I have a friend who runs a microbakery from home and this week I did a short course in sourdough baking with him. We made ten different types of bread: white, wholemeal, with black olives, with sunflower and sesame seeds, round-loaves, long loaves, flat loaves, plaits, rolls and baguettes. One was studded with candied fruits, another was dimpled with tomatoes, but all were created from the humble mix of flour and water.
I brought home a tableful of bread to share and store. It’s made me want to bake, of course, but surprisingly I came back full of enthusiasm (sorely lacking in these bleak January days) for the process of writing and the making of written forms. As much as anything else it was the array of “things” he owned and used to make these edible creations that inspired me: the scrapers and scoops and brushes and bowls and boxes and baskets and tins and racks and the whole fragrant space of the kitchen warmed by the two ovens that were on all afternoon.
Coming back to my writing room, I have a child’s desire for felt-tip pens and coloured inks. For card and rolls of that old printer paper with perforations at the side. For big blank drawing books and coloured A4 sheets, even for scrapbooks of grainy grey sugar paper. For pin-boards and postcards, and index cards in pastels colours. For thick vanilla paper with flourishes embossed on it.
Notebooks are my usual diet and like the sliced bread of supermarkets they can usually satisfy, especially a certain brand of floppy black ones that has somehow got linked up with Hemingway and a European, expatriate glamour. Now, after the messy dough and the flour-strewn countertop, I’m more interested in the sort of writing that comes from forgotten scraps of paper or cut-ups or splurges in a diary. But I want order, too. Thinking about the wooden handles of the dough-cutters, the gleaming, waist-high rack for cooling, and the steel peels that slide in the pizzas, I am craving box files and hanging files and pigeon-holes attached to the wall so that each individual idea has space to breathe. I want boxes for card indexes and in-trays that slide and detach for bringing to a desk. I want anything with drawers.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly of all, the experiences of shaping and kneading and weighing and combining ingredients calls up in me the primal desire for the making of image and line; character and story. First to introduce a dry name and then add the bubbling ferment of incident, dilemma and crisis. To mix together a stream of picture-words onto a white sheet of paper like pouring water into airy white flour. Then to mix it all, with a pen or with the fingers on the keyboard, and leave it to rise in the dark warmth of my mind. Next day, to lift up the cloth and shape it, ready for the final tempering by the heat of honest critique. And to hope, hope that it grows and expands and splits its sides and becomes a thing of beauty, and sustenance.
The writer and the baker (using all the skill and equipment they can muster and cherish) both create new forms. My appetite for words was renewed by the bread I baked in such an inspiring, creative place.