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Irregular White Disks

On bread.

I once took bread for granted, and thought it dull. The bread of my childhood was plain stuff, smeared with a little butter or (I suspect) margarine and given to us to fill us up. If ever there was going to be cake, there was bread and butter first, and you were expected to eat it as part of the relentless training in deferred gratification to which the children of the English middle class were then exposed. The national British loaf of the time was a dreary thing. The industrial revolution had torn us all from our roots in the countryside, and subjected urban dwellers to industrialized food. A few years before I was born, bread in Britain had actually been rationed for two miserable years—in peacetime—because the country had run out of money.

Even during two long wars, bread had never actually been rationed before, but it had been adulterated with potatoes and who knows what else. At one point during the 1914-18 war, the government actually forbade the sale of fresh bread, ordering bakers to keep it off their counters until it had grown stale. The theory was that unfresh bread was easier to cut into thin slices, and was in general less appealing, so it could be eked out for longer. No doubt these events had accustomed the country to a stodgy, unloveable sort of loaf, nourishing but unappealing. At school our morning break saw the distribution of “doorsteps,” thick white slabs designed to keep us going through a tough morning of learning the dates of battles and kings, the principal products of the empire, or Latin. Occasionally bread would turn up toasted (a luxury) or spread with beef dripping, a delight which has now almost completely disappeared from English life. At breakfast we often ate fried bread, now regarded as little better than poison but the perfect accompaniment for fried eggs and bacon. Some of my schoolfellows put marmalade on it, an astonishing heresy, though nowadays the chefs of noted restaurants often resort to such sweet and salt combinations.  

I first learned to like bread for its own sake in the school holidays when the gang of more or less abandoned boys to which I belonged (Who were they? I had little idea then and I have none now) would set out on our bicycles for the day. Our mothers had given us a few pennies, enough as it turned out to buy big white loaves and a rough half-pound block of marvelously salty, garishly yellow butter from New Zealand, which was almost the only butter we ever saw in those times.  

After strenuous mornings in the saddle, we used the penknives we all carried to hack crudely at the loaves in ways our mothers would never have allowed, revealing the fluffy, chewy, damp pleasures of fresh bread as never before. “Bread and butter,” previously a phrase of great dullness, suddenly sounded quite differently in my ears.

Years afterwards came my first visits to France, and my introduction to its wholly different bread, which crackled as you broke it and had been perfectly designed to be eaten with the sort of cheese which moves of its own accord, or with the red wine which is of course the ultimate accompaniment for bread, for reasons which took years to dawn on me. I had never really understood the expression “break bread” before I broke a loaf in Paris. Later came the discovery of the dense dark loaves of Germany—so unexpected in a country we had been brought up to despise and dislike, and whose food was universally supposed to be greasy carbohydrates and sausages whose origins were best not explored.

And then there was the astonishing black bread of Russia. It was said in Moscow that, if you made a sandwich of Soviet toothpaste between two slices of such bread, and left it to ferment for a little time, it would provide an alcoholic kick—valuable in a country where the government had made vodka harder and harder to get. What was certainly true was that vodka, drunk as it should be at room temperature, never tastes better than when accompanied (preferably on a dark midwinter night) with black bread, smoked fish and pickled cucumbers. It does not really taste of anything by itself, but it combines with these foods from dark cold places to create a rather moving evocation of the unhappy regions where it has become, for so many, the only easily-obtained solace. I still gaze in astonishment when I see people mixing vodka with tonic water. To me it is like watching someone trying to wash his hair with tomato soup. The blackness of the bread (and come to that the pale fire of the vodka) always reminded me, when I was there, of the utter difference between my civilization and theirs. 

If I wanted a taste of the warm south, I could visit the Georgian bakery which in those days operated on the ill-named Moscow Garden Ring road. (It has no gardens, and if it did they would die.) But at this establishment, behind an unremarkable frontage, handsome and rather disdainful Georgians in chilly exile from their beloved Caucasus, produced some of the best bread I have ever eaten. It is made by slapping the dough against the side of an oven sunk deep into the floor and then hooking it out again when it is just ready—irregular white disks, light with airy bubbles, with a crisp alluring crust, so delicious that I and my whole family would greedily rip apart the first warm loaf and eat it in the car on the way back home. I wish I could find it again. It is the perfect accompaniment to the soft wistful Mukuzani red wine that also comes from Georgia, and which Soviet nuclear scientists used to drink as a protection against radiation. Or so they said.

The same name, Lavash, is given to the rectangles of Persian bread, almost as good, which appeared to have been baked in superheated gravel. (Don’t bite into it too hard before checking for stray pebbles.) This I bought as comfort food after Friday prayers in Tehran, during which I was surrounded by hot-eyed zealots chanting “Marg bar Amrika!” (“Death to America!”) and, flatteringly, given how much less my small country matters, “Marg bar Angliya!” (“Death to England!”) before a thoughtful sermon. It was also on the Muslim sabbath, this time in Cairo, that I saw people carrying home their Friday morning breakfasts in the astounding universal silence of the holiday, armfuls of honey-colored circles of new-baked flatbread, except that it was not flat, but ballooning from the hot air inside it.

No wonder that Christendom’s greatest prayer is a petition for bread. No wonder that the central ceremony of that religion is (whatever you believe takes place at it) constructed around bread, and of course wine. Only water, at the heart of Baptism, is more powerful as a symbol and fact of abundant life. I have myself always liked the 1662 Prayer Book’s stipulation about the loaf used at the Lord’s Supper: “It shall suffice that the Bread be such as is usual to be eaten; but the best and purest Wheat Bread that may conveniently be gotten.”     

I worry perhaps too much about the bread that I eat when I am not in church. I am tired of near-compulsory brown bread, supposedly healthy. I cannot understand the modern middle-class passion for sourdough bread, a strangely dense substance, disagreeable with marmalade. I know I cannot expect Georgian Lavash here under the misty skies of Oxfordshire. But our good traditional bakery, which uses locally grown and milled flour to produce proper white bread, simultaneously soft and crusty, of the sort that takes me back to those childhood bike rides, has recently closed its shop in our ancient covered market, presumably because everyone now prefers sourdough, or more likely they think they do, the snobbish fools. If only they knew what they were missing.