It was during my teenage hippy years up the Whanganui River that I mastered the art of yeasted bread. We (my boyfriend Murray, his friend Tom and I) decided that city life was not for us and moved onto an old marae down by the river at Ranana (I had just turned 17 and looking back now I think, aargh, my poor parents!) We helped out on local farms, did volunteer work on other marae, painting and clearing out old cemeteries, grew a half-acre of vegetables, and slept on the floor in the old meeting house.
We constructed a small lean-to outdoor kitchen out of some old corrugated iron to store all our supplies and cooked everything over an open fire. I did my home preserving over this fire, and even once attempted (with a dismal lack of success) to cook a pavlova. There was no electricity and, for a couple of months until we managed to rig up a piece of alkathene piping to run down the hill from a trusted water source, no running water. We lived on the smell of an oily rag, gathering veg from our garden and fruit from old orchards, fishing and hunting and foraging for wild food. Of the few staples we purchased – tea, rice, grains, oil, soy sauce, vegemite – it was the fresh wholemeal stoneground flour that we couldn’t manage without. With the Tassajara cookbook as my guide I gradually perfected a potato yeasted bread, which I made and cooked each day in a huge camp oven. It was a magical dough, light yet dense, with enough grunt to lift the lid of the camp oven by a full finger-width as it baked to golden crusty perfection.
When I visited Ruth and Jeremy at The People’s Bread Company in Wanaka to shoot this final episode of my third TV series, the memory of those camp oven loaves came flooding back. There’s something magical about a slow-risen dough, made with freshly ground grain. While the bread I used to make wasn’t a traditional sourdough like Ruth and Jeremy's, it was started each day with a lump of dough from the day previous – just like sourdough – and the rise was achieved with a simple potato yeast from a starter I made.
Ruth and Jeremy purchase organic grains (wheat, rye and spelt) from a 70-year-old farmer who has been organic for the past 30 years. He delivers the grain regularly and within 72 hours it is all ground. Unlike most other commercial flours it is made with the whole grain and is used straight away to make the bread… if left to stand the nutrients start to degenerate.
For Ruth and Jeremy, making sourdough is as simple as mixing their freshly ground grains with their precious sourdough starter, fresh spring water and sea salt. Small batches are made and it’s all hand kneaded. The heart of a good sourdough is the starter, and Ruth’s starter, at 90 years old, carries a lot of provenance. Imagine that – each day for 90 years someone has fed and looked after the starter and used it to make their own version of this delicious sourdough! Once kneaded, the dough is put in an incubator (in true Kiwi number-eight wire tradition this is a converted fridge) to rise for about nine hours. Next the dough is divided into tins, and left for another three hours before baking.
The People’s Bread is sold at the local Wanaka Farmers' Market and delivered by electric bike to people who have a weekly standing order. When you eat it you know you are eating something honest and real and deeply good, and there’s also a wonderful sense of being part of a rhythm of a starter that’s nearly a century old.
We took a fresh loaf down to the river with the kids and had a picnic, savouring the stillness of a glorious autumn day. To go with Ruth’s lovely bread I brought along some cheese and fruit, and my Raw Carrot Hummus, which the kids just wolfed down. It's such an easy, healthy recipe, great for snacking or sandwiches. It’s so easy to get caught up in an industrialised food chain, but recipes like this, and products like The People’s Bread, make it effortless to enjoy food that not only tastes good but will power up your body with goodness.
Herbs are another useful way to ensure your food always tastes bright and fresh, as well as delivering an extra dose of useful nutrients.
find out more
- Want to find out more about this episode? Check out the TV pages of my website for videos, bonus recipes and behind-the-scenes photos.
- Find out more about Season One of The Free Range Cook
- Find out more about Season Two of The Free Range Cook: Simple Pleasures
special thanks to
- Ruth and Jeremy from The People’s Bread Company