A jar of white gooey paste with the label Bavarian Black Death occupies place in the collection of similar jars in home baker Sujit Sumitran’s home. It is a culture of yeast and bacteria, he says, that came from Bavaria during the Black Plague of 1633. Add a scoop to the dough and the bread turns out crisp — almost crackling — on the surface and soft and fragrant on the inside. Passed down through generations for almost 400 years, it turns bread into an artefact. Alive with history. Culture isn’t the only thing common to art and bread. Over one hour at the Serendipity Arts Festival in Goa, Sumitran showed that making or eating bread is like creating or savouring a masterpiece.
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“Most cooking involves working with ingredients which are, 99 per cent of the time, dead. With bread, it’s alive. The moment you mix flour, water and some culture, it’s alive. The yeast and the bacteria are going for food and, in the process, something is happening. As you play with the dough, you will see the consistency and the way it looks and feels changing. The dough will tell you when it is ready, if you are willing to listen. You cannot play by the clock. You’ve got to dance in the moment,” said Sumitran to an audience of women and a few men, who had turned up with notepads and pens in a breezy green marquee at the historic GMC Courtyard.
The home baker from Goa went back to history, when early man evolved from eating grain to swallowing mushy porridge by soaking grains in water to — in a magical moment comparable to the invention of the wheel — creating a lump of bread. He touched upon the role of commercially available grain in modern ailments, such as gluten allergy and Celiac disease. He sprinkled his talk with information on “real bread” (made with the trinity of water, flour and salt) and “heirloom grains”, such as Khapli gehu and Khatiya gehu. He provided scientific details and exhibited grains and cultures.
An executive coach in his other life, Sumitran talked with the passion of a bread nerd. “You have to be a little cuckoo in the head to be doing this,” he added. He hasn’t attended the critically-acclaimed evening shows at Serendipity Arts Festival because he is home feeding his collection of cultures — yeast and bacteria mix that date back to the California Gold Rush and the Oregon Trail — and, like parents, arranged his socialising around his bread cultures. The results were evident at the workshop, when he brought out a sourdough, “a Seedgasm bread” (named for the six types of seeds it contains) and a celebratory Christmassy bread with orange zest and dark chocolate. “Even if you have been baking for years, every time you open the oven to take out what’s inside, you pause and you say, ‘I hope it turns out right’ because you will never, ever, be 100 per cent sure,” he said. “That’s why baking bread is often called an alchemy,” he concluded.