Ancient Skills for a Modern World
Let me just say that I have been around for quite a few decades. In that time I have seen ‘new’ technologies come and go. I have been happy to adopt and adapt to many of these developments. The technology I have access to now would have seemed like science fiction in my youth. Much of it is useful, some of it doesn’t interest me. I pick and choose what enhances my life. What I do not do is talk of some mythical ‘golden age’ when things were somehow better than they are now. Believe me, if I could have had an iPad as a student I would have. However, some aspects of technology have not been so beneficial. For example, food processing techniques, while feeding more people, have often reduced the nutritional value of many foods.
Therefore, there are some skills from previous times that are worth preserving. Over these same decades I have learned how to brew beer, make bread, grow vegetables,
roast coffee, and I think there is still a place for these practical skills in the world of today.
Let me select two from the list to illustrate why I enjoy keeping some skills alive and well, making bread and roasting coffee. I have written about coffee roasting before so I will
focus mainly on bread making. However, there is one aspect of roasting coffee that I haven’t addressed, coffee snobbery. Roasting good coffee simply requires some basic equipment, experience, and decent quality green beans. Yes, some basic knowledge is required but many sources online and elsewhere give the impression that roasting coffee is complicated and arcane. And you can make it be that if you choose. The reality for the home roaster is that there is a limit to how many variables you can control and the goal should be to produce very good coffee not aim for some indefinable and unreachable ‘perfect’ coffee.
A similar commentary could be made about brewing coffee. Again technique can make a difference but is it enough to justify high prices for a cup of coffee? Not for me when I can produce a very good cup of coffee at home with coffee beans roasted and brewed in a manner specifically to please me. Add to that the satisfaction of being my own roaster and barista.
I learned the value of simplifying processes eventually after most of a lifetime essentially being a geek who liked to delve deeply into the arcana of many topics. I still do but I am more circumspect about not letting the search for perfection’ get in the way of the good.
Which brings me to another aspect of learning skills that often discourages beginners - trying to learn from those who are ‘rule bound’. Those of us who have baked bread for a number of years have learned that, after you learn some basic techniques, most of the process is developing a feel for the materials and the dough. Sometimes, especially when you are a beginner or trying a new recipe, things just won’t work out. Most of the time they will but each ‘failure’ helps build experience. Developing a feel is necessary because the variables will change. Right now the humidity in the room where I am working is 28%, the ambient temperature is 68.9F. Then there is the type of flour, how fresh is it, how was it stored, was it store bought or fresh milled, whole grain or sifted? It sounds complicated but not when you have developed a feel for how a particular dough should turn out. For example, a dough made from rye, fresh milled or not, will have a different feel from one made from store bought bread flour. You take the recipe as a base and adjust where needed.
Over the years I have tried various methods for baking bread. Recently I have begun to focus more on bread made with fresh milled grain and sourdough starter. I could tell you it is about nutrition or freshness, which would be true. Store bought flour, even whole wheat, is sifted and some of the nutritional value is lost. Grain, on the other hand, if stored properly, has a shelf life of years. While nutrional value and freshness definitely matter to me, a large part of the appeal in making bread this way is that it goes back to the very origins of bread making. Sourdough starter consists of wild yeasts and bacteria that are everywhere in our environment. Depending on a number of variables (those variables again) including how you maintain it, sourdough starter does not necessarily make bread sour. It will add complexity to the flavor of the dough and act as a raising agent.
Right now I have a number of grains in storage including wheat, corn, emmer, einkorn, rye, and kamut. I have a hand grinder but it takes a long time to produce the amount of flour I need for a recipe. Recently I bought a Mockmill grinder attachment for our KitchenAid mixer that speeds up the process. I love to grind flour right before I make a dough. There is an aroma and freshness that is unobtainable from pre-packaged flour. I also know that I am getting the complete grain with all of its fiber and nutrition.
Ironically, if one were to go back to the 18th century, working people had to be encouraged to eat whole grain bread because white refined bread was considered preferable. When bread is the primary staple in a diet sifting and refining can result in deficiencies that cause illness. That is why modern commercially produced bread is nutritionally enhanced.
Therefore attitudes to food are as important as the process used. By going back to the more ancient approaches to making food, avoiding later modifications, I am enjoying a connection with how things were in both a culinary and intellectual manner. There is great satisfaction in making bread and other foods in a way that goes back to the fundamentals. Added to that are the rewards of better flavor and nutrition. And I know exactly what the ingredients are and can customize each product to suit my taste.
Note: We buy our greeen coffee beans from Sweet Maria’s Home Coffee Roasting in Oakland, CA. This allows us to know the source and quality of the beans. For grains we buy from a number of producers favoring small businesses where possible. All of the grains used are organic and non-GMO.