Now you might be wondering what every village has or at least used to have. The Village Priest? The Village Idiot? Sometimes one and the same. Or maybe the Village Bicycle? Which, incidentally is not a method of transportation, even though it does get around. What I meant was the Village Baker. In times gone by every village had a baker you could take your loaf to and who would, for a small fee, bake it for you. Of course then everyone would know whether you were capable of a good loaf, or were just a pretty face, whether your destiny was Marriage or a romp in the shed.
Our little village of Belval had one such traditional baker, who even in the 1970’s in affluent Luxembourg produced the three pound loaves preferred by frugal working class families. I’d like to say “like my own”, but that’s not technically true. We were middle class, my father running a men’s clothing store, but many of my relatives used to work in the iron ore mines on which Luxembourg’s original fortunes were built. You’d be shushed coming in to play with your cousins, as the father of the house would be asleep in the afternoon, because of the night shift. In my definitely rose tinted memory it was an idyllic life in the stone cottages the mine owners provided. They had a kitchen, a small sitting room, two, sometimes three bedrooms, a coal cellar and originally an outhouse, which mercifully vanished when I was still very young.
The most important part of the house however was the little garden at the back, which abutted all the other gardens. This is where life happened. The real entrance to the house was here and not up the small path to the front door. For most of the people, the ring of the doorbell ringing was greeted with trepidation. It could be bad news or maybe the priest visiting, which was usually worse. Except for Sundays, the front door was always firmly locked, the neighbours walking round the back, down the little lane, through the back garden to the kitchen door, which except for the deepest winter was always open. There would be a big three pound loaf waiting to be sliced by hand, slathered with molasses for the kids and “Greiweschmalz” for the working men. “Greiweschmalz” was lard, flavoured with fried onions and boy was that good! If you worked in the mines, you could kill a 5000 calorie lunch and not put on a pound, so lard was not your enemy.
I have been looking for pictures of these types of cottages, but there is nothing at all to be found, maybe it was all a figment of my imagination? So instead, above is a collage of the steel works my uncles used to work at. The beauty of the lost industrial landscape dominated everything in the south of Luxembourg and everyone lived by its rhythm. The sirens marked the beginning and the end of shifts, it summoned the wives to the kitchen to get lunch ready for the men who would be on their way home, tired and in need of a bath and a cold beer. In those days Arbed and the mills were the uncontested lords of the land. When Arcelor Mittal bought it all, they got empty mills, but a glorious company headquarters.
That got us far from the three pound loaves that inspired yesterday’s baking. Baked in wood fired ovens, they had a thick, almost black base and an incomparable flavour. With the memory of this flavour in mind and after eating rubbish bread for the last 6 weeks, I took the plunge and made bread! As I said, I’m not a great pastry chef and I’m a worse baker. I tend to just slap it together and hope that by using good flour, the outcome will be edible. I mean; can it be worse that the loaf that’s presumably “so good you can even eat it on its own”, a loaf so inconsequential, you are likely to derive more sustenance from the bag it comes in.
I’m dithering and not getting to the point, the point being Bread. Good, dense, nourishing and full of flavour. I can’t promise you a perfect loaf, but I can promise you an easy one that will taste good. Which gets us back to the Village…. Baker.
Rustic Rye Bread
One 640g loaf
- 200g organic rye flour
- 200g plain flour
- 10g brown sugar
- 10g palm sugar
- 5g fine Brittany salt (or 8g plain salt)
- 15g yeast
- 250g cold water
Mix the two fours together and sieve into the bowl of a mixer. You will probably have some grainy solids left in your sieve. Check them for twigs or stones and make sure there are no weevils in there and then toss them into the fours. You want this in your bread for texture.
Add the brown sugar and palm sugar. If you don’t have palm sugar, add a total of 15g brown or even white sugar. Palm sugar is less sweet, so you need more. Add the salt, mix all together, then add the yeast.
Attach the hook to your mixer and set the speed to 1. With the machine running, slowly our in the cold water. Once the dough has come together, leave it to knead at the lowest speed for 5 minutes, then increase to 2 and leave to knead for 15 minutes. Your dough should be slightly wet, but not too sticky. If the hook comes out quite clean, you’ll be on the right track. Take the loaf out with lightly floured hands, shape into a ball and return to the bowl. Cover with a wet cloth and leave to rise until doubled in size. At tropical temperature and humidity, that’s about 45 minutes.
Knock the dough back and shape it into a torpedo shaped loaf and put it on a lightly oiled baking tray. Dust generously with flour and cover once more with a damp cloth. The second rise will take another 45 minutes. After 30 minutes, give your loaf another light dusting with flour and slash it diagonally to release the air and ensure that the loaf does not crack when baking.
If your oven has a bottom heat setting, use this one to pre-heat and start the bake of your loaf. Crank it up as high as it will go. I set mine to 250ºC, which gave me about 230ºC on the thermometer. Do this as soon as you start the second rise or at least 30 minutes before baking. You need your oven to be very hot!
When it’s time to bake, spray your loaf with water and spray the tray around the loaf very generously, so as to create some steam, which will help the bread rise. Bake at bottom heat for about 10 minutes, then switch to fan assist or normal setting an continue to bake for about 10 more minutes. That’s a total baking time of just 20 minutes.
How do you know when your loaf is cooked? – Take it out, turn it around and tap it. If it sounds hollow, it’s done.
What if I don’t have access to “good” flour? I have made great bread with simple flours. Head to the Indian shop, or any shop that sells so-called ethnic foodstuff. Chances are you will find a flour that hasn’t been refined off the face of the earth. Atta flour will do very well and if you don’t have anything else, mix it with some seeds and oatmeal. I promise the end result will still be much better than anything you can buy in the shop.