Happy (Belated) Lammas

We had a wonderful Lammas. It has emerged as probably my favorite holiday, which is kind of funny considering I never heard of it until two years ago.

Lammas Embers

It’s taken a few weeks but I finally got some photos up. And as an unexpected bonus, we even have a short movie, which contains the very first video ever shot by Persephone.

It’s just a series of raw clips but it captures the spirit of our holiday. On Lammas Eve, we had a small bonfire to which we committed the Brigid’s Crosses we made at Candlemas. Normally I wouldn’t approve of burning crosses in the front lawn, but I don’t think the neighbors were too alarmed.

I took the day itself off work. We baked bread figures, as shown in the video. It was last Lammas that I started baking bread, which has become a weekly habit and devotional ritual for over a year now. (I’ve told my boss she can’t say I’m “on a kick” anymore.) The bread figures themselves were far from beautiful, and they were hard and tough, kind of like a bagel. But they tasted pretty good, chock full of jumbo raisins and dates.

We also made dollies.

Tropical Dollies

Like with the Brigid’s Crosses, we used the tropical ferns growing in our back yard for the raw material. It’s always more interesting to use locally grown stuff. The dollies are now hanging around the kitchen. In half a year’s time they will be dry and ready for burning next Candlemas. So the wheel turns.

Speaking of fire, we also learned a valuable lesson: Do not put fire pit on lawn, even for a little fire that doesn’t burn very long. We now have a nice dead patch right in the middle.

Aftermath

Bread

So for the last seven months I’ve been baking bread pretty much every week.

It started on Lammas, also known as the Loaf-Mass, when Persephone and I baked mother and daughter loaves.

Mother Daughter Loaves

After that I decided to keep baking for a while. Xy and I are in the habit of making sandwiches for lunch at our respective workplaces, so my main aim was to make decent sandwich bread.

Based on a vague recollection, I decided to buy the Tassajara Bread Book. I baked through most of the recipes in the chapter on yeasted breads. Oatmeal bread, summer Swedish rye bread, cheese bread, millet bread. The author, Edward Espe Brown, advocates a sponge method which I found generated decent and consistent results.

Soon I was looking at some of the other chapters. The section on sourdough looked intriguing, but also suspiciously easy. Too easy. I looked online and quickly got intimidated at the prospect of starting my own starter from scratch. So I put out a plea via Twitter, asking if any locals wanted to hook me up with a few ounces of the good stuff. No dice.

Then, a month later, by strange coincidence, Michael Pearce contacted me. He wanted to know if I was interested in some sourdough starter. He never saw my request, but he noticed the photos of bread I’d been posting.

And so I found myself with a batch of starter — but more importantly I found a mentor.

Under his tutelage, for three months I baked nothing but sourdough. Now I seem to be settling into a pattern of baking with natural leavening one week and using commercial yeast the next. I’m now working my way through Bread by Jeffrey Hamelman.

There have been some mishaps along the way, hilarious in retrospect at least. I’ve managed to destroy a ceramic casserole, explode the lightbulb in our oven, burn myself a few times, and of course there was the time I put waaay too much cumin in the dough. Yet despite all these pratfalls, only that cumin batch has been marginal in terms of edibility.

Uh Oh

Whenever possible I try to involve my daughter, though as I’ve fretted more over technique I haven’t always done a good job of keeping her interest.

Baking bread is mostly a matter of technique, and I feel like I’ve come a long way. It’s a trip to look back at my first naïve efforts and compare them to what I’m doing now.

Loaf

Boule & Loaf

But perhaps the prime value I derive from baking is humility. I’ve learned a lot, but there’s always more to learn. No matter how much better I get there is always room for further improvement. And my mentor, who has been baking for well over a decade, feels the same way. He bakes some of the most excellent bread I’ve ever had the pleasure to eat. Yet he tells me, “I’m still waiting to figure out how to bake bread.”

In some ways, to bake bread is to be an eternal novice.

In fact, I’ll go even further: It is a spiritual practice and a religious ritual.

Offering

It may not look like ritual to some eyes, but to me it is. I suppose intention is a big part of it. As Waverly Fitzgerald writes at the School of Seasons:

Bake a loaf of bread on Lammas. If you’ve never made bread before, this is a good time to start. Honor the source of the flour as you work with it: remember it was once a plant growing on the mother Earth. If you have a garden, add something you’ve harvested — herbs or onion or corn — to your bread. If you don’t feel up to making wheat bread, make corn bread. Or gingerbread people. Or popcorn. What’s most important is intention. All that is necessary to enter sacred time is an awareness of the meaning of your actions.

Making bread is a fun activity I can do together with my family, for my family. It connects us to history, culture, science, and the natural world. (Not wild nature, obviously, but nature nonetheless.) And at the end we have a delicious and healthy food. More than just a treat, it’s the very stuff of life.

When I bake bread I feel that sense of reverence and awe and connectedness and wholeness so often described as spiritual or sacred. Not always, not automatically. But that is my intent. Like my levain, it requires regular feedings for renewal.