Updated: Dec 21, 2019
The beginning of a love affair with our daily bread
The Story of the King’s Bread, a Hungarian Folk Tale
The King was tired of eating chicken, he was bored of eating pasta, he had more than enough of eating pork and he couldn’t even bear the thought of a bowl of soup. He watched each dish being presented with agony, there was a disillusioned glance towards the cakes and the scones and even the cream. He faced the mighty dining room table with dread and scoffed at another meal of sameness. The King could not stand it any longer, he summoned his cook and demanded that he would cook the king a delicious dish, but one which he had never eaten before. The King’s cook, tired and bereft, agreed and told the King that he would do his very best.
After a long wait and numerous stomach grumbles later, the cook arrived carrying a dozen outrageous dishes one after another. Snail porridge with frog’s legs, egg and bacon ice cream, mock turtle soup, and even quadruple cooked potatoes. But it was all to no avail and the King pushed each dish away with a look of disgust, boredom and contempt. The moment another dish was placed in front of the King he shouted with a bellowing voice: ‘If the next dish you present is not delicious, then I shall have your head cut clean off!’
The cook sighed, had all his efforts been in vain? All these years working in the kitchen, slaving away for that big gluttonous toad wasted. There was nothing he could do. He returned to the kitchen despairing, he could not think of another dish and thus decided his only option was escape. So he did and in his hurry he wrapped up some freshly baked bread, which was usually kept for the house staff and fled to a nearby forest.
When the time came, as time reliably does, for supper to be had the next day, the King sat at his table waiting impatiently for his food. He eyed the door with menace, but the door remained firmly shut. The King was at first curious and then furious, he ordered for the cook to be brought to him bound in chains. The cook, as you happily know, was nowhere to be found. In a rage the King lamented “Am I the only man in this whole land to sit this evening before a bare table?!”
The King’s men rolled their eyes, but the King ordered that they ride after the cook and they quickly found his footsteps and followed his trail deep into the forest. The cook was swiftly found sitting cumbrously up a tree. The cook decided that he would play dead and positioned himself as safely as he could on one of the branches of the tree. The King, frantic now, ordered his men to cut down the tree with their swords. The men loved the cook and feeling sad for his sorry fate reluctantly chopped at the tree feigning difficulty. The cook had regularly given the men food which the King had not eaten and the favour was now being returned. The King could see the men were slacking, in a rage of hunger and desperation the King took to the tree himself. The cook became so frightened at the King’s apparent strength and in fear of his impending doom, scrambled up the tree, dropping the bread which he had taken from the kitchen. The bread fell at the King’s feet and quickly after it had hit the floor with a resounding knock, the King began to smell its warming perfume. The King picked it up confused, but then appetized. One of the men, seeing his puzzlement, told him that he was holding a loaf of bread. He insisted that it was not for the King, but that it was a poor man’s food. The King, who had not eaten since the morning, tore of a chunk and tasted it. He stood amazed, the bread had transported him back to his childhood, to his mother and to happier times. The portal which the bread had opened exhilarated the King. The King quelled by deliciousness decided he would let the cook down and pardoned him of his punishment. The King asked the cook deferentially if he was able to cook a loaf of bread for him every day. The cook in utter astonishment agreed and shook the once malevolent leaders opens hand. The King tore another chunk from the loaf and offered it peacefully to the cook and then to the surrounding men.
Imagine holding a handful of flour. Give yourself a moment. What do you picture in your hands? Think of the colour? Maybe rub it between your fingers? Try to imagine where has it come from? How old is it? Flour is lifeless. Flour is sedentary. Flour is mundane. Well, it can be. That flour in your hand hardly smells, in fact, it also hardly tastes and ultimately it feels a like dust. Well, it shouldn’t. Anaesthetised white flour has dominated our supermarket shelves like a spiteful dictator, it has extinguished the competition and ground, squished, compacted and stored itself into squeezed paper bags. Now imagine you throw that flour into the air and watch it evaporate into nothingness; deftly dissolving into the ether, like ash blown from a forgotten fire. Flour, real flour, is potential, it is foundational, it is ready to bloom, it pulled us out of the mud in true promethean fashion. I promise the fourth wall will be repaired soon, but imagine now holding a loaf of bread, bread which is fresh out of the oven. Bread is an extraordinary ordinary food. You can feel its warmth through your oven gloves and it seems to glows. A dark brown orb encapsulating your attention. The bread is alive, it is vital, it has spirit. Well, it can be. This loaf in your hand has a deep, caramel, nutty smell which engulfs the room and it tastes, well, of love. Bread is its transformation captured, a photograph of air, it is real, palpable and globular. DH Lawrence claimed that the human soul needs ‘beauty more than bread,’ but that is a fallacy, for bread is beauty and ‘there is nothing more positive than a loaf of bread’ .
Or perhaps bread is just bread. A foodstuff which is so ubiquitous and cheap that its importance has been diminished. Supermarkets account for over 80% of the bread we buy and almost 50% of that is thrown away. Bread was at the centre of the development of civilisation, it really did drag us from the mud. It was at the start of agriculture, it helped us nourish towns and cities, artists and politicians, the rich and the poor. In return we repay it by stuffing it with rubbish, including preservatives, flavour enhancers and ash-like flour. We force feed it fast action yeast, watch it grow abnormal and bulbous and expect it, above all, to remain perpetually cheap. We abuse and drain the soil which it grows from until it ‘dies of its own too-much’. My perhaps overzealous descriptions may have left a few eyes rolling, but stick with me, because it does matter and the redemption could be all the sweeter or nuttier, for our longest serving gastronomic companion. The story of my love of bread starts long before I knew how to pronounce the word levain or what the Chorleywood process is. Our collective bread story starts some six-thousand years ago, mine started in the late 2000s. My floppy haired early teenage years when cooking was still a dormant passion and my vacillating hormones were spewing angst ridden lava everywhere. Nirvana was on the speakers and bagels were in the toaster.
Waking up for another day at school I was always flooded with the same thought. This was not a thought of the day ahead, or a practical contemplation of brushing my teeth, it was before the frantic search for my school tie, instead I would think, with an almost irrepressible urge, of bagels. New York style bagels, golden brown and supple, with that idiosyncratic whole in the middle. A bagel perfectly toasted, slavered in butter and indelicately topped with the king of yeast, marmite. Dense, springy, sweet, and intensely filling, everything a hungry teenager needs and wants. I would place it before me, butter dripping into yellow blobs on the plate and eat. Those were glorious mornings. By the afternoon, I yearned for the hit of the bagel again, the salty marmite, the soft centre and the slightly burnt edges would all call to me. Finally, after a long day, a rejection, a failure, a falling out, I would always turn to my loyal friend and the bagel would never disappoint. It took years to slowly wean myself off this routine and now I look at them with the resentment of an old lover, I shudder at the thought of the mountains I must have consumed.
Looking back at the depravity of my bagel days it is hard to a clear pathway to the bread I eat now. That bread was stodgy, sweet and fantastically American. During school breaktimes I would help devour bouncy and spongey loafs of white bread which would appear and disappear in seconds, they were toasted violently and rapidly consumed until only a half-eaten crust was left behind. It was moreish, intensely sugary and artificial; a childish reproduction of bread, one which is made to be shelf stable and consistent. I don’t mean to be too emphatic or evangelical about what bread people should be eating and cheapness is a necessity in a society which is continuously failing to pay people properly. People are increasingly struggling to feed themselves and their families, relying on food banks or charities to provide their daily meals; the calories which bread offers is an essential for anyone who quite frankly doesn’t have the chance to think about flavour or taste, let alone write about it. However, the cheap supermarket bread, is making us sick; the ingredients added to this bread include E-numbers, enzyme “improvers” whatever that means, powdered protein, a host of different fats, emulsifiers, preservatives and even added gluten. The good which bread can do, is being taken away and however cheap, it is not doing us any good.
Memories can become distorted and inflated, but I believe can pinpoint the moment I was inspired to really appreciate good bread and then in turn attempt to make my own. As a result, I swiftly realised that bread is much more than a sickly sponge, in fact that ‘edible food like substance’ wrapped in plastic bares a minute resemblance to the foodstuff that revolutionised the way we nourish ourselves. I became certain that bread can be a triumph of flavour and texture, but also nutrition, and perhaps more importantly, it can also it can be a vehicle for personal, social, environmental and political change.
- Edited by the awesome and available on @idlechitchat