Ihave a new piece of equipment – and what a joy it is. Until two years ago, when I became interested in making bread, I’d never had a hobby or been into do-it-yourself. Now, for the first time in my life, I understand that excitement which DIY enthusiasts experience when they acquire an electric screwdriver or a new type of spanner.
My new tool is a proper baker’s peel. This is the long wooden pole with a flat tray on the end, like a shovel, that professional bakers use to slide the loaves into the oven. The idea is that the cold wobbly ball of dough, puffed up with gas from yeasty fermentation, meets the searing heat of the oven’s stone floor and receives an immediate thermal kick up the pants.
Result: a baked loaf with a confident, well-risen appearance – “bold” is the word bakers use. At home I don’t have a stone oven, of course. So to produce the same effect I use an off-cut of granite which I got for nothing from a tile shop.
My father found the peel standing outside an antiques shop in Scotland and knew he had to buy it. Its fine wooden head, made of ash, I think, and tapered to a blade-like edge so you can easily slide it under the loaf, was stuck in wet gravel and slowly degrading.
People scoffed at my dad a little for getting it because it looked like an unwieldy thing for me to use in a domestic kitchen – it’s nearly six feet long. All I can say is “thank you”, because in use the peel has proved to be a revelation. I don’t know how I managed without it. I used to use a baking tray as a peel but what a clumsy and imprecise substitute it was.
The real peel is stunning in its simplicity. The design hasn’t changed for thousands of years, and it works beautifully. Now I pop my naturally fermented sourdough loaves into the oven with the accuracy of a surgeon, in one smooth, brisk action. I’d never been able to position two loaves in the oven at once, but now I can, thus doubling my output. The whole process of bread-making has spiritual resonance. I don’t only mean the symbolism of breaking and sharing bread, the staff of life. The fermentation, where flour and water bubble away in a warm place and get bigger and bigger with the addition of nothing, in the case of sourdough bread, except some wild yeasts that were floating around in the atmosphere – that seems miraculous.
The sourdough leaven – some bakers call it the “mother”, others the “starter” – that lives in my fridge today is a continuation of the one that I got going back in the summer of 2007. I can be pretty sure it contains some of the same organisms, or at the very least their relations.
The patron of bakers is St Honoratus, or Honoré, the seventh century Bishop of Amiens, whose feast day falls two weeks from Saturday, on May 16 (not to be confused with St Honoratus, Archbishop of Arles).
Illustrations show the bishop with his special attribute, a peel. In one depiction he holds an armful of baguettes, a crozier and a peel with three hosts on it.
Accounts relate that Honoré surprised his maid with the announcement that he had been appointed bishop. The servant, who was in the middle of a baking session at the time, replied she would only credit such a notion when her peel sprouted roots and grew into a tree, which, when planted, it promptly did – a miraculous blackberry tree.