Posted by: seasin | August 24, 2009

Breathing with bread

About 13 years ago, on a sweltering August morning, I was entering a small, basic kitchen, with uneven whitewashed walls and low ceilings darkened by years of cooking fires. The room was full of girls and women, maybe 8 of them, all more or less connected by blood lines. It was a Thursday, and on the following week-end, one of the young girls in the room was getting married-a traditional Transilvanian village wedding. I was privileged enough to be allowed to be part of the preparations-although I had barely met those women-because I was going to be part of the wedding, and because I was sharing the same bloodlines. You know, the city girl coming to re-plunge her roots.

On that Thursday afternoon, three days before the wedding, the bride, her mother, future mother in law and several close relatives were together in a small village kitchen, making the bread for the wedding party. When I entered the room, nearly blinded by passing from the hot, white August sun outside, to the dim light of a tiny room only lit by windows the size of my two palms put together, I was looking forward to the cackling noise and cheerfull atmosphere one would expect from a room full of women of all ages. The thing that hit me most was the silence. The air was balmy, particles of flour were dancing in the sunrays coming from the tiny windows, and I didn’t even feel the sweltering heat. It was for the first time in my life that I felt as if I had stepped into some kind of church.

The voices were hushed, the movements were soft, there was no loud laughter, no rush. For as long as I stayed there, I had the weirdest feeling that I was taking part to a secret, long forgotten ritual, some sort of ancient magic. The women there knew exactly what they were doing, and although I had no clue, I only felt as an intruder for a short time. One old lady, the bride’s mother, lifted a tanned, wrinkled face from a sack of flour, gave me a small, almost shy smile, then brushed her knuckles over my cheek and asked if I wanted to help. Oh, yes, that I did!!! So, marked by a powdery trace of flour on my city girl face, I joined the witches circle. We sifted, we crumbled live yeast in warm milk, we grated potatoes (the village bread is made with potatoes, in huge round loaves, sometimes up to 5 kg in weight, and it lasts for a week or sometimes more, sweet and tasty and hearty, with a thick crunchy crust-bread for those hungry after simple, physical labour)-and then we kneaded. All of us, lined along a massive, rather shallow oval vat that looked like it was carved out of a whole tree trunk and polished smooth by anonymous men of long ago, we bent over and sank our hands in the warm, silky and sticky dough. The first touch was mesmerising. I felt the living thing enrobing my fingers first, then the whole of my hands-it was like plunging, hands first, in life itself. And the rythm of all those sister hands, pulling and pushing and caressing and blessing, was intoxicating.

We kneaded for a long time, bent over the monster amount of dough, hard work, and with every passing moment, every flexing of my arms and back muscles, I felt added admiration and respect for those simple women. And I felt like one of them. I caught myself replicating their hushed tones when speaking-we were doing magic, magic needs quiet and love and respect to happen. I caught myself replicating their movements-no, not the turn of the wrist of the expert kneader, it took a while to master that, but the quick wipe of my arm over my brow, to stop the sweat from going in my eyes-there was no time for cleaning hands and getting tissues or handkerchiefs-the living dough was giving us no respite. I felt connected to those women, by that warm dough that was breathing under our fingers, much more than the rational understanding of the fact that we were, in fact, related, ever let me feel.

There was no rest for a long time-while one batch was resting and growing bigger in a corner, under crisp white table cloths woven at home by those same women, another batch was mixed and kneaded…and when the old lady, who was in charge of things by reason of her age and experience, unveiled that first batch, my eyes went wide and I felt my mouth stretch in a big, proud grin-that thing, we made it-it was alive and rose and would turn into tasty fragrant BREAD. She shaped the first loaves, helped by another lady, while we were measuring out the makings of the third batch-then they opened the oven, which was adding its breath of fire to the August heat, a small mouth of orange glow in the dim light of the room, and with iron arms and steady hands, carefully and reverendly placed the loaves in to bake. Unless you’ve witnessed it, you’ll never imagine the smell-the combination of wood burning, charcoal, bricks and clay baked hot for years, and bread. It was like a drug, a fitting thing for us witches.

We baked perhaps over a hundred huge round loaves that day-they were coming out, dark brown and steaming, then one of the women grabbed them each with a thick cloth, and then gently starded beating the bread with a wooden sort of small bat, quick, dull-sounding hits, which made the crust crack and its first layer, the dark brown, nearly burned layer mixed with charcoal and clay residue from the oven, fall off. That layer would dry hard as a rock otherwise, and no knife would be cutting through it after a day or two-so the careful, gentle knocking was practical wisdom. The ready loaves would end up in large round wicker baskets, covered with yet more home-woven spotless white cloths, and placed to sleep and rest in a cool cellar until there was time for the feast.

I think you can tell by now that I was drawn into the breadmaking magic that day.

I don’t eat bread normally-sometimes not for months-but whenever there’s an opportunity to relive that experience by sinking my fingers in elastic, warm, sensual dough, I’ll take it.

And whenever I feel like life is too fast, too complicated, too sad, too bleak, whenever I feel alone and I feel like my lungs are not filling properly, I bake some bread. As I start sifting the flour, all of a sudden I can breathe like the first woman on Earth-back when the women’s steps were treading clean land, and they were breathing the pure air of the endless forrests and plains.

There’s nothing more calming, more purposeful, more ancient and peaceful and sensual than making bread.
And nothing says more loudly and completely “I love you” to a man, a family or friends, than caressing hands placing dough in an oven. It’s been like this forever, all over the world-making bread makes me feel related to the whole humanity. 

Breadmaking is my way of feeling lovingly human, simple and clean. And my way of breathing when it’s all getting too much to handle.

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