Pumpkin spice tea loaf . A fruity loaf packed with Christmassy spices, raisins and pureed pumpkin. I get canned pumpkin from the local supermarket - sometimes it's in the American section.
Recipe can be found here:
Started Sunday 18th April morning - finished 1.5 hours later
I was a bit nervous about baking this loaf. Hannah runs the almighty Gypsy Baker sourdough workshops - ye gods - bread for the bread genius. You'll notice that Hannah chose the Pumpkin Spice loaf - this is a quicker loaf to make (fortunate as I'd had a super hectic week of work). Despite my nerves I found myself being quite cavalier as I chucked ingredients in, something about baking for a baker reminded me of how I baked as a child. I used to pretend that I was on a cooking show and would talk to the camera, hold up my bowl to show the imaginary viewers what was going on. I'm hoping that I wasn't alone in this pastime. Right now, I wasn't narrating my cooking but I could feel that urge to try and look like a pro and be slapdash with the quantities.
Maybe this was also because I've been working on a film this week, a project for the brilliant Pegasus Theatre. It's a digitalised version of the last play (Under My Skin by Ali Taylor) I directed a year ago. I totally loved working on it, the videographer was so brilliantly generous and allowed me to make suggestions without feeling ridiculous and would steer me gently and kindly towards better film (rather than theatrical) decisions. I was learning, learning and learning and loving my cast and crew. It was a great but exhausting experience.
When I met Hannah to give her her loaf, it was almost a year since I had bumped into her at the same spot. During lockdown #1 I spent a lot of time outside in the nature reserve attached to the allotments. I documented how the natural world was changing despite us all feeling as though we were on hold. It was a real refuge for me. Anyway, one day I saw Hannah and her two children at the edge of the pond watching the tadpoles. I knew Hannah on a professional level. she is an English teacher working with visiting students at Hertford College Oxford - I'm a visiting lecturer there - delivering theatre workshops. We usually pass by each other in the office fleetingly if at all. It was great to see her in this outdoor environment. We chatted about furlough/unemployment and bread. hannah was thinking of launching her sourdough bread workshops online, she described them to me and I encouraged her - especially as the dried yeast apply had vanished in all the shops. It seemed like a no brainer. A week later she launched her workshops and they are still going strong on a monthly basis. They are quite brilliant.
Now reflecting on it Hannah says that she wanted to get into peoples homes, somehow. At first she was going to give 1:1 workshops, travelling by bicycle to wherever people lived. But then on zoom she was able to accommodate more.
As we meet Hannah kicks off by noting that these interviews would make brilliant podcasts - I tell her that my son thought the same, and that I listened to a lot to get the gist of chatting to people. Perhaps I ought to have read interviews instead....? I say that people are different on tape, its not quite like having a chat if you're being recorded. "My friend Emma Thomas has a podcast called Middling Along" she says - "Emma was my first customer, I was going to do a bread workshop for her husbands 40th. I appeared on Emma's podcast" (you can hear the episode here ). " I didn't mind it" said Hannah, "I feel comfortable talking".
Hannah is, I think it's fair to say, slightly obsessed with bread - with good reason. It has sustained her creative and communicative needs through this time whilst providing some income for her family. Hannah reels off lists of articles read and programmes she heard once she began considering her lockdown venture. "You must read the article Grains of Truth by Zoe Williams... and then the next week I heard a Woman's hour interview with Vanessa Kimbell. I remember hearing talk about sourdough in plain language". We've all had it I think - we think about something and suddenly everyone seems to be talking about it - it's a bit like when you get those targeted adverts - sometimes it feels as though you have only thought something in your head and yet your devices have latched on to it and begin sending you tailored articles and adverts.
"I spent ages worrying about the name and then settled on Gypsy Baker. My paternal Great Grandfather was a gypsy and my Mum's dad was a baker in Wantage, he ran smiths bakery. My dad is fascinated with the life of sidney Gregory, his dad, and is planning to write something about him. I was worried about using the term Gypsy, a few people have said that I should be careful about it , but it's a nod to my ancestors, as is the bread. Our ancestors would have eaten bread made this way, there's evidence that the ancient Egyptians were one of the first people to bake like this."
"I wanted to make sourdough and my workshops accessible" she says. I'm grateful for that. The trend for sourdough means, in Oxford at least you can pay £5 for a loaf of bread - it stirs something in me and I remember when as a child we would cut the mouldy edges of bread off in order to end up with something we felt ok about eating - because we couldn't afford another loaf. so now, I find it hard to quite let go enough to go for the artisan prices. And Hannah's workshop (which I did) was cheap enough to earn its money back in a months worth of gorgeous bread!
"In the first workshop somebody suggested we took a screen shot of us all with our bread, it's become a real tradition and trademark for the workshops , I'm learning all the time. I like that zoom let me get into peoples houses"
Hannah has worked at Hertford College for 15 years, having trained as an EFL teacher. she met her husband on an Erasmus course in Italy. "He's very principled" she says. "We weren't always going to stay in Oxford, there were definitely time at first when we considered moving away, you know, to do with jobs and all that. But I love where we live now, there's a real sense of community and we have this nature reserve on our doorstep. At one point we were really thinking of going, I mean I'm an EFL teacher - I could work anywhere but I happened to see an advert for a singing workshop/audition with Anita Daulne of the band Zap Mama. I knew their stuff and wav really excited so I dragged a friend along ' we'll just stay for the workshop and then we'll leg it' I promised her. The workshop was at the Oxford playhouse and, at the point it seemed to be trying into an audition my friend did leg it. I was about to but we were getting into groups of four to sing and there was a three, this guy, Rob , grabbed me and pulled me into their three, I got the part that nobody else wanted to sing".
Hannah was really animated when she was telling me this, demonstrating how he 'literally' pulled her into their group. It was clearly a memory that resonated with her deeply and still triggered a happy physical response. She stayed, she sang... she got the part. Anita was wandering around the groups as they sang and picked her Afropean Choir from that. "Once I was in the choir I had a reason to stay in Oxford, I made friends. We learnt the songs by ear, a call and response. We didn't understand the lyrics but we knew the proverb that the songs were based on and could go from there. It taught me that I am an auditory learner, I find written stuff challenging. Anita is such a skilful teacher. Eventually she wanted the group to go semi professional but we voted to keep it informal, and then Anita left and gave us permission to carry on, using the same songs. The group wrote and sang a song at my wedding, it was gorgeous. we renamed the band Mizike, its still a group but its fluid"
As we sit I suddenly see a flash of orange run across behind Hannah - it's either a muntjac deer or a fox - both reside in the nature reserve. I give Hannah her pumpkin loaf. Also orange.
"I like to exchange" she says and passes over a box containing 4 homemade pain au raisin... but like a gorgeous glossy bread version. "I actually went for a drink in a neighbours garden last night" Hannah admits " I got a bit tipsy on two glasses of wine and I forgot I had the brioche dough proving, but my daughter had a nightmare at 3am and I was wide awake so I thought 'Right, get to that bread" and I made frangipani too, because you do at 3am right? I was looking up how to make it and so this is my first effort, but I wanted that nice, sometimes it's custard and sometimes its frangipani filling that goes in them. I was in back in bed by 3.45am. It was a bit off the beaten track"
I say that there was no need, that the loaf is a gift but am secretly more than delighted with them and I ask hannah if she often goes off the beaten track? I'm interested because it seems so steady - in normal times to have a 9-5 job but also gives you the security to go off and do things that is hard to justify when you are a freelancer.
"Yes I do" she replies "Lockdown has really made me miss spontaneity, I'm not a classic extrovert but I like community. I've missed singing with people, like The Hoolie Band I'm in, it's like a disco ceilidh band, I've learnt to be a caller"
Hannah has recently got together with some singers to create a version of Mr Sandman for the Tangled Webb dream project." It was so great just to be in the same space - a back garden, all COVID safe but to be hearing each other , together".
Are you looking forward to everything opening up again? I ask. "not really" says Hannah " I like 1:1s - I'm quite intense. Lockdown wasn't a disaster for us as a family, it made me scale back and be with the family a bit more. We are definitely better for it. I'm not really very extrovert, although I put characters on all the time, You aren't yourself. I guess you do that as teachers and with different people. I couldn't act - I got a main part in a play in year 4 , I was terrified. But no, I overcommit all the time. In face is good, isn't it? It's to read the room on zoom"
Hannah's speech pattern is littered with "What I'm saying is...."It feels like she is trying to work out why she began saying something for herself, or perhaps she is going back over things, like a good teacher that goes off the point only to make sure the students remember what it is.
"People have been asking if I will go back to my teaching job at Hertford, or whether I will continue to work with bread - I've been seconded at the moment because obviously we don't have students coming from abroad. It's easy, with a social media presence to look as though you are raking it in from your creative pursuits" We agree on this, all creatives know this. "I'm not sure what I will be doing with the Gypsy baker - I've got exciting things in the pipeline with Donnington Doorstep - looking to work with vulnerable people. Hannah has been inspired by Proof Bakery in Coventry (having heard about them on R4) and Migrateful in London - which sees migrant chefs working together and teaching people how to make their cultural recipes.
At the moment I am running monthly bread workshops with The Gypsy Baker and other workshops under the banner of Kitchen stories with m,y friend and the brilliant chef sandra of the mighty Waste to Taste. I'm ambitious but realistic, whatever happens as we open up I want it to continue.
I pick up my pain au raisin , take the customary photo of Hannah, she looks relaxed - she's just taken advantage of the lockdown relaxations to go on holiday to Seatown. she took her own bread with her. We take a quick look at the fritillaries before leaving Boundary Brook.
Hannah would eat her bread with her friend "I feel weepy writing this, but I wish I could share my pumpkin loaf with Alessandra Pigni...retriever of my special sourdough starter from San Francisco, author, friend and legend of a woman who sadly passed at Christmas 2018...on that very bench in the nature reserve would be beautiful. She would enjoy every crumb and we would talk and talk and laugh too. A song? May I select Anthem by Leonard Cohen. The Live in London recording. It's perfect for our bench."
All of my bread is baked using starter developed form Hannah's starter. It's given out, generously as part of the Gypsy Baker package. It feels like a beautiful legacy for her friend, so many bakers using the starter she brought back for Hannah.
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