IT WAS Helen Minifie. Washington portrait painter and wife of the CBC's bureau chief in the U. S. capital. James M. Minifie. who reminded me that good bread actually tastes better than most of the rare and expensive epicurean delicacies.
She diets to keep her weight where it is — precisely where it should be — so she cats bread only at parties. Because she goes without it at home, even bakery bread is a treat to her. If the bread happens to have been baked by her hostess, and has a crispy crust and a rich yeasty flavor, she eats it with the ecstatic look of a wine lover sampling a bottle of 1959 Chateau-Mouton-Rothschild.
Watching her recently — and reaching for a slice myself — I suddenly realized that I have more vivid memories of bread than of steak or lobsters. roast beef or oysters, partridge or venison, pheasants or Dover sole.
I can recall snacking after school on thick slabs of my mother's bread heaped with wild-strawberry jam or peanut butter or both. I still remember when a friend and I. on a canoe trip, capsized during a storm and lost our grub and wound up soaked, chilled and half-starved at a farm on an island just as the woman of the house was taking her bread from the oven. She gave us an enormous loaf, and salty butter she hail churned herself, and this was the feast of my life.
I remember bread from the outdoor ovens of the (¡aspé Peninsula after a long drive anil a swim in the Gtdf of St. Lawrence, and the marvelous fruitbread and cheesebread a nice old girl from a place with the curious name of Plumweseep (pronounced Plumesweep), which is up the Kennebecasis River in New Brunswick, used to sell in the centre aisle of the market at Saint John. She often told me bread is not bread unless baked in a stove fueled with wood. She had four big black iron wood-stoves, two in her kitchen and two in her dining room, and a pile of birch logs as high as her roof. A true artist, she would examine the crust of each batch of bread with the eye of a potter examining the glaze of newly fired pottery.
I guess the bakers of Paris also take pride and joy in their work, because what I remember best of my gourmet adventures in the ( it y of Light is not onion soup at Les Halles in the middle of the night, not coquilles tic lanpouste. not caneton rouennais au chanipapnc, not cscurpots t) la hourpuipnonne — although I don't underrate snails. What I remember best is the long golden sticks of bread.
Maybe this bread is unsanitary. I've seen Frenchmen with dogs under their arms carry it unwrapped in hands
that looked sweaty and dirty, and small delivery boys stuff it down the tops of their pants so their hands would be free to steer their bicycles.
Yet. germs and all, it's incomparable.
I wish I could buy it in Canada instead of loaves that are sanitary but tasteless.
Here is the recipe of the great chef ( áreme for French bread:
"Put five pounds of sieved flour into a kneading trough. Knead it with two pints of milk, half a pound of warm butter, four ounces of yeast (the equivalent of four packages of modern dry yeast) and two ounces of salt. When all the ingredients have been mixed, knead with a sufficient quantity of hot water. Mix well, cover and leave for two hours. Then shape into rolls and put them on baking trays or tin-plated metal sheets and leave them on the oven, or some other warm place, to rise for an hour. Bake in a hot oven for twenty minutes.”
I tried this without much luck. I suspect that French flour or yeast — or both — have a special quality, or that French bread-making is a skill that can be acquired by the French alone.
Fortunately, there are other breads that you can’t go wrong on. such as the oatmeal bread of the Maritime Provinces, which I’d rather cat than cake, not excluding fruit cake, cherry pound cake and pineapple cheesecake.
For oatmeal bread. Maritime style, pour a pint of boiling water over one cup of rolled oats, two teaspoons of salt, and two tablespoons of lard. Let it stand until lukewarm and add half a cup of molasses and one yeast cake or one package of dry yeast, dissolved in half a cup of warm water. Gradu\ ally add enough flour for a stiff dough, and knead it on a floured board until there is no stickiness. Place in a greased bowl and let rise until double in bulk, then shape into loaves and place in greased pans and let it rise again until double in bulk.
Bake in a moderate oven (three hundred and fifty degrees) for an hour to an hour and a half. This recipe yields two large or four small loaves.
Fven easier than Maritime oatmeal bread is Virginia spoonbread, one of the happier items in southern culture. Gradually stir one cup of white cornmeal into three cups of scalded milk.
Cool slightly and add a tablespoon of butter, a teaspoon of salt and a teaspoon of sugar. Mix in the beaten yolks of three eggs, then the stiffly beaten whites of the same three eggs, and bake in a greased pan in a moderate oven for three quarters of an hour. Serve hot with plenty of butter. Washington and Jefferson both smacked their lips over this.
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