Our distance from the source of our food enables us to be superficially more comfortable and distantly more ignorant. Eating is a sacrament, the grace that we say clears our hearts and guides the children and welcomes the guest, all at the same time.
It is late winter and the cattle have come off the two acres by the main road, they have eaten the grass and clover down. This winter has been cold and wet, and there is a dry spell forecast and the soil is well drained.
I’ve got a 1971 Massey Ferguson 135, a yeoman scarifier and an offset harrows. Those were the days when crops were grown in way smaller paddocks, after hand tillage, a man and a horse could probably till an acre in a day. My tractor has the power of 40 horses, 40 acres. A small ‘thank god’ for the machine, agriculture has moved on these days. Have you seen the machinery? The breadth of the sweep and the size of the engines? The vastness of food production? The factory fields? The endless bland of monoculture?
I’m planting peas and vetch as a green manure, they will react with the beneficial bacteria in the soil and form nodules of nitrogen — this in turn will feed the next crop, a winter wheat destined to plant in seven months or so.
When I think of green manures, mine is a poor descendant of the up to 87 varieties that were planted together in some parts of Europe — think of that diversity, all the bacteria and nutrients, all the minerals being created and released, all of the unseen. Think of the soil and its aliveness, of the microbes working in such a place, all that busyness and turnover. Now think of the farmer in these parts who on planting a green manure of clover, because his soil has been denuded of its bacterial aliveness, has to inoculate the seed with a manufactured bacteria in order for the soil and the plant to fix nitrogen. The soil has become nothing but a canvas on which manmade chemicals can react. Here I am with the right idea, moving in the right direction — starting to care for the soil, for all that is unseen.
The legumes I have planted will germinate and the land there will flush with green, although this year the rains that do come are meagre, but enough moisture that the soil magic will happen. Beneath the surface, nodules of nitrogen are attached to the root, nitrogen fixed naturally, there is no NPK or artificial fertilisers here. At harvest there is little in the pods. We pick those few peas before Christmas, and then I run over a couple of times with the offset harrows and all that green is taken into the soil — this I will leave fallow till another turn in late summer, and hopefully plant the wheat crop just before the autumn break. The wheat, if planted thick enough, will mostly be weed-free, thanks to the fallowing and the turning in of stray weeds before planting.
There is a loveliness about tilling the soil, about working the land, even from a tractor like this. Always the eyes are watching, like the kookaburra that constantly searches the furrow for worm and Bardy grub, content with my effort and her next feed, the sentinel sulphur-breasted cockatoo that watches for signs of sowing and stray grain. Too quickly she will return with mobs of screeching fury, hell-bent on as much seed as they can manage. But I shall set the seed drill deep, deeper than the stretch and the curve of a cockatoo’s beak — once the cockies are in up to their eyes they won’t go deeper. They will get the stray seed that has popped the drill. Most of the wheat will find its depth, to germination and growth.
Sometimes the harrows will turn up a rubbing stone, a mortar used by the black fella to crush his foraged seed, maybe cumbungee, maybe kangaroo grass, maybe some plant rich in protein long since passed as it was no longer needed. So the process of milling grains was alive in this country, not the growing but the foraging and gathering.
The rains will come and the seed will germinate, the tentative shoots rising into a coming winter. Have you seen this green flush of promise on a tilled paddock? Spring will come, the weather will be beneficial. The magic will happen. It was Mario Petrucci who described farming as the balance between fertility and futility. How true. Painfully so, sometimes. Good farming practice can only do so much in the face of ever-changing weather patterns.
It is here. Here — with the preparation of soil, the depth of sowing, the laying fallow, the rotation of crops, the care of country — that my work is done, and all I can do over the next seven months or so is watch the coming low pressure systems, the balance of moisture and sunlight, to say my small prayers to the sky. To send my hopes on the wings of angels to Demeter. The age-old ritual of watching and praying.
The harvest is never counted until the grain is safely stored inside. Even with rows of golden grain waving in the summer breeze, there is always that late rain uninvited by the farmer that causes the grain to sprout in its sheath, rendering all that gold to pig feed. Or the cold blast that comes mid-spring, and the clear night that invites the late frost and suddenly all the husk is empty.
Early in the spring of last year, four of us invested the pricey sum of 200 dollars on an old Allis-Chalmers Mark 1 All-Crop Harvester, dating from the mid 50s. The last crop that this wonderful old machine took off was in 1969 and she has been shedded since then, since Bob Dylan sang ‘Lay Lady Lay’ … since the Summer of Love. Waiting for fools to rescue her and set her singing again. There are over 70 grease nipples, four belts and two canvases, and to see her in action is to fully appreciate Wallace and Gromit cartoons. There are so many moving parts being driven from the drive of the tractor, so many flywheels spinning, and clunks and whistles and hisses. To drive her through a crop of wheat is an experience, to witness the combing, the cutting, the up-feeding, the shredding, the threshing, the thrashing, the sieving, the augering and holding, the throwing out of stalk and the general song of the harvest.
When the crop is in and the wheat is bagged and through my fingers I can run the red golden grain, a wealth of immediacy, to feel the richness of a food, not the idea of a commodity. Here is a satisfaction, no matter how down the size of the crop — besides, always next year will be better. Even in this satisfaction, always.
I have been baking bread for nearly 15 years now. I sell locally. This year I brought a stone mill from Austria — not a huge mill, but enough to grind about 30kg an hour.
Once upon a time, right the way across the world, every community would have a mill. Two large flat stones: one stationary, one driven by water or wind or mule or steam, or, these days, by electricity. At the end of the 19th century roller milling was invented, which enabled grain and especially wheat, the staple of our Western breads, to be milled differently. The germ and the husk were taken out of the grain and the endosperm was roller-milled — this meant that a lighter, whiter, less flavoursome flour was produced. A flour devoid of a lot of its goodness, its rough age and its complexity, so that now it would last in storage for 18 months as opposed to the six weeks in summer of its stoneground equivalent.
You could say that roller milling was the first fast food, the first in a long line of factories turning out quicker, longer-lasting food. The beginning of the end of quality, of food locality, the death of the little millers, the locally raised loaf, the end of flavour. Suddenly flour production was centralised and controlled. It is not hard to guess the effect on community: the miller lost his livelihood, the carters and mill workers moved off, and the farmers — at first being happy at having a regular market — were soon held to the price of the big mills. It was not long before grain had a global price, bought and sold by suits in high towers, hidden away from the dust of the mill. And those wonderful old mills of wind and water that peppered the landscape slowly fell to ruin. Oh, progress.
Depending on the loaf, I either mill my grain about 12 days before baking — this enables the flour to oxidise and a good crust to develop — or on the same day as I bake, for the sheer thrill of using a flour that has such wonderful vitality. The grain will go through on a coarse grind. I’ll take out some bran and maybe semolina, depending on the protein levels present, then put it through again, sifting down to dusty cream-coloured fine flour. There is a wonderful aliveness in the aroma of fresh-ground grain. What I hold in my hand is only the product of what is grown here, or what is grown by people that I know.
It seems that even those organic roller-milled flours allow all types of enzymes to be added, to bleach, to aid in rising, to stretch the proteins further, to make the bread softer, to take more gas, to take up more water. In this country, none have to be disclosed. So we have more people reporting they are gluten intolerant. Wheat has become the bad guy. I wonder, though, about the effect of all these added enzymes. There is one particular culprit: transglutaminase, added for stretch in pastry flours, that is said to turn gluten toxic for our palates. Even before these enzymes there was the weird engineering of food, of taking out and adding gluten — to my mind is does not make sense. My flour is naked and clean, perhaps a little taken away and fed to the chooks and ducks, but nothing added.
Since the early 1960s most bread in Western cultures has been fundamentally redesigned — the flour and yeast were changed, and a combination of additives and intense energy have replaced time in the maturing of dough. This is known as the Chorleywood process, and it produces bread of huge volume and lightness, packed with preservatives. It is white, light and will stay soft for days, made by machines on a factory production line, a technological marvel lacking taste, goodness, body and soul. An idea of bread, the ghost of a loaf. It is the very embodiment of the modern age. Britain, America and Australia went the way of factory-produced bread — industrialisation saw to this — while countries with more of a peasant-based economy kept the integrity in their bread, in some cases even legislating to protect the standards of bread-making. France legislated that bread should contain only flour, water, yeast and salt.
I make sourdough bread, so instead of using a commercially-produced yeast I have harvested wild yeast that is present in every breath we take, and given it a medium in which to thrive. Instead of a loaf that rises in 90 minutes, my bread will take between five and seven hours, depending on the time of year – in the heat of summer the doughs will hurry, while in the depths of winter the wild yeast culture is a little more lazy. I have four ingredients: flour, water, salt and sourdough culture (the sourdough culture is simply flour and water inoculated with wild yeast, and bubbling with aliveness). These four ingredients are mixed and then kneaded to develop the proteins, stretched and pulled, shaped, elasticated, ready to become the skins of tiny balloons that enable the dough to rise. Then the sourdough culture goes to work chomping its way through the mixture, dividing, multiplying, growing and releasing complex carbohydrates and sugars locked within the flour. The byproducts: lactic and acetic acid, and carbon dioxide, a gas that pumps into the developed proteins creating bubbles and tiny pockets, leavening, rising, ripening.
If you see the rise, if you smell that sweet pungency and know the journey from soil to palate, if you follow the weather patterns and the turning of the seasons, the journey of a seed into a staple, you know that the journey is coming to an end. The loaves are weighed and shaped into batards, proving between soft canvas cloths. The cooling of the wood-fired oven is timed to the rising of the loaves — together they meet on the hearth of the oven, the heart of the oven.
Here is the bright alchemy of baking. The loaves will take on a life of their own, slashed with a razor to aid the direction of the rise, the doughs will kick off from the oven floor, a final rise as the last flush of gasses fill the air pockets. The starches will gelatinise, thickening the mixture and setting the loaf (the starch molecules that have no real flavour of their own, when heated, get out of the way to reveal other more complex tastes. Here is the baker’s mission to release the full flavour from the grain). The sugars in the crust will caramelise, the crust will blister and crack and brown to a deep golden colour, and the proteins will roast as the heat of the oven drives off excess moisture, concentrating flavours and allowing the subtle nutlike flavours to emerge. At about 20 minutes, I’ll open the oven door. The aroma has been seeping out into the bakery, but as the oven is unloaded the scent will still astound me, the loaves will talk as they are placed in wire racks and wrapped in clean cotton sheets, they crackle and cackle with joy.
In a few short hours I will load the crates of bread into the little white truck and carry them down the hill to the local farmers’ markets. There will be eager buyers, familiar faces. Bread is a strong place where friendships are made. There will be praise and maybe some criticism, and both will be welcomed and taken to the next bake. Always there is a wanting to improve, to carry forth, to do better, to pay attention to the details. To pay attention to the details…