Update: in June 2020, Renée Bondy recorded a modified, audio version of this essay for CBC radio.
Few things are more comforting than the smell of bread baking. At our house, Sunday is the day devoted to bread.
Years ago, my Sunday routine was very different. Church, brunch, grocery shopping and other errands, and prepping to teach my Monday classes filled the day. I also tried to squeeze in the cooking of a hearty meal, something that would work itself into Monday and Tuesday leftovers.
Now, I keep a sourdough sabbath.
I set a timer and spend the better part of the afternoon tending to the dough.
The breadmaking process begins at sundown on Saturday, when I take a little flour, water, and a few tablespoons of sourdough starter, stir these together, and leave them to rest on the kitchen counter overnight. Though not a morning person by nature, on Sundays I rise early, sometimes before the sun, to prepare the dough. The leaven I readied the night before is warm and bubbly, and I add the sticky mixture to several cups of flour and some water to form a shaggy dough. Nestled under a tea towel, the dough rests. In a few hours, I add more water and a spoonful of salt. The dough, now quite wet, must be folded and rested, folded and rested, six times in total, at 30-minute intervals. I set a timer and spend the better part of the afternoon tending to the dough. As I stretch and fold the dough, it becomes a bit drier and more elastic, ready to shape into rounds, or boules. I form two loaves, cover them, and set them to rise in the late afternoon sun. Early evening is baking time.
This might seem like a lot of unnecessary work. It’s true, I could buy a tasty loaf of sourdough at the local bakery, and save a lot of energy and time. The bread I bake is not perfect – its rise and texture change with the seasons. But each week when I feed my sourdough starter with a little flour, I think of my friend who gave it to me years ago, and marvel at the fact that bakeries around the world boast starters that are hundreds of years old. There is something special about this bread and the day spent making it.
Given the long history of sourdough baking, I’m hardly the first person to fall under its spell.
It is no coincidence that the day-long process of making sourdough requires adherence to a schedule, much like a monastic horarium.
Archaeologists have unearthed remains of ancient sourdough, and estimate that the practice of sourdough baking has been around for more than 6,000 years, beginning in Mesopotamia and spreading throughout the Middle East, to Egypt, and across Europe. Monastics became known for their sourdough breads, produced to feed monks and nuns, and to sell for the support of monasteries and convents.
It is no coincidence that the day-long process of making sourdough requires adherence to a schedule, much like a monastic horarium. Hour by hour, step by step, the process unfolds. The ritual of breadmaking is repetitive, but never tedious. Each week, the recipe is the same, and the familiar rhythm is satisfying. Working with the dough, responding to its changes in texture and smell as the hours pass, and achieving a perfect rise requires patient dedication.
The sourdough sabbath is usually very quiet. I’m sometimes startled by the ping of the kitchen timer, and the familiar sounds of baking – the pastry scraper skimming across the countertop, the creak of the oven door – provide happy distractions from the silence. Some Sundays my partner makes a pot of soup while the bread rises. By the time the loaves go into the oven, just past sundown, my stomach growls in anticipation of our simple feast.
The ritual of bread baking is a mindfulness practice like no other, and its satisfactions linger in weekday toast and sandwiches.
I bake two loaves, one to be eaten and one to be given away. Usually, the second loaf is delivered warm to a neighbour, and we share a visit and a glass of wine before dinner.
The ritual of bread baking is a mindfulness practice like no other, and its satisfactions linger in weekday toast and sandwiches. From sundown to sundown, week to week, the sourdough sabbath is a day set apart, nourishing and restorative.