I have never had a sweet tooth. I grew up in the sort of house where a shower of funsize Mars bars and Milky Ways would rain on your head whenever a cupboard was opened.
Perversely, this meant I felt nothing when I broke a Kit-Kat in two and always considered white chocolate to be the work of the devil. Instead, I developed a taste for a stolen square of cooking chocolate, purely on the grounds that I wasn’t supposed to eat it (basically because it’s disgusting).
Ma Ramaswamy’s motto was pretty much: give it to them and, should they refuse, give it to them again. Like Oliver Twist’s plea for more, but turned on its head. The upshot is that I couldn’t care less about sweet things. Tray bakes and puds, cupcakes and bonbons – they interest me as much as the BBC’s current inability to turn its gaze from its own navel.
What I do care about, deeply, is bread. Yes, the demon loaf that bloats us, gives us headaches, a fat gut, and leads to appallingly sentimental adverts featuring old mills and boys on bicycles bathed in autumn sunshine. Bread is my chocolate. I spend much of my waking life trying to get my chops around it. I like it with Marmite, cheese, soup, bacon, lime pickle or, when it’s really good, nothing at all. I eat it for breakfast, toasted and buttered. The sandwich reigns over lunch. Dinner is all the better with a chapati in place of a fork. Bread is kind of like the BBC, in fact. As much as I moan about it, mistrust it and worry about my consumption of it, I can’t imagine life without it.
And so, on a weekend before payday, I plan to while away an afternoon baking a loaf of bread. How tough can it be? All my friends (mostly male, incidentally) seem to be churning out sourdoughs by the dozen.
The problem begins where most food-related problems begin: in the supermarket. What’s the difference between strong white bread flour and plain? Is packet yeast cheating? And the age-old: are baking soda and bicarbonate of soda the same thing? I text my bread-making friend N. His Confucius-esque reply is, “The best bread takes the longest”. I decide to buy one of everything, which costs more than any posh artisan loaf.
At home I pick a recipe with the word “easy” in the title and end up with a small fist of dough. Now I have to leave it in an airing cupboard for a lifetime. Apart from the fact that I have no patience, I have no airing cupboard. In fact, there is nowhere warm in my flat, which is why I’m making bread – to create the illusion of warmth with homely smells. So now, in order to make bread, I must install a better heating system or move flat. This loaf is getting more expensive by the minute.
An hour later, the sun has gone down, I’m starving, and the kitchen looks like a flour bomb has hit it. Now I have to pummel the dough, which has doubled in size, and then leave it to prove for yet another hour before it goes in the oven. I text N to ask how he has time to bake bread, work full-time and hold down a relationship. He promises to forward his “bread-making timetable”. I try to remember why I set out on this epic journey. Something about liking bread. It’s as if the dough, as it swells, is sucking the life force from me. As it grows stronger, I weaken. Only one of us can make it. And there are no funsize Mars bars in the cupboard. n