I do not want to confess but dare to take pride in the fact that I am a Foodie.
Confessions are for people who are addicted to certain tastes and become weak-kneed or greedy in the presence of those tastes.
A Foodie is a consumer only ten percent. Ninety percent of his identity as a Foodie is made of his willingness and courage to create his own food experiences. Some people dare to physically challenge themselves to climb mountains, dive deep into the ocean, or camp at the poles. They call it adventures. I dare to discover, innovate, or even invent new ingredients, combinations, processes, tools, and equipment to create foods that speak to my soul. I call these attempts, Foodventures.
In 2010, when some friends were planning to organize a Naturopathy health camp taught by Sri Balakrishnan, a teacher in the lineage of Acharya Lakshmana Sharma, I offered my home as the venue. By then, I was done with being a software engineer for a decade and had quit.
It was a seven-day residential camp for around 30 participants. Soon, I was hosting a camp every two months. Adding volunteers and family members, we (the volunteers) had to plan and cook for over 40 people, three times a day for seven days, every two months. Not to mention two drinks and two snacks every day.
Though my initial interest was leaning more towards taste, I had to confront, understand, learn, make, and finally digest in his body and mind the uncompromising health standards set by the acharya. With the teacher’s, and some zealous volunteers’ eyes watching my every move, I managed to uphold the health standards. But my own standard for taste suffered. I was challenged by my karma to make health tasty. So, I said to myself, “This is the 21st century, and there is nothing that an Indian (ex) software engineer cannot do!”
Experimenting in the camps was not easy. For example, lunch during the camp is usually a raw vegetable salad with no additional ingredients, not even salt and pepper. Just raw vegetables. Imagine holding a cucumber and asking yourself, “How do I make this yummy?”
“If Ilayaraja can make soul-stirring music with just seven notes; if Thiruvalluvar can capture life-lessons in Twitter-length epigrams, what can I do with raw vegetables?”, I asked myself. As the visuals of vegetables, greens, sprouts, etc swirled in my dreams, sometimes a particular combination would freeze in my mind: A thin slice of cucumber placed on a thin slice of beetroot with a thin slice of coconut in between – voila! A magical salad is born! How about a red capsicum-tomato-ginger sauce to go with it?
Touched by Air
As my learnings and experiments in making health tasty continued, one of my friends and co-volunteer at the camps, Ragu, gave me Michael Pollen’s book, “Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation”. Part III of the book deals with the Air element, the education of an amateur baker. Here the focus is on baking bread the traditional way, with only three ingredients – Flour, Water, and Salt.
It caught my attention: with just two functional ingredients, bread could be baked! I jumped straight in, to make a whole wheat country loaf. I followed the recipe and the steps given in the book. The recipe called for 75% whole grain flour and 25% all-purpose flour. Determined not to use the all-purpose flour which is processed and refined, I went ahead with 100% whole grain flour. Little did I know what was to come. The first loaf was a brick! Forget about slicing, I could not even break it. It went straight from the oven into the bin.
I did not know at that time that self-teaching to bake naturally leavened bread (sourdough) even with 100% all-purpose flour was like learning to ride a bicycle as a kid. You fall many times, many days, until that moment you find yourself riding without a foot touching the ground! With that good looking, desirable loaf one sees in the books and web pages, I was determined to bake something close to those loaves with only whole grain flour. I hadn’t even tasted sourdough bread before that point. By baking on and off, it wasn’t until a few months that the bread was edible to me, but clearly, it was not ready to be given to family or friends.
There were 3 main challenges, and here I was trying to address all three at the same time: First, getting a hang of the process and techniques, second, getting a suitable whole grain flour, and third, to create a setup in the small-sized home OTG (Oven, Toaster, Grill) that makes it suitable to bake sourdough.
The funniest part was, it wasn’t until 6 months or so that I came to realize what the term kneading or mixing in the context of sourdough bread meant. In a country where one grows up seeing and eating flatbreads (chapati, roti, paratha) kneading means to vigorously press and squeeze wet wheat into compact balls. This is totally the opposite of how one has to knead the dough for naturally leavened bread. No wonder the loafs turned out bricks.
Understanding the process was going on side by side with the other two challenges. Setting the OTG with a dutch oven inside was more straight forward. Yet, the bread was not leavening well.
The Wheat and the Oven.
To bake sourdough bread, they say one needs flour with high protein content (12.5% to 14% or more). I did not want to go with the industrial milled and packaged flour. They are all standardized, fortified, and do not contain all the elements of the wheat grain in its natural proportion. I was buying whole wheat in the market and milling it in a nearby flour mill. Reasonable loaves were still elusive. Out of curiosity, I got the flour tested in a food lab for protein content and it was just below 12.5%.
I was intensely trying anything that could improve my loaves and create those desirable air pockets. Baking directly on the hearth of the oven was one of the ways to get that oven-spring. Around that time, I had gone to Ragu’s house and the conversation turned to ovens when Nisha handed me the book “Build Your Own Earth Oven” by Hannah Field and Kiko Denzer. It was time for a small mud oven project. With another friend, Ravi, my wife Arthi and I built a small, circular mud oven.
As soon as the oven was built and cured, I immediately prepared some dough to bake a couple of loaves. It was an Aha moment! For the first time, I was seeing a very promising oven-spring for a 100% whole grain sourdough bread. It was sort of a proof-of-concept moment, getting a gut feeling that something on a larger scale was possible. I started to dream of building a bigger wood-fired masonry oven and plunged into figuring out the designs and materials. After a lot of considerations, the place for the oven and the baking area was going to be at the open space on the front left of our home adjoining the portico.
In the search for that elusive wheat and the perfect flour suited for baking sourdough, I tried about 7-8 varieties of wheat – Bhansi, Emmer, Halna, Kathiya, Lok-1, Paigambari, Punjab wheat, and Sharbathi. During these experiments, I came to understand that as much as anything else, milling too affected the quality of the flour making it suitable or not for artisanal bread. I found a miller not too far away from my home to mill the flour as cool as possible in a stone grinder. Since then, going every week to the mill to grind fresh flour has been a routine affair (the only affair or routine that is my own choice since getting married 🙂 )
A big project, the construction of the masonry oven was almost over by now. A custom spiral mixer for the initial dough mixing had been ordered. Each and every part of the project had its own hardships and delays that were beyond my control but it all came together.
It was later that I came to read a piece of wisdom from Trevour J Wilson’s book “Open Crumb Mastery” – “Don’t go searching for that perfect flour… no matter which flour, technique, dough handling and adapting to local conditions is what counts, and that comes with practice!”
The choice of wheat variety was settled. It was going to be Emmer. Not that the rest of the varieties are not suited. Each variety brings its own character to the bread. The choice of Emmer was due to the fact that it is one of the 3 very ancient species of grains (others being Einkorn and Khorasan) and has not undergone a modern hybridization process and its availability. It is low in gluten and has a low glycaemic index.
Soon things started to fall in place. It didn’t take so long for the realization that taste and flavour take precedence over appearance / open crumb. Only so much of oven-spring is possible in a 100% whole grain wheat sourdough loaf. But the taste and flavour are more complex and the nutrition is much more compared to a loaf made with all-purpose flour.
Once I could bake edible sourdough bread made with whole wheat, I started baking once a week and offered loaves of bread and cakes (easier to bake than bread) to family and friends. With their encouragement, I started taking orders from friends, and from pioneer organic retailer, Bio Basics. Their orders and encouragement have been a great help for me to keep going and take the venture to the next step: increase the production of bread and cake, add more products like Naan, Focaccia, Pizza, Cookies, etc. Learning is still in progress and a lot of practice ahead. I would consider myself a beginner looking in the right direction, ready to place my foot on the second step of the many steps in the journey.
Being part of the Trust aKarma.life, my aim is not so much to take this venture towards an IPO or a buyout. Baking is a way to forge healthy connections with kindred people and help the creation of a value-based field. What seeds will further get planted in that field, and what values will emerge is not for us to see, Que sera, sera!