‘My bread’ – Virginia Woolf
In Joan Russell Noble’s Recollections of Virginia Woolf Louie Mayer, the Woolfs’ cook at Rodmell from 1934 to 1969, describes how Virginia Woolf taught her to make bread:
But there was one thing in the kitchen that Mrs Woolf was very good at doing; she could make beautiful bread. The first question she asked me when I went to Monks House was if I knew how to make it. I told her that I had made some for my family, but I was no expert at it. ‘I will come into the kitchen Louie’ she said, ‘and show you how to do it. We have always made our own bread.’ I was surprised how complicated the process was and how accurately Mrs Woolf carried it out. She showed me how to make the dough with the right quantities of yeast and flour, and then how to knead it. She returned three or four times during the morning to knead it again. Finally, she made the dough into the shape of a cottage loaf and baked it at just the right temperature.
Apart from her description of boeuf en daube in To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf made hardly any reference to food in her writings. But, as this quote from Louie Mayer makes clear, she was not at all indifferent to its preparation and consumption. And she is often quoted thus: “One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.”
A cottage loaf is a basic white bread that is probably Roman in origin and is unique due to its shape. The loaf is actually two round loaves – one on top of the other, similar in shape to the French Brioche. The top round is smaller than the bottom round. Using two fingers and making a hole through the centre of the top round and continuing through the bottom round welds the dough of the two rounds together. Sometimes a wooden dowel or a spoon handle are used instead of the fingers. The perimeter of each of the rounds is often slit every 2 to 3 inches, which helps the dough to expand while baking. It is thought that the unusual shape was a result of the need to be as efficient as possible with the small baking space available in the ovens of earlier times.
It is a great pity that neither Louie Mayer, nor Virginia Woolf thought to leave us the recipe. But perhaps it went something like this:
Start the yeast, about half an ounce, with warm water and a little sugar and wait until it begins to bubble.
In a large bowl, mix 3½ cups bread flour and 1½ teaspoons of salt. Create a well in the centre of the mixture and pour the yeast into it. Stir the liquid, collecting any of the flour that sticks to the bowl until you have something of the constituency of paste. Now add up to one cup of water in small increments.
Place the dough onto a floured surface and begin kneading by folding the dough in half repeatedly, using the heel of your hand. The dough will become easier to work the longer it is kneaded.
If the dough is sticky, sprinkle it with a small quantity of flour during the kneading. Within about ten minutes the dough should become smooth and elastic.
Place it into a lightly oiled bowl, cover with a damp cloth, and allow it to rest until the dough has doubled in size.
Punch down the dough and allow it to rest for ten minutes.
Divide the dough into two pieces, one piece being twice the size of the other.
Shape the two pieces of dough into rounds. Place the larger round onto a lightly oiled baking tray and place the smaller round on top of the larger one.
Use two fingers to create a hole through the centre of the top round and continue through the bottom round.
Cover with a tea towel and allow the dough to proof until it doubles in size, about thirty to forty-five minutes.
Bake in a preheated, 425ºF (Gas mark 7) oven for forty to forty-five minutes. Tap the bottom of the loaf, looking for a hollow sound. If it sounds dull give it a few more minutes in the heat. Cool on a wire rack.