Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The secrets of sourdough

I have just baked two loaves of sourdough rye, and the chalet is full of that comforting, yeasty smell that heralds the enjoyment of a hearty slice of warm bread.  Coming back to Canada marks a return to cherished recipes and the personal satisfaction of producing home-cooked meals once again.  

 I have discovered an amazing N.B. organic stone-ground rye flour that is the basis for my breadmaking.  It may be hard for North American or European readers to imagine how much I appreciate this product, but suffice it to say that rye flour was totally lacking from supermarkets in Argentina and Uruguay. ( I couldn't find caraway seeds there, either.)    The only rye bread we ate in South America was a commercial pumpernickel imported from Germany. 

Speerville stone ground rye flour
 Here in N.B. Speerville mill uses the traditional method of grinding grain with a stone rather than modern steel rolling.  As a result, their products retain the nutrition of the entire grain kernel (the bran and germ that are missing in regular flours) and a rougher texture which adds density to a rustic loaf of bread.  This rye makes an authentic, chewy, crusty bread that is wholesome and full of flavour.

The recipe I use is Dan's New York Sour Jewish Rye Bread, a contribution from Dan Leeson of Los Altos, California.   It requires four days of preparation the first time you make it, to allow the yeast in the starter to grow.  Once you've made your first batch of bread, the starter can be stored in the refrigerator, where it will keep well, as long as you to continue to feed and tend it.  

Dan reveals a secret about rye bread that makes a huge difference in the success of this recipe.   In the past, Jewish bakers in New Jersey did not throw out day-old rye bread, but instead incorporated the leftovers into each new batch of dough.   This practical recycling of unsold product was illegal, but the method improved the flavour of the bread by adding a distinctive sour note and consequently continued as a hushed-up, insider practice.

 When my last loaf is almost finished, I now hold back the remaining heel of bread and save it in the freezer for the next baking session.  I enjoy crumbling that stale end piece into the fresh dough, as the creation of a new loaf from old bits and pieces seems like a small miracle.  It's a very wabi-sabi gesture. 

I've been reading Leonard Koren's book entitled "Wabi-sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers" which outlines a key concept in Japanese aesthetics, spirituality and lifestyle.  Wabi-sabi is defined as the "beauty of things imperfect, impermanent and incomplete."  In terms of physical objects, it favours things that are irregular, intimate, unpretentious, earthy, simple and showing evidence of natural processes.  Philosophically, wabi-sabi thinkers express the life cycle as a continual process of evolution or decomposition.  "All things, including the universe itself, are in a constant, never-ending state of becoming or dissolving," writes Koren. 

by Leonard Koren

As the old breadcrumbs are kneaded into the dough, they disintegrate, enriching flavour and adding substance to today's rising loaf.  My humble sourdough rye is no ordinary bread, but a unique blend  of one part Canadian whole grain, one part Jewish frugality and one part Japanese sensibility. 

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Mind Change

Facebook may be a barrel of fun for you and your "friends" but is it bad for your brain?  Can hours spent online actually warp your mind?

In September I attended a thought-provoking lecture at Mt. Allison University given by Baroness Susan Greenfield, a British neuroscientist who is studying the effects of screen technology on the human brain.  She contends that the human mind is undergoing significant changes from exposure to technology,  just as the earth's climate is changing in unprecedented ways.

Baroness Susan Greenfield

To demonstrate how environment affects the growth of connections in the brain, Greenfield cited a study of the brains of London taxi drivers.  The results showed that years spent navigating the streets of a highly complex urban milieu resulted in enlarged portions of the hippocampus, an area of the brain governing long-term memory and spatial relationships.  The brain's plasticity allows structural changes that are specifically influenced by an individual's daily activities.

On average, between age 10 and 11, today's child spends 2000 hours in front of a television or computer screen.  The question raised by Greenfield is a serious one - how will a childhood filled with a steady diet of high-speed video games, social networking websites, search engines and television programs affect the brain?

Greenfield believes that humanity is moving from "a culture of metaphor to one of sensory experiences."  Facebook and Twitter offer fast, superficial, social interaction that reduces relationships to a banal, infantile level.  The internet provides an overwhelming mass of easily accessible information, but fails to distinguish between fact and fiction, truth and error, real and unreal.   It presents a process-oriented experience that stimulates the sensory parts of the brain, while neglecting the cognitive center. 

Greenfield's research suggests that long-term exposure to screen technology forms an individual with an under-functioning pre-frontal cortex.   This area of the brain is called the "executive function" zone, and is responsible for:
  1. focusing attention
  2. organizing thoughts
  3. problem-solving
  4. foreseeing and weighing consequences of behaviour
  5. impulse control and delaying gratification

If you're still not convinced that cyberspace is a thrilling, but rather dumb place to spend your time, consider this scenario.    In an interview with Alice Thomson of The Times of London, Baroness Susan Greenfield posed the question, "Is it going to be a planet worth living in if you have a load of breezy people who go around saying yuck and wow?   Is that the society we want?"   A sloppy transcription turned the scientist's phrase "yuck and wow"  into the word "yaka-wow."  Within 24 hours, Google offered 75,000 results for searching "yaka-wow" which, as the latest buzz word, quickly spawned a Twitter stream, a Facebook page, and a line of mugs and t-shirts available for online purchase. 

Friday, November 25, 2011

Winter Words

I spent all of yesterday morning at the Canadian Tire store in Shediac, waiting for a new set of snow tires to be installed on our car.   The first big snowfall this week was enough to bring customers into the store to purchase winter gear, and trade was brisk in shovels, scrapers, space heaters, remote car starters, weatherstripping, anti-freeze and lock de-icer.  The retail mood was buoyant and cheerful, and some people appeared to be genuinely "snow happy." Canadians enjoy the process of stocking up pre-season, compiling an arsenal of ammunition in readiness for defense against the advancing Big Chill.

A phone conversation with my brother-in-law who lives in Toronto served as a refresher course for winter vocabulary.   Four years' absence from Canadian winter has left me a little out of touch (or out in the cold) when it comes to talking technology vs. northern climate.

Here are some updates for Canadian winter vocabulary.

  • No longer called "snow tires" the new Michelins on our car are labelled "winter tires."  They are X-Ice Xi2s, designed to stop up to 2.7 metres shorter when braking on ice. 

  • Don't say "snowblower" or  "snow shovel", the correct words for these items are "snowthrower" and "snow pusher."   Snow removal has become an athletic event for competing tools. 

  • Not old-fashioned "longjohns," my new underwear is called a "thermal micro-fibre base layer."  I'm thrilled because it's made from a lightweight, soft fabric that serves as a wick to take moisture away from your skin.

  • When you listen to CBC radio weather reports, it's no longer a "blizzard"  but a "severe weather event with reduced visibility" that you need to take note of.   We used to say "white-out," a phrase which, in my opinion, has a more poetic ring.   The blank state of oblivion comes immediately to mind. 

It will take a good deal of practice before I'm fluent in winterspeak, but not to worry, there's plenty of time.  The Canadian winter lingers.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011


Aboiteau beach

I am staying in a chalet at Aboiteau beach, on the eastern coast of New Brunswick where the warm waters of the Northumberland Strait separate the mainland from P.E.I.  The nearby village of Cap-Pele is a fishing port known primarily for processing plants that produce 95% of Canada's smoked herring. 

This location is considered "au coeur de l'Acadie."  I have learned from local residents that the word "aboiteau" is central to the foundation of Acadian culture, not only as a reference to a particular method used for draining marshland, but as a symbol of communal, co-operative living.

Historically, the Acadians were clearers of water, not hewers of wood.  Instead of hacking down trees to clear land for agriculture, they chose to drain water from marshy, low-lying areas, where naturally enriched soil guaranteed good crops.   An ingenious system of dike and sluice constructions allowed the Acadians to reclaim large tracts of land throughout Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.  They were the only settlers in North America who successfully farmed fields below sea-level, a feat which required technology designed to work in tandem with the force of the tides.

The aboiteau was a gated sluice made from a hollow tree trunk that was placed at the bottom of a ditch. A wedge-shaped dike was built on top of it.  At low tide, a hinged clapper valve stayed open, allowing fresh water from the marshland to flow through the sluice.  At high tide, the rising salt water forced the gate to close, while the dike structure prevented flooding of the field on the other side.  The process of draining and desalinating the soil was a gradual one, but in three to five years, the Acadian farmer was able to plant seeds and harvest from exceptionally fertile ground.

Diagram of aboiteau construction

The success of the aboiteau system relied on teamwork for construction and maintenance.  Every member of the community contributed to the project, shared ownership of the land, and enjoyed a portion of  the harvest.  The Acadians' farming model, established as early as the mid-1600s, provides a good example of a sustainable, profitable co-operative venture.  In essence, the community could only develop and thrive on the basis of collective effort towards a common goal. 

The Acadian challenge, transforming marsh into arable land
In Sackville, N.B. verses from the poem "High Marsh Road" by Douglas Lochhead grace the town's utility poles.  This stanza, which pays homage to the hard labour of the Acadians, is one of my favourites.  

Monday, November 21, 2011

Looking for Home

Our return to Canada after four years in South America sounds like a sensible and timely move towards simplification.  We are coming back to a place that's familiar, where we know the language,  understand the culture and have experience in navigating the system.  Repatriation means starting all over again, like newly-weds - buying real estate, a car, a household of furniture, settling down and establishing roots in a community.  After successfully buying and selling three properties in Argentina and Uruguay, we thought the process of acquiring a modest, comfortable home in Atlantic Canada would be a piece of cake.   It turns out we were wrong. 

Here are a few of the many properties that we have viewed and considered purchasing during the last two months. 

Wellington Street, Sackville, N.B.
 This Arts and Crafts style house located in the center of town had many charming original features.  Situated within walking distance of Mt. Allison University, shops and a movie theatre, this would be a convenient setting.   The listing agent warned us that the house did need work - new windows, a new kitchen, a new roof, new bathroom and a paint job throughout.   She didn't tell us that the basement was flooded, with at least an inch of water standing on a dirt floor!  

Rancher at Mate's Corner, N.B.
A renovated rancher outside of town with 2.5 acres, and a barn seemed like a good option.  The house was in great condition, with a finished, dry basement, attached garage, a large master bedroom and a sunny breakfast nook with a view of rolling hills and pasture.    When our offer was accepted we celebrated our good luck - that is, until the water test came back showing high levels of bacteria.  The well, oddly located on an adjacent property, had been contaminated by the neighbour's herd of cattle.  

Dome home near Miramichi, N.B.

It was a surprise to find a 1980s geodesic dome among hundreds of run-of-the-mill MLS listings for New Brunswick.   This unique house boasted a lot of living space (about 3000 sq. ft), a scenic 4 acre piece of land, a sturdy barn, and a stretch of riverfront.  Swayed by the good vibes of Buckminster Fuller's design, we put in an offer conditional on a contractor's estimate of cost for repairs.   The main problem was the condition of the roof, which leaked like a sieve and needed total replacement. The shingles used on the original structure are no longer manufactured, so we did a bit of research into alternate forms of cladding for this style of architecture.  Snow load would be an issue, along with interior condensation.   We lost our nerve and backed out of the deal when the projected repair and labour costs extended beyond a reasonable level.  

Church near Annapolis Royal, N.S.
This pretty church had been completely renovated as a single family home, while retaining the original choir loft and open floor plan.   As this property was a bank repossession, the listing agent could offer little or no information about the details of the renovation.  We admired the woodwork on the ceiling and interior walls but couldn't help noticing tell-tale piles of sawdust scattered on windowsills and floor.  The church was home to an army of carpenter ants!

Schoolhouse near St. Paul, N.B.
The former rural schoolhouse just north of Moncton had been partially renovated by the current owner, but still retained old chalkboards, rows of tall windows, and hallway drinking fountains. We were thrilled with the open, high-ceilinged spaces of the classrooms until asbestos-covered pipes and asbestos tiled floors came to light.

Ralph Street, Moncton, N.B.
Hardwood floors, four large bedrooms, a formal dining room, and a roomy front verandah were features of this property that conjured up good memories of my grandparent's gracious home.  The listing agent's description included the phrases "well-maintained" and "move-in ready".   Our offer was accepted, and this time we thought we had definitely found the right place.   An inspection by an electrician changed our minds, however.  The ceiling lights were all original knob and tube,  the antiquated fuse box was overloaded, and a hodge-podge of aluminum and copper wiring lurked in a dangerous, tangled mess behind the walls.   The "move-in ready" house was a fire hazard and totally uninsurable!   We walked away, very disappointed.

Buyer beware!

It's just over a month until Christmas and there are still no house keys in my purse.  New listings are few and far between at this time of year.    I recall a 1990 Time magazine essay, where Lance Morrow wrote that "home is the bright cave under your hat."   Bricks and mortar, insulation and roofing, wiring and plumbing, well and septic tank do not add up to anything more than a construction designed for shelter.  Home is a mental construct, a metaphysical place that for me, is still a work in progress.