A question with only one answer (broadly – but nonetheless exceptionally – speaking).
The only one answer, if you live north of the border, is Bake it Yourself. If you live south of it, there is a second answer: the E5 Bakehouse in Hackney. If Hackney was just down the road, I probably wouldn’t make my own. Hackney, however, is at the other end of the UK: a fact which has both plusses and minuses.
It’s easy making your own bread if any old bread will do. But if you are determined to make the best sourdough in the country – better even than the Hackney Wild of the E5 Bakehouse – then it isn’t easy at all. (If Scotland votes for independence next year, Hackney will be out of the equation. It’s a consideration certainly.)
It’s been a long road. I’ve been working on the perfect loaf for 5 years, at least. I’m still working on it. At one point, I was so sure I had it down that I took four ‘perfect loaves’ to the local cheesemonger who displayed them in his shop. He sold portions by weight. Each loaf weighed 1.5kgs. One lady tried a slice. ‘I’ll take the whole thing,’ she said. The cheesemonger weighed it. ‘That will be, erm, £17.00!’ The lady paid in full and left the shop with the sweet smile of one who has just nabbed themselves a bargain.
I went home, fiddled around on the spreadsheet and made plans to convert our kitchen into a small factory. Natasha let me run with the idea – investigate ovens, reinforce the floor, look around for second hand dough mixers – until one morning I woke up and knew I didn’t want to be a professional baker after all. It might have been a blood thing: bakers don’t run in my family, not officially at least. It might have been a back thing: you need a strong back to be a baker. It might even have been the good old Universe taking a moment out to acquaint me with the reality that the baker’s life is not a do-it-when-you-feel-like-it sort of thing. This acquaintance with reality happened (also exceptionally) before too much money changed hands.
Just as well really, because the perfect loaf continues to elude. Perfection, as all those who have experienced it will know, is not an enduring thing. It may exist for a moment, but then it passes away. A change comes to it, so that it is no longer perfect, and that change demands another change and so on and so forth. I might say of it, as of Heraclitus’ river, ‘no man bites into the same bread twice.’
Nonetheless, on the basis of comments made by those sitting at my table being fed, I believe I can claim that the loaf in its current state of transmogrification is ‘mmm, not bad at all.’
And its secret? Its recipe? The tricks of the trade? All will be revealed shortly.