barriers through exchange. It's such a simple yet authentic concept that a loaf or a piece of bread can be the catalyst that offers perfect strangers the window to exchange world views through this humble yet mighty nourishment. 

The more I write about and research bread and learn of the "artisan" varieties that seem to be available at every Farmer's Market anywhere, my taste buds and heart are tugged at wanting to pick up a baguette, break off a piece, and eat it right on the spot! And let's not even get me started about when I'm traveling in Europe, most especially France, where my version of "pain frais" is well, window shopping!! My years in Italy also exposed me to massive amounts of "pane fresco" and far too many non-gluten free crumbs near my plate that I shutter to recall! But what influenced me the most during my time in friend's and family households was breads' presence at every meal and every table on a daily basis. Life without fresh bread would be for most, life without good conversation or joy. It's essential and engrained in most cultures' DNA. As the Hungarian saying goes, "bread is older than man". 

Breaking bread will most likely always be away for society to commune and take time to share good food and conversation with one another, and bread will remain a foundation at family tables (well, not mine!). Baking techniques will certainly continue to evolve as will the demand for baked goods and more options for gluten-free eaters, which is nice (I'm trying to be optimistic here), but the longing for a piece of Sheepherder's Bread my grandfather used to bake stays with me - I can almost taste it.