Sunday, 14 September 2014

Henry Thoreau | Life in the Woods + Rustic Country Bread

I am grateful for civilisation. Nor do I entertain any romantic illusions about the ennobling quality of primitive existence and its innocent communion with nature. Life in the woods, it seems, is a constant battle against the encroachment of nature - harsh, unrelenting, indifferent and so too are its people. It is not always a welcoming feeling; often one of enclosure, of being crushed under the weight of centuries gone by. But I wonder if solitude is incompatible with civilised life and what it is that each year pulls me back, to the mountains, to confront only the bare facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it is to live and to die.

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.
Henry Thoreau, Walden, or Life in the Woods

Thoreau had a profound effect on me during my formative years, an effect so deep I have not been able to shake off even when I could no longer share his transcendental views or his championship of provincialism.

And so, while I can appreciate that if 'a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer', I am not convinced that the dismissal of the new and the consequent return to the old contributes to the moral advancement of mankind. The construction of railroads and bridges and engines is, I think, as much a sign of high-spiritedness and intelligence as are the works of music and poetry. Money and the market may indeed not be necessary to live what Thoreau calls 'a whole human life', but poverty does not liberate from the constraints of society and D.H. Lawrence, whose thought often echoes the idealism of Thoreau, understood how stifling such a life can be.

What perhaps resonates most strongly for me in Walden is the idea of life experienced as renewal and a desire to speak without bounds.

I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one. It is remarkable how easily and insensibly we fall into a particular route, and make a beaten track for ourselves .... The surface of the earth is soft and impressible by the feet of men; and so with the paths which the mind travels. How worn and dusty, then, must be the highways of the world, how deep the ruts of tradition and conformity!
Henry Thoreau, Walden, or Life in the Woods

~ Rustic Country Bread ~

I made this bread at an altitude of 1300 metres, in a little village perched on a mountain slope near the peak, where the ruins of the past keep an eerie silence amidst the humming of insects, the shrill of a wandering eagle and the incessant murmur of the waters. Did those people, who once inhabited the area, live a happier, fuller life? Did their physical proximity to nature make them privy to some wisdom that my post-industrial, meta-modern life is supposed to have denied me?

I made the bread at first out of necessity because the nearest bakery was half an hour away and no transport to take me there. But it was its superb taste that made me overcome the almost daily toil of its preparation. The bread is slightly dense but not heavy, very much like my grandmother used to make it in her old outdoors wood oven. I like its rugged look - partly due, I can only imagine, to the type of flour I used and partly to the presence of bran in it; rugged like the white rocks and the skin of old fir trees. It's the trees that stir a passion in me.

Country Bread:
400 g strong yellow durum wheat bread flour
200 g white whole wheat flour with the bran included
1 tsp salt
2 1/2 tsp instant dried yeast
375-500 ml tepid water
1 tbsp olive oil, for greasing tin
extra flour for dusting

Sift both flours twice, then put in a large mixing bowl, making sure to reintegrate the bran that’s left in the sieve, and mix well. Add the salt to one side of the bowl and the yeast to the other. Make a hole in the centre and add 300 ml of the water, turning the mixture round with your fingers. Continue to add the reamaining water, a little at a time, until you've picked up all the flour from the sides of the bowl and the mixture forms a rough dough. You may not need to add all the water or you may need to add a little more. You want dough that is fairly soft without being soggy or too tight.

Turn the dough onto a lightly floured surface and knead for 20-30 minutes until the dough forms a soft, smooth skin. When the dough feels smooth and silky, put it into a lightly oiled bowl, cover with a tea towel and leave to rise in a warm and draft-free place for 1.5 to 2 hours, until it has doubled in size.

Tip the dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Without knocking it back so as not to deflate it, shape the dough into a ball by gently folding it inwards and underwards and place on a lightly oiled baking pan which is between 24cm and 26cm in diameter. Cover with a tea towel and leave to prove for another 1.5 to 2 hours.

Meanwhile, heat the oven to 220 C.

When the dough has proven, dust lightly with flour. Then make 3 cuts across the top on the diagonal, using a serrated knife or a sharp blade, and sprinkle with a little water.

Bake for about 60-75 minutes or until it is golden in colour and sounds hollow when tapped on the base. Cool on a wire rack.

Note: As this bread was made at a high altitude, some adjustment to the amount of yeast and water required would be necessary. 

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