The Bread of Nations. Our Daily Bread – Episode 4

Welcome to thirteen and a half minutes of pure self indulgence.  Don’t get me wrong.  So much came out of my travels around Europe that there’s hardly room to draw breath.  Nope, it’s just that it simply doesn’t count as work to stroll around cities like Paris, Cologne and Krakow in great company.

Prof. Steven Kaplan

Let me start with Steven Kaplan.  Steve is Professor of European History at Cornell University.  He’s lived in Paris since he was a student at around the time The Beatles started producing LPs.  It’s even infected the way he talks.  Listen to the cadences – his is an American voice with the diction of a Parisian.  Wonderful.

Steve has written 15 or 16 (I guess one loses count after the first dozen or so) books about France and bread.  Good Bread is Back is one such.  The Financial Times review declared: “It is to an American citizen that we owe the most masterly work ever published on the genius of French bread.”  That’s quite an endorsement!  You have to buy a copy after a review like that.

Bread struck Steve, as it struck me many years later, as a perfect gateway into other subjects.  For his pains he’s been awarded the Legion d’Honneur.  I’m sure many have been bestowed on far less deserving recipients.

Another of those books was co-authored with Dominique Saibron, one of Paris’s greatest bakers.  We met for breakfast in Saibron’s bakery close to Alesia metro in Montparnasse.  It was the start of one of the best mornings I’ve had in a long while.  Listening to Steve is a little like having a ringside seat on a fireworks display.  Thoughts, recollections, facts, opinions all whizz around, each exploding and fading into the background only to be replaced with another.  There’s almost nothing I enjoy more than having to work hard to keep up with someone.

If you need further evidence take a look at this as Steve upstages, in the nicest possible way, the US talk show host Conan O’Brien.  Stealing the show from a network host ain’t exactly easy, but I have to say I don’t even think Steve was trying.

I’m struggling to remember what we talked about that morning, our conversation was so wide ranging, but it included quite a lot about the Age of Enlightenment – that extraordinary outburst of humanist optimism that seized Europe in the 18th Century and found, arguably, its greatest voice in the United States Declaration of Independence and the republic it gave birth to.  That Age of Reason unravelled into profound unreason in the Terror in the early 1790s allowing the unthinking forces of reaction to force much of the good that came from the Enlightenment back into its box.

We took a metro to the city centre, strolled across the Ile de la Cite and the Ile St Louis to the traffic clogged square where once stood The Bastille.  There’s precious little of it left now but it was an excellent place to stop and record a segment for the first programme in the series that went out on Monday.

Then we went looking for a market.  We walked back onto the Ile Saint Louis and ducked into the bakers guild, watching through a window as a class of bakers learned their craft.  We continued back over the Seine to the Left Bank and eventually wound up in the Place Monge and recorded the section that opened today’s programme.

It would have been nice to have got some of our wider conversation on tape.  Another time perhaps.

Steve had to depart before lunch and so I had lunch in a small restaurant on the Rue Mouffetard in the Latin Quarter.  For me this was pure nostalgia.  When I was young I only went abroad twice; the first trip when I was six or seven was to Honfleur, the second, aged perhaps 11, was to Paris.

Having grown up where I still live, in the darkest Sussex Weald, I rarely visited cities, and almost never after dark.  The Rue Mouffetard on a sultry summer’s night, lined with Greek restaurants, bustling with people on an evening out, an electricity in the air I’d never encountered before, was beyond exotic.  I remember laughing at a waiter boogieing to the piped music as he bought our food – it was Oxygene 4 by Jean Michelle Jarre.  I suppose the beauty of innocence is the joy of discovery.  You can’t discover something twice in quite the same way.

But I did enjoy a glorious, sunny September’s day in Paris and before he left Steve urged me to visit Christophe Vasseur, another baker-by-vocation.  The pictures and the interview I recorded with Christophe are here.

My second stop was Cologne – a visit I’ve already blogged about here.  Last week Dan and I caught up again and I we talked baking, what else…

Meanwhile I’d like to point you towards a few of the pieces of literature that Dan Schickentanz refers to.

Inside the Bakerei Zimmerman, Koln

Firstly Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther is a classic of German literature and can be downloaded as an e-book.

Something I’d have liked to have included but that was cut for lack of time was William Makepiece Thackeray’s satire of the same scene.

It’s a deliciously waspish English take on German romanticism, titled simply ‘Sorrows of Werther’.

Werther had a love for Charlotte
   Such as words could never utter;
 Would you know how first he met her?
   She was cutting bread and butter.

 Charlotte was a married lady,
   And a moral man was Werther,
 And, for all the wealth of Indies,
   Would do nothing for to hurt her.

 So he sighed and pined and ogled,
   And his passion boiled and bubbled,
 Till he blew his silly brains out,
   And no more was by it troubled.

 Charlotte, having seen his body
   Borne before her on a shutter,
 Like a well-conducted person,
   Went on cutting bread and butter.

Dan Schickentanz, Michael Zimmerman and colleague

The two post war pieces I was widely recommended by a host of experts in German literature who kindly responded to my enquiry of a bulletin board were Das Brot der frühen Jahre, The Bread of Those Early Years by Heinrich Böll , while you can read an English translation of the other piece, Walter Borchert’s short story Das Brot (The Bread) here.

My last stop was Poland.  I’ve written about my visit to Krakow with Katarzyna Zechenter here and my visit to the bread museum in Radzionkow here.

However I thought it would help to share some of what Katarzyna and I spoke about here.

Batory at Pskov

The painting she refers to is by Jan Matejko.  It was painted in 1872 at a time when Polish nationalism was on the rise.  The picture, romantic rather than realistic, captured Poland in its glory days with Stefan Batory, King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuantia receiving homage from the defeated Muscovites at the Siege of Pskov. Homage is paid in the form of bread and salt.  The armoured ‘angels’ in the background are Poland’s legendary Winged Hussars.

Another reference Katarzyna makes is to a poem, My Song II by Cyprian Kamil Norwid.

For that land where a scrap of bread is picked up
From the ground out of reverence
For Heaven’s gifts…
I am homesick, Lord!…

For the land where it’s a great travesty
To harm a stork’s nest in a pear tree,
For storks serve us all…
I am homesick, Lord!…

For the land where we greet each other
In the ancient Christian custom:
“May Christ’s name be praised!
I am homesick, Lord!…

I long still for yet another thing, likewise innocent,
For I no longer know where to find
My abode…
I am homesick, Lord!

For worrying-not and thinking-not,
For those whose yes means yes — and no means no —
Without shades of grey…
I am homesick, Lord!

I long for that distant place, where someone cares for me!
It must be thus, though my friendship
Will never come to pass!…
I am homesick, Lord!

I must also at this point offer once again my profound thanks to Agnes Gabriel of The Polish Bakery in Wembley for all her work helping me set up the trip to Poland.  She and her sister were very gracious hosts, and when Agnes and I arrivedthe three of us visited the Muzeum Chleba (bread museum) together.

The only real regret I have from the series is that Agnes’s contribution ended up being left out.   It feels terribly unjust.  All I can say is that she is lovely, tremendously kind and helpful (and I suspect a very smart businesswoman) and that her bakery makes good, honest bread, the traditional way, for a very affordable price and that if you see it on the shelves do try some.  I hope however that Agnes feels the programme captured a sense of what bread tells us about the Poles.

Lastly, for those of you unable to make it to Radzionkow to visit the bread museum this is the photograph to which Piotr refers.  Look at this and never, ever, take bread for granted again.

Bread Queue, Augustow, Poland, 1916 (courtesy Muzeum Chleba, Radzionkow)

This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Bread of Nations. Our Daily Bread – Episode 4

  1. Pingback: Companionship. Our Daily Bread – Episode 5 | Land of Oak and Iron

  2. Pingback: Listen Again: Our Daily Bread | Land of Oak and Iron

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s