My story with bread begins two decades ago in the Senegalese town of Fatick. In my memories, it is a small, slow-paced place that’s never cold — and rainy only in summer time. Its one paved road is slowly getting devoured by sand. Sheep and the occasional cow wonder through the streets, backed by the sound of roosters trying to impress their mistresses. No one is too busy to stop and share lengthy greetings with their neighbors.
In Fatick, just like most of Senegal, in the 1980s, you could find only one kind of bread: a baguette with a cotton-like white crumb and a thin, crispy yellow crust. Not dark like the artisanal baguettes you would find in Paris, but delicious nonetheless. During Ramadan, the month of fasting according to Islam, the baker adds sugar to the dough and bakes a sweeter variety, perhaps to give some extra energy to the faithful fasters who need to survive from sunrise to sunset without eating or drinking.
The bread is sold in small kiosks sprinkled in street corners all over town. The kiosks are bare and basic: a shelf for keeping the morning’s worth of baguettes (usually one big bag of bread), a door, and a small window through which the customer gets served. The kiosk stays open as long as there are baguettes left to be sold and then closes until the next morning when the bread delivery truck makes its rounds.
As the eldest of four boys, it was my job — a job I was proud to do — to buy the bread while my father prepared the porridge and made the table. So, every morning, I put on my flip-flops and walked to the closest bread kiosk just around the block.
The man at the kiosk was called Birame. He was a happy, friendly fellow in his late twenties, always greeting me with a broad grin on his face.
I asked for one bread, “un pain” and Birame showed me two to choose from, one with a darker crust than the other, but otherwise pretty much the same. When I pointed at the one I wanted, he took a piece of newspaper and wrapped it around the baguette.
I handed him a coin of 100 FCFA and brought the bread home to my family.
One morning, when I went to buy the daily bread, the door and the window were closed. I was probably just a bit early, but ten-year-olds rarely stick around and wait. I knew where the bakery was, about a kilometer from the kiosk, so I started walking towards it, hoping to meet Birame on the way.
I arrived at the bakery, and after pacing my steps at the door for what felt like forever, I went in through the open door. There was Birame, waiting for his daily batch of bread.
And I knew I had just entered a very special place.
I smelled the scent of bread baking in the ovens, watched the mixer working more dough in the corner, and the bakers at work. The details escape my mind, but still today, after more than twenty years, I can’t forget the smell of fresh bread, the big bags of flour, and the mixer in the corner of the boulangerie.
After returning to Finland and growing up, I mostly forgot about bread.**
In 2007, I found bread again, this time within the walls of my home.
Surfing on the internet, I stumbled upon a simple sourdough recipe and decided to give it a shot. I made my first rye sourdough starter, and started experimenting with Finnish dark rye bread.
In a blog post, I wrote:
“Baking rye bread is an everyday miracle that turns water and flour into a tasty, nutritious bread with a crispy crust. When the first bubbles appear in the starter, a grown man becomes a child again, amazed by the beauty of life. The starter is a living organism that can be passed from generation to generation: from father to son and again to grandchildren.”
I realized baking was an act of slowing down and practicing living in this moment and that making bread you can feel good about is something all of us can do.
But an even bigger revelation for me came when I found a video of Richard Bertinet (you can find his interview later in this issue of Bread) working his dough. The way he did it was completely different from anything I had seen before: appreciative to the dough but firm and decisive all at the same time.
Until then, I had been saving money for a KitchenAid mixer, but now I knew I didn’t need a machine; I needed to learn what this man was doing. I bought Bertinet’s book, Dough, and started practicing his techniques and recipes.
My focus in bread soon evolved from Finnish rye bread towards the French style airy loaves. Equipped with a small notebook, a pair of hands, some utensils, a couple of books on bread, and tons of enthusiasm, I set out to learn the craft behind the perfect loaf of bread, one that is moist and full of air on the inside, and dark and crunchy on the outside.
For well over a year, I baked all the bread my family could eat (occasionally leaving some extra loaves in the hallway for neighbors to taste and enjoy). And still today, I bake most of it: once you have tasted a loaf of slowly fermented sourdough, it’s hard to appreciate anything you find at the supermarket.
It’s easy to get started with bread, and once you’re hooked, it’s very hard to give up. For the curious, there is always something new to learn and experiment with. And all the while, you get to enjoy the taste and smell of fresh bread, right where you are, in your home, sharing it with your loved ones.