Ah, Hubris…

Annabeth: My fatal flaw. That’s what the Sirens showed me. My fatal flaw is hubris.
Percy: The brown stuff they spread on veggie sandwiches?
Annabeth: No, Seaweed Brain. That’s HUMMUS. Hubris is worse.
Percy: What could be worse than hummus?
Annabeth: Hubris means deadly pride, Percy. Thinking you can do things better than anyone else… Even the gods.
Rick Riordan, The Sea of Monsters

Two loavesYou think you know it all, and so you try to show off your talents. That’s when hubris makes you fall. So today, with company for the weekend, in between chess games, ukulele songs and great conversation, I produced the dough I’d been cold-fermenting in the fridge since Sunday.  Should be just about perfect. Time to show off my new breadmaking skills.

Oops.

Bread requires attention; patience, awareness. Like meditation, like writing.

It’s not something you should do while nattering, while showing one another Youtube videos, while trying to show another person a new song arrangement.

Whole wheatMind half on other things, I shaped the cold dough, put one mix in a ceramic pot, the other in a bread pan to warm up. Let them rise while I carried on. Clearly not quite long enough or warm enough. But I wasn’t really watching. Was the dough high enough? Awake enough? Our house is cool, so dough doesn’t rise very rapidly.

Should have warmed the pot first, but no… and forgot the lame; forgot to score the tops. Bakers shouldn’t be so distracted. Too many things to do, too many rituals to follow.

Then I baked them together at 450 for… ? Yipes. I forgot to record the time. Was it 30 minutes? 35? Best guess… look at the tops. Seem done…

Took the lid off the pot a little late, too. That might have kept the steam inside a little too long the kamut bread.

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The Weird World of Plotto

PlottoI came across Plotto a few years back – references to it in other works, rather than the actual book. it sounded strange, complex and wildly over-reaching. I couldn’t find one – it was long out of print. It wasn’t until I got my own copy that I realized how really odd, clumsy – and delightful – it is.

Plotto was first published in 1928, and not reprinted until recently as far as I can tell, which is why it’s not been readily available to read and comment on. But it has been lurking in the background, a collector’s item. The young Alfred Hitchcock was one of the early adopters of the work. So was Earle Stanley Gardner, author of the Perry Mason books. It’s been  referred to, with a combination of reverence, humour and skepticism, by many other writers about writing.

In 2011, it was reprinted by Tin House Books, and finally made available to the general public again. My recently-received copy is the 2012 second printing (another edition was released in 2011 by Norton Creek Press). And I’m gobsmacked by it.

What’s all the fuss?

Plotto was the brainchild of a wildly prolific, early 20th century pulp writer, William Cook (he also wrote screenplays for silent films). Cook was a writing machine: he pumped out the paperbacks, sometimes more than one a week. But he was also passionate about the process of writing itself. He made it his goal to catalogue all types of plot and create a mechanism for writers to be able to create their own novels by selecting from a menu of plots, activities and characters.

And we was obsessive about it, drilling down deep into levels of minute detail. On its own site, Tin House says:

In the first stage, Cook demonstrates that “a character with particular traits . . . finds himself in a situation . . . and this is how it turns out.” Following this, each Master Plot leads the reader to a list of circumstances, distributed among twenty different Conflict Groups (these range from “Love’s Beginning,” to “Personal Limitations,” to “Transgression”). Finally, in Character Combinations, Cook offers an extensive index of protagonists for what serves as an inexhaustible reservoir of suggestions and inspiration.

Once you have the skeletal structure chosen, all you need to do is fill in the blanks – the verbs, the adjectives, the dialogue, and voila: your own novel. Sort of. It’s not that easy, of course, but Cook wanted to take the guesswork out of the cogitation part of the formative process that often led to writer’s block. So he catalogued and indexed and outlined like crazy. And ended up with a combination encyclopedia and rebus puzzle.

The result is stunning – and confusing. As Brainpickings tells us:

In 1894, French critic Georges Polti recognized thirty-six possible plots, which included conflicts such as Supplication, Pursuit, Self-sacrifice, Adultery, Revolt, the Enigma, Abduction, and Disaster. In 1928, dime novelist William Wallace Cook, author of Plotto: The Master Book of All Plots, did him one better, cataloging every narrative he could think of through a method that bordered on madness. His final plot count? 1,462.

That’s a lot more than the three or four I learned about in school! And more than the 36 basic plot situations the French writer, Georges Polti, described.*

Here’s a sample (see here for some follow-up numbers):

Plotto sample

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Six Rules for Politicians Using Social Media

This is an updated version of the talk I presented at the the eighth annual Municipal Communication Conference in Toronto, November 2013.

 

I use social media regularly and frequently. As a politician, that makes me either very brave or very stupid. But I’ve been doing this for the last 30 years, long before I ever got elected. Social media isn’t new to me.*

It may be slicker than it was in 1983, but it’s essentially the same text-based, monologue, just with chrome added. In fact, the tone of the conversation seems to have gone downhill since the 80s.

Back then it was mostly computer geeks like, so we were more of a community. Geek-to- geek wasn’t so adversarial, unless of course, you were arguing the relative merits of the Z80 versus the 6502 processor.

Today people debate about such important issues as Kim Kardashian’s cat, the name of a royal baby, or the recent favourite, Millie Cyrus’s backside.**

Today’s great technological advancement seems to be the consummate ease by which you can attach pictures of kittens or puppies to your posts.

Technology has improved our ability to share those photos with thousands, even millions of people. But it hasn’t made us better communicators.

Some technology actually rewards illiteracy. Twitter. For example, encourages us to cram our language into abbreviations and codes. It turns language into hieroglyphics.

Sure it can help social change. But how much is debated. Everyone points to how the Arab Spring was abetted by Twitter and Facebook. But I suspect a lot of the Arab Spring tweets went like this: “We’re overthrowing the government today. What are you wearing?”

Anthony WeinerSo when anyone in politics or municipal government asks me how to approach social media, I tell them two words:

Anthony Weiner.

I tell them there are six lessons you can learn from Anthony Weiner about social media.

Everyone knows who he is, of course. Weiner single handedly turned sexting from a minor act done by over-heated teens, to front page headline activity.The media were full of the stories about how this US congressman tweeted pictures of his underwear-clad crotch to young women around the country.

It was monumentally stupid and puerile. Weiner had to resign from Congress over the scandal. It hurt his career. And maybe his marriage. But on the grand scheme of things, it was harmless. He wasn’t Edward Snowden or Juilan Assange after all.

It really wasn’t anything more than a lack of good judgment or common sense. We’re all guilty of that. We all screw up now and then. That’s just human nature.

But Weiner was a politician. And politicians get held to a higher standard than, say, your neighbour or your cousin. If they did it, you’d probably just shrug it off. But when a politician or a civil servant is involved, the sky is falling.

At least that’s what the media tells us.

When I was in newspapers, media were the sole gatekeepers of information. We controlled how the public received it. Everyone looked to us. We had standards about what we published, and we were respected for them.

Today, there are tens of thousands of accessible sources online. Traditional media scrambles for your attention. In order to compete with Miley Cyrus or Kim Kardashian, they sensationalize just about everything.

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What am I doing wrong?

Levain startedI began a levain last week (Nov 19) and it seemed to go well at first, but then it just seemed to have stopped… or slowed to a crawl. Was is dead? Or just dormant? Did I have a welcome guest growing in the bowl or was it a wet mass of unwanted invaders? Am I too anxious and not patient enough?

Sourdough bread has been called the “Everest” of breads, which I realize refers not to its towering presence but because it’s so damned hard to conquer. Getting it started seems a combination of art, science, animal husbandry and sheer luck.

Yes, animal husbandry, defined by Wikipedia as: ” the dynamic set of relationships between humans and the non-human animals, in which qualities considered to be advantageous to humans are emphasized and further developed.” Yeast is one of the oldest domesticated creatures, at least 7,000 years serving humans (although there have been fascinating arguments that yeast domesticated us, not the other way around).

I read about a dozen methods, all different, suggesting a range of approaches from absolutely basic to multi-stage methods that would make NASA engineers blanche. Being a bear of simple means, I opted for the simplest approach.

A digression: sourdough and levain are synonymous, but purists tend to reserve the term sourdough for those made in San Francisco because of the marketing and branding of that particular blend. But amateurs like me happily confuse the terminology and substitute one word for ‘t’other. Both refer to a bread made from a wild yeast and lacidophilus bacteria colony in a dough starter. Besides levain has a cachet; anything French in cooking seems just so much more sophisticated, although in reality the sourdough technique is itself ancient and the source of most peasant breads.

The starter depends on a complex micro-ecology of wild yeasts and bacteria competing for a food source and there’s always a fair chance the unwanted kind will win the battle. Plus there’s the opportunity for moulds to colonize it. It depends on the flora and fauna in the very air we breathe, so it’s a capricious way to start anything. Your home is full of these little creatures, and so is the flour (more are found in organic, wholewheat, rye or unbleached flour, I discovered). All you need to do is provide them food and water. The food is the flour.

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Doing it by the numbers

Bakers' percentageThe first thing I learned – well, not the first but up there, for sure – is that volume measurements are for amateurs. Being an amateur (and expecting to be there for some time yet), I took it on the chin when asking typical neophyte questions about recipes and ingredients.

Might as well have hung a sign around my posts shouting “newbie!” Well, they were gentle with me, but strict. Tough love among bakers.

Good bakers use weights, not volume, they told me in no uncertain terms. No more cups of flour: grams of flour, instead. Good thing I bought a kitchen scale a while back.

Pro bakers throw percentages into the mix and talk offhand about hydration levels and quote recipes like 60-2 bread, or 80-2-2.5. Ouch. That sound is my head exploding.

This makes baking like an exercise in advanced math, you know that class that caused your head to ache in high school? Yeah, like that. Not convinced? Watch this video (I have, a few times):

[youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7YTIrgv4JCI]

Got that? Good, there’ll be a test later… (here’s some more study material and part two is here…). And that’s what the real bakers use.

But, you argue, my mother (or father) always used volume and her (his) bread always turned out okay. Well, it’s still okay to use them, but it’s a by-guess-and-by-golly method and you can never be quite sure what you baked with that recipe last time will turn out the same the next.

Like imperial measurements lack the crispness of metric, volume lacks the precision of weight. The pros use weight. And percentages. And if I want to talk with the big kids, I need to be able to speak their language. My baker’s textbook is, by the way, on a UPS truck as I write this.

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Road Trip to K2

K2 MillNo, not to the mountain. To the mill. The flour mill in Beeton, a little more than an hour’s drive southeast of me. We took a little road trip today in my never-ending quest for baking ingredients. Susan came along, showing remarkable tolerance for my obsession.

K2 is a modest, old-fashioned place that grinds flour – the only mill still operating in the county, as far as I have been able to tell. And one of the rare artisanal mills at all in Ontario.

And of course it sells its products, as well as some other items like maple syrup, hemp products, local photographer’s cards and some gift items.

K2 also hosts a bread market and is open Mon. – Fri. 9:30 a.m. – 4:30 p.m., and Sundays 11 a.m. – 2 p.m. The mill’s Blogspot site says it sells millet, oats, barley, spelt, buckwheat, durham, corn, Red Fife and “Osprey” (A local, hard spring wheat).  Plus some malted barley (I went in great hope to get the latter, since I want to work with diastatic malt in my breadmaking).

The New Tec Times tells us:

The building is old, dating back to the 1870s, and adds a rustic charm suitable for a business that sells its products on site.

The mill is a new business in town having started operations in December of 2012.

Proprietor Mark Hayhoe is a third generation miller…

“It’s a village mill. A lot of the people who supply grain here, live around here.” Mark explained. “It’s kind of de-industrialized milling. The style of milling we do is an older technology where you are basically milling it once.”

In addition to selling flour, bread, and other products to the public, they host a farmers market on the property every Saturday.

In an interview in Specialty Ontario, Hayhoe said:

k2M is artisanal due to it’s size and nature of milling. We are able to produce ultrafine whole grain flour in a single pass from grain that is grown local to the mill. The broad capability of milling many different grains, on their own or as an assemblage, is another unique feature of our mill… Cold milling is the process of milling grain in a minimalist manner (single grind) while keeping the temperature low to preserve life and vitality of the flour… Our grains are mainly sourced from local farms.

K2’s grains have also been used to produce Ontario’s first organic grain spirit:

Mark is able to mill the wheat while preserving the components of the whole grain.

It also has its own Facebook page.

The mill was out of malt, but the owner, Mark, went to the mill and brought out a small bag of malted barley grains, which he ground for me, no charge. It’s enough to get me started, next week.

The breads they offer are also made locally, at the 100 Acre Bakery. Although the temptation was to buy at least one of everything, I purchased only a single sourdough boule. Susan got a bag of cinnamon buns.  I might make a trip to the bakery next, to see if the owners will talk to me about sourdough.

I also got 10lbs of the Osprey and 10 lbs of the Red Fife flours. I should make a trip there one day when they’re milling the flour, so see it in action. When I run out of flour, or course… which may not happen for a few more weeks, what this new lot and some already on hand – about 35-40 lbs in the cupboards. Maybe I should start giving loaves away as gifts…
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We have heading up for your net

Spam cartoonI have to admit that I frequently read the spam comments WordPress traps for my moderation, and I often do so with a smile. The clumsy, crazy constructs, the awkward English, butchered punctuation and the twisted word use just make me laugh.

Yes, like everyone else, I detest spam, and I quickly delete the comments into whatever digital wastebin they descend to. But I often chuckle to read them first. They make me wonder: are they deliberately written poorly, are they the sincere efforts of someone struggling to learn English, words strung together in random order by a bot, or are they the result of some Google translation gone awry?

Some have question marks which suggest symbols from other languages that didn’t get through the translation process. or are they just machine constructs dropping in characters at random?

This one is a good example, taken from today’s lot waiting for the delete button:

Of training course exceptional post. We have heading up for your net. Usually publish with your very own encounter and share. Oh! really grateful.

Some read like odd poetry, if you parse them so. Take the above, for example and write it thus:

Of training course exceptional post.
We have heading up for your net.
Usually publish with
your very own encounter
and share.
Oh!
really grateful.

Okay, not great poetry. Reads like computer-generated poetry, though, doesn’t it?

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These Poolish Things…

52 LoavesPoolish. Levain. Banneton. Autolyse. Retardation. Lactobaccilli. Bassinage. Windowpane test. Crumb. Batard. Barm. A new vocabulary is building in me, one that brings the lore of breadmaking, the etymology of the loaf to my conversation.*

It’s a necessary vocabulary, if one wants to fully understand the techniques and technology of baking bread. Knowing the names of things gives one power. It’s also a bit like being welcomed into a secret society where members whisper to one another in their codified language. Is there a secret handshake?

It also helps broach that disconnect between our modern selves and what we eat. Knowing the process, knowing the steps and the names, is like pulling aside the curtain to see the man who is the reality of Oz.

I don’t know the secret language of, say, asparagus, or broccoli, pasta or tea – although I consume them all in quantity. I don’t know the processes that turn peanuts into peanut butter, ginger into marmalade or milk into yogurt. (I may venture into pastas, once I get a pasta maker… and I am pulled by the gravity of tea to learn more…)

They, in my state of ignorant bliss, simply are. Like most foodstuffs, they appear on supermarket shelves, cut, cleaned, packaged and ready to be purchased. There is no hint of earth about them, no stench of manure, no crunch of dry hay beneath my feet as I stalk the aisles. No field workers, not tractors, no sprayers, plows and hoes impede my supermarket visits.

How they get to that status is magical, at least to my understanding.** It’s like religion: it involves the intervention of some supernatural entity to get them to readiness. And like religion, when you gain the gnosis of how it all works, you don’t always become an unbeliever. You may, as with breads, become a more fervent adherent, a true believer.

But I’m learning the lingo.

I had thought, after my previous bread post, to create a separate blog about my as-yet amateurish breadmaking efforts (loaves 10 and 11 are in the process of being devoured), and the quest for the perfect loaf.

That was until William Alexander’s book, 52 Loaves, fell into my hands last week. Then I realized someone had done it before, and better than I could hope to. It’s subtitled: One Man’s Relentless Pursuit of Truth, Meaning, and a Perfect Crust. Now my intent seems presumptuous. Doesn’t mean I won’t still do it, just that I’ve been humbled in my intentions by a better writer’s effort.

I really like his book. I can relate to many of his issues and concerns. I read the first ten chapters in one bedtime sitting.

Along his journey, Alexander throws in some science, some philosophy, some travel notes and insights into his personal and family life while he obsesses on replicating a bread he tasted once in France:

“The bread clinging to the crust was every bit as good. It wasn’t white, wasn’t whole wheat; it was something in between, and had a rustic quality to it — a coarse texture that, while managing to be light and airy with plenty of holes, also had real substance and a satisfying resistance to the bite. This bread didn’t ball up in your mouth like white bread and, like the crust, it was yeasty, just slightly sweet, and exhaled (yes, the bread exhaled) an incredible perfume that, cartoon-like, wafted up from the table, did a curl, and, it seemed, levitated me from the table. I was seduced, body and soul, my senses overloaded.”

Large loaf, Nov 14Damn. It seemed like such a good idea (although given my own talent, it might be more like 101 loaves, or even 1,001 before I get to that level).

And that’s just what I’m after: to make bread, rustic bread, like that our friend Bill brings up to us from a Guelph baker when he visits. A combination of taste and texture that will haunt my every loaf until I get it right myself.

But let’s move on. Alexander is clearly better at baking, has more money and dedication than I, so I will learn at his metaphorical feet.***

I want to learn how to make breads with a starter.

That can be a biga, poolish, levain or sourdough. All related, but not the same. Poolish and biga are sponges: pre-ferments.  Usually made of simply water, flour and yeast. But it’s not quite that simple. Care and feeding is necessary. Am I baking bread or adopting a new pet? Given the personal attention some bakers pay to the fermenting starter, I wonder.

Wikipedia gives us a confused but entertaining etymology of the word poolish:

The common, but undocumented, origin given for the term poolish is that it was first used by Polish bakers around 1840, hence its name, and as a method was brought to France in the beginning of the 1920s. “Poolish” however is an old English version of “Polish”, whereas the term seems to be most used in France (where “polonais” is the word for “Polish”). Some nineteenth-century sources use the homophone “pouliche”, a French word that typically means a female foal. With either spelling, the term only appears in French sources towards the last part of the nineteenth century. There is not currently any credible explanation for the origin of the term.

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Coriolanus on Film

CoriolanusCoriolanus is a tough play, full of politics and angry people and shouting mobs. It has no comic relief, no jesters, no romance and no real heroes. No great soliloquies, unsympathetic characters, uncomfortable double dealing, treachery and plotting. No powerful subplot as a counterpoint. Pride, arrogance, and power dominate.

Coriolanus himself is empty, driven, bereft of the great passions that animate Shakespeare’s other main protagonists.

Except the passion for revenge, which comes upon him halfway through the play. Before that, he seems an automaton, as fixed in his role as an aristocrat and soldier as Tsar Nicholas was, with little softening humanity to give the audience something to like. And like as wedded to his fate as the Tsar.

Harold Bloom wrote:

Shakespeare subtly does not offer us any acceptable alternatives to Coriolanus’s sense of honor, even as we are shown how limited and crippling that sense becomes when it is challenged. The hero’s mother, his friends, and his enemies, both Roman and Volscian, move us to no sympathy whatsoever.

And yet… even if there’s not much noble in Caius Martius, he has honour and enough incipient tragedy about him that we feel keen interest in his story. He is, if nothing else, true to himself, with no apparent ulterior motives or hidden agendas to guide his deeds or words. He’s a soldier; he does his job without questioning.

Scholars aren’t even sure if the play was performed during Shakespeare’s lifetime. But after the Restoration, various directors dug it up and molded the play to fit some contemporary political event or cause. Even today, it’s considered popular as a symbolic political work, easily adapted to modern views.

Which is what Ralph Fiennes does well in his 2011 film of the play. Fiennes both directs and acts the central role, brilliantly in both cases.

I’m always leery of Shakespeare in modern clothes. It sometimes seems artificial and contrived to have modern-day characters strutting around speaking 16th century lines. But not in this Coriolanus. The stagecraft is remarkable, and the date language seems made fit for the setting. I was glued to the screen as it unfolded, and stuck to it for the entire two hours. The pacing is brisk, with plenty of action and emotion. It feels modern, relevant.

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Gluten, Sourdough, Fads and Ailments

Gluten breakdownGluten, that everyday protein found in many grains, has become the health-fad followers’ most recent evil spectre, and many (one in three, stats show) have jumped onto the anti-gluten bandwagon, generally with a simplistic message: “gluten bad.”

Like most diet fads, I expect it will likely fall off centre stage when the next Big Thing To Rise Against comes along. But meanwhile, until the next fad raises its head, gluten gets sensationalized, demonized and generally misunderstood.

Headlines like this abound (it was matched by a CBC Radio story on Ontario Morning Tuesday, Nov. 12):

Sourdough breadmaking cuts gluten content in baked goods
Celiacs and gluten avoiders have a new way to enjoy a slice of bread

That’s from a misleading and potentially dangerous CBC story about sourdough bread. It’s dangerous because there are people who suffer severe reaction from gluten intake (celiac disease or CD), and others who have non-celiac intolerance (sensitivities) to gluten (not, as some sites say, an allergy) and they might be misled to think sourdough bread is now safe.

People – thinking CBC a reliable, even credible source – might consume regular sourdough bread  – or at least bread labelled as “sourdough” – believing this article deems it safe, when it may in fact cause severe and painful reactions.*

The article says:

A handful of recent studies have some good news for those trying to reduce the amount of gluten they eat — old-fashioned sourdough baking techniques significantly cut gluten content in bread…

But the reporter fails to identify those studies, so readers need to research to find out what those studies actually say (and more importantly, what they don’t say). Nor does the writer say whether all sourdough methods work, or just some (Google sourdough starter and you’ll find hundreds of recipes, some including wild yeast, others with domestic yeast). The writer then adds:

A team of Italian scientists led by Luigi Greco at the University of Naples authored a 2010 study that showed significantly lower levels of gluten in sourdough made according to old methods.

Old methods? Like leaving the started in peasant’s thatch-roof, mud-walled hut shared with the family pig?

Well, unless I completely misread it, that study of 13 people didn’t say anything of the sort about “old methods” It showed reduced gluten in “fully hydrolyzed wheat flour” that had been treated in a sterile laboratory environment with a clinical mix of cultured bacteria commonly found in sourdough, as well as adding fungal enzymes:

Fermentation with selected lactobacilli added with fungal proteases, routinely used as an improver in bakery industries, decreased the concentration of gluten to below 10 ppm. Despite the markedly reduced concentration of gluten, the resulting spray-dried flour was still adequately workable. As shown in this and other studies, the hydrolyzed flour is suitable for making sweet baked goods and also bread and pasta if supplemented with gluten-free structuring agents…

A 60-day diet of baked goods made from hydrolyzed wheat flour, manufactured with sourdough lactobacilli and fungal proteases, was not toxic to patients with CD.

Which is good news and encourages further research, but not a promise that all breads labelled “sourdough” will have that effect. Or that the baker’s sourdough starter will have the ingredients in the necessary quantities and balance of ingredients to sufficiently reduce the  gluten in the flour. Or that the length of fermentation will be sufficient to achieve those results. Or that the flours used in the bakery are the same as those used in the research (different flours have different gluten levels).

Notice that caveat for bakers: “…if supplemented with gluten-free structuring agents…” These test subjects were fed pastries, not breads or pasta.

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I’m struggling with this…

Recent bread loafMy recent passion for bread and baking has caused a bit of an internal upset. Not the baking thereof, but rather the writing about it. I’m doing a lot of that, recently. Writing (and, yes, baking too). And of course it comes with the attendant research into bread’s history, the combing through websites for recipes and book reviews, the hunt for equipment and the discussions about yeasts, pH balance, sourdough starters, Canadian versus American flours, protein contents, vintage and ancient grains… gawds, I’m having fun.

And it is, if you don’t mind some hyperbole, damn tasty fun.

It’s both culinary and hands-on science, with a bushel of history tossed into the mix. I haven’t had this much fun since I discovered the ukulele, back in 2008.

I suppose everyone needs new challenges, new horizons, new mountains to conquer. Bread – well, so far artisan, rustic bread – is my latest Everest.  Which is a bit synchronistic, because sourdough is often described as the “Everest of breads” and sourdough is one of my next projects. Enroute to that pinnacle, I have a lot to learn. But sourdough is on the horizon for this winter.

It’s a bit of a throwback for me because I was baking bread 25-30 years ago with all the earnestness of a wannabe chef. My notes from classes at the Toronto Academy of Culinary Arts date to the mid-1970s. I was making bread (albeit mostly in bread machines by 1988) into the late 1980s. I stopped after we moved here. Now I’ve started again.

BouleThanks to both a spate of new books on breadmaking and the internet, I can now re-indulge that interest and share the experiences of others, as well as their recipes. It’s an obsession, I admit, but a creative one.

I am pondering starting a whole new WordPress blog zone for my baking and research about bread. One amateur to another, it would be. Here’s me flailing around with recipe after recipe, tweaking, tinkering and photographing. And about the historical impact and implications of bread, as I have recently posted (on the impact of ergot and witchcraft via bread). My naked tweets would be – unlike Anthony Wiener’s – about my bread results.

Bread blogging is actually been and being done successfully on other sites such as The Fresh Loaf (highly recommended if you’re into bread baking, by the way). But I am reluctant to create my own blog zone on their site (if for nothing more than I want to be able to create recipes in my preferred format and style, which is possible through WP plug-ins). Besides, there have a lot more accomplished people there, and my efforts would seem presumptuous.

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Bread, Madness and Christianity

St. Anthony's FireThe witch craze of Europe is a popular, albeit often misrepresented, part of our collective history. Everyone knows witches were hunted, tortured and often killed – burned at the stake, a particularly repulsive method of murder. While not a uniquely Christian form of killing, it was practiced widely by Christians throughout history in every European nation, perfected in ritual by the Spanish Inquisition.

Hunting witches in the period between 1480 and 1750 (the so-called “classical period” of witch hunting) resulted in between 40,000 and 60,000 executions, although some authorities guess the total to be as high as 100,000.

While it’s politically correct these days to report they were all  killed at the hands of religious zealots, it’s actually a lot more complicated than that. But that’s not the subject of this post.

What really interests me is the potential cause of this madness, not the religious response to it. Yes, I know the belief in witches has been around since biblical times, in many cultures, and people are still being killed today because of it, but Europe’s witch craze was something different; almost an industrial scale of madness and murder. Why so many?

The answer may lie in that staple of our foodstuffs: bread.

Okay, not all breads. Just breads made with rye flour, it seems (well, not 100%, but that’ comes a bit further down the post, No peeking!). Pumpernickel, a dense rye bread, may derive it’s name from the German for Devil’s Fart. Really. The stuff you learn online. Anyway, witches may be the result of food poisoning – not, as the church believed, the supernatural. Bad case of mistaken identity, that.

Dance of DeathRye grain (Secale cereale) is susceptible to ergot (Claviceps purpurea), a fungus with a whole lot of chemicals in it that, when eaten, have some nasty side effects, from burning to madness to death. I mentioned this briefly in a recent blog post on the history of bread making. It’s a fascinating chapter in the history of bread (which itself is a fascinating chapter in the history of humanity).

The madness comes from the alkaloids in ergot that bear a resemblance to LSD as Wikipedia tells us:

The ergot sclerotium contains high concentrations (up to 2% of dry mass) of the alkaloid ergotamine, a complex molecule consisting of a tripeptide-derived cyclol-lactam ring connected via amide linkage to a lysergic acid (ergoline) moiety, and other alkaloids of the ergoline group that are biosynthesized by the fungus. Ergot alkaloids have a wide range of biological activities including effects on circulation and neurotransmission.
Ergot alkaloids can be classified into two classes:

  1. derivatives of 6,8-dimethylergoline and
  2. lysergic acid derivatives.

Ah, Timothy Leary, where were you when you were needed back in the 15th and 16th centuries? The madness and physical side effects of eating ergot is colloquially called “St. Anthony’s Fire.” We call it ergotism today:

In large doses, ergotamine paralyzes the motor nerve endings of the sympathetic nervous system. The disease ergotism (St. Anthony’s fire) is caused by excessive intake of ergot. This can occur by the overuse of the drug or by eating baked goods made with contaminated flour, as happened in the Middle Ages. (Ergotism also can affect cattle, by their eating ergot-infected grain and grass).

Acute and chronic ergotism are characterized by mental disorientation, convulsions, muscle cramps, and dry gangrene of the extremities.

A psychoactive drug, lysergic acid diethylamide, best known as LSD, is chemically related to ergotamine.

I suspect the effect would have been frightening, confusing and disorienting – combined with the physical pains, burning, convulsions, the gangrene and other effects. No one would connect the effects with rye until the late 17th century. But for more than a millennium, stories of outbreaks of madness and St. Anthony’s Fire would fill the chronicles.**

And it would often be blamed not on the bread, but on a supernatural cause: the devil, demons or witchcraft. Christianity was not particularly kind to people accused of consorting with the devil.

Continue reading “Bread, Madness and Christianity”

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