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Reflections of a working writer and reader



‘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.


cottage loaf

9 Responses to “‘My bread’ – Virginia Woolf”

  1. John, I’ve been reading your blog for quite a while now and never in a million years would I have expected to see a recipe on here! (And a picture of how the final result should look.)
    Two questions:
    1. Have you tried out the recipe?
    2. Are you doing the brioche next week?

    I visit because you have such an eclectic range of posts and I never know what to expect. In that lull between Christmas and new year, here you come again with another curve ball, mixing the literary with a recipe. (Please excuse the pun. Well, I think it’s a pun…)

    You have me tempted on that cottage loaf. I’ll let you know how it goes.

    Have a grand new year!

    jb says: Well, yes, I had to dig deep to publish an actual recipe. But it was partially done in the hope that someone would tell me that Virginia Woolf or one of her acquaintances did leave the real recipe for her bread. That might still happen, if anyone knows of the existence of such a document, please tell me. And it was prompted by a recent article about the literary affects of Patrick White. The Patrick White Archive is at the National Library of Australia in Canberra and among the papers are some recipes written in White’s own hand. I have written to the NLA twice, asking if I could sight these and explaining that a digital image would do fine, but they haven’t even bothered to reply. My interest in the the White Archive relates to a project which includes the culinary interests of various writers, of which the piece on Virginia Woolf’s bread was only a taster.

    But this is not entirely new to my blog. One of my categories is food, and these past entries all relate to it in some way.

    In answer to your questions, no, I haven’t tried the recipe, because, as I mentioned above, I really hoped that someone would tell me it was wrong. But it’s the closest I’ve got to imagining what VW’s recipe was and if no one corrects it I’ll go ahead and make it up. These days I only make unleavened bread, but I don’t think that would be very successful with a cottage loaf. And the Brioche . . . oh, I was so tempted.

    Have a good New Year, and it’s great to see you reacting to a curved ball . . .

  2. Bonnie says:

    Buzzed over from Dee’s to learn about cottage bread. Fascinating!

    While reading the recipe you posted I had memories of Grandmom’s and mom making bread. (and even myself) Even the smell of loaves rising floated back to memory. Thank You. 🙂

    jb says: Hi Bonnie, I think it’s Virginia you have to thank. But it’s good you came by, and I’m getting a sniff of the memory of your Grandmom’s bread even here. And at this time of the morning, too, she must’ve been an early riser.

  3. Nan says:

    I happened onto your blog from a google search for the book I am currently reading, Recollections of Virginia Woolf. I haven’t yet come to the Mayer essay. I was planning to bake bread today, and will try the recipe. I love that shape.

    jb says: Bon Appétit . . .

  4. Sammie says:

    Very nice read. Baking bread is a very complex art. There are many recipes… for every taste. You need to know the right amount, the right manipulations, the right baking temperature and the right timing… for every recipe.

    While trying to create a new recipe, you might have to try many times before attaining perfection… Too much for me!

  5. Art Smith says:

    It is easy to make bread but incredibly hard to make good bread. From my experience the crust end up hard as stone and the centre is not light but chewy.

    jb says: I bake all the bread for my family and don’t have many problems. You just need to experiment a little, find out what works for you. People have been doing this as a basic task for many thousands of years. It’s simple.

  6. Jeremy says:

    Came here quite by accident, looking for more details on Woolf, Mayer and bread. What a fine blog. Anyway, were you aware that there is a long treatment of both the recipe and the technique in Elizabeth David’s English Bread and Yeast Cookery?

    jb says: No I didn’t know about the Elizabeth David treatment; but I’ll follow it up first chance I get. Thanks.

  7. […] prompted by the recollections of Virginia Woolf’s cook Louie Mayer, pointing out both that Woolf herself was a great baker (who knew?) and that she started her bread in a cold oven and baked it under a pot, to create a hot […]