My attraction to breads started more than 10 years ago. I can’t even explain the reason, maybe the crack of the crust or the scent of the baking bread enchanted me or the moment, when I first smelled the fermenting dough. Anyway, my collection of cookbook- which was already not a small one at that time- started to grow with books about bread and I fall so much in love with the subject that I asked my French friend in Provence to help me to get into the local bakery to watch the baker during work.
It was a wonderful, unforgettable week in Provence right at the time when fruit trees started to bloom and the weather was little whimsical but already brought the promise of hot summer days. Each day was like a celebration, a feast of gastronomy, cooking, tastes and scents and I got every day a gift : something new to learn. How to make pralines in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, knife skills and how to filet a whole rabbit from a chef from Orange and how to make the famous trois chocolate cake from a local pastry chef. Then one night around 1.30 am. we walked the streets of Tavel following the lights of the bakery in order to immerse in Patrick, the baker’s own world.
We were watching him while he started his usual working day and created wonders with his hands: different kinds of baguettes, croissants, brioche á tête (my favourite the little brioche with the hat on top) and a wide variety of cakes. At that time I didn’t speak any French so I was just listening to Patrick’s fast speech, then Christine’s translation in English and I took deep breaths of the steaming scents. I looked at the movements, the usual methods of making bread which for me where like a secret language to decode.
A couple of month later I am wearing baker’s suit, have a kitchen towel fixed to my apron and attending a workshop of artisanal bread baking in New York, at the French Culinary Institute. Finally I am learning this special secret language that I was longing for: I am shaping baguette, ciabatta, pain bordelaise, and fold croissant several times. We bake pizza for lunch for ourselves
and a dozen of stranger from all over the world just talk and talk about one thing: bread. I feel myself at home.
After returning home I face a serious dilemma: should I become a chef or a baker. This dilemma might seem ridiculous concerning that I graduated as economist and was working as event manager at a multinational company at that time, but it wasn’t. Finally my decision was made based on one quite prosaic reason: I can’t get up early. So I went back to school and a year later I receive my diploma of culinary arts.
Breads get into the background for a certain time, but they are still present in my life. We make our own bread for our guests in my provencal-styled bistro in Budapest and I bake croissant on Saturdays for those who are willing to come to the 7th district to have a real French breakfast. I get up at 4 am in the morning to give a final touch to the pastries that I prepared the day before. So my theory about not being able to get up early is debunked. I can get up early as long as I have a good reason. Bread.
A couple of years later I work as a pastry cook in an artisanal bakery in Málaga, Spain. While I am baking cakes I am watching Maria, the baker, her shaping movements, as she pulls down the breads with her palms on the working surface to shape them; once she puts them into the proofing baskets and when she cuts the top right before she puts the breads into the oven so the steam can be released during the baking process. Maria uses traditionally stone-ground flour and sourdough and total fermentation process takes 24 hours. This sourdough came directly from San Fransisco first to a baker in Barcelona from whom Maria got a piece after her apprenticeship.
After working with her, for her I understood that to become a baker you not only sacrifice long sleeps and your reward is not only the smell of a fresh-baked loaf. Being a baker is a passion, a lifestyle. Maria left her job as a university teacher to become a full-time baker and she and her husband, Borja are living their complete life in the bakery, for the bakery. For the sake of serving healthy bread.
When I decide to leave Malaga and move back to Hungary, Maria asks me the question:
‘Judit, do you want a baby?’
Tears come into my eyes, because I understand very well, what she meant. Having a leaven is similar to have a baby. You have to feed it, care for it, think of it. If you get a piece of starter from a baker, that means she shares a part of her secret with you.
So my sourdough starter (its nickname is ‘Kovi’) travelled with us in a cooler bag from Málaga along the east coast of Spain to Avignon, our first stop, then following the Côte d’Azur it crossed France with us. It was there when we had our picnic lunch of French bread and cheese in Italy overlooking the Mediterranean sea and it was there also when we got through the Austrian Alps in a heavy rain. Later it also joined us for a trip to Denmark when we went to the Food Photo Festival, so it could take a deep breath from the air at the Danish Fjords, and took a short break with us in Germany to meet our friends Ancsa and Peti, and my dog, Beeper’s dog family.
For me, bread is always connected to adventures. Because of that, I even love it more. And now, when I finally found home in this beautiful, colourful, tasteful and scentful world, in a small village I can switch on my dream oven in my dream kitchen and start shaping the dough and let myself get enchanted by the smell of the baking bread.
Possibilites are unlimited and I am looking forward to our next adventure.
Ps: I made this sourdough bread from partly home-milled flour during a 24 hour fermentation process. Since the recipe is not mine, I can’t share it with you this time, but I let inspiration lead me wherever it wants and continue learning the world of the beautiful leavened breads….so the story is to be continued!