Zoom weddings, virtual pub quizzes, banana bread – if lockdown was a game of bingo, certain items seemed to be on every card back in spring. And no quarantine cliché was more prevalent than the sourdough starter.
For a while, it seemed every adult was feeding a fermenting jar of yeast in the corner of their kitchen, 2020’s equivalent of a Tamagotchi. But while our sudden conversion to carb obsession was surprising to some, for Pauline Beaumont, it made perfect sense.
Beaumont, a mother of six who spent more than 20 years working as the chief executive of an arts organisation before retraining as a therapist, came to baking late in life – a reality she attributes directly to her “1970s girls’ school, polarised take on feminism.
“The choice seemed to be between Simone de Beauvoir and The Stepford Wives,” she jokes. “This meant that anything to do with household tasks had to be shunned at all costs to avoid the dreaded fate of ending up as some sort of domestic slave.”
As such, she might seem an unlikely candidate to author Bread Therapy, an entire book dedicated to the calming, meditative effects of getting elbow deep in a ball of dough. But it is precisely the fact she awakened to baking’s benefits while on the hamster wheel of managerial life that make her perfect for the position.
“I was up and down to London to meetings, raising a family, I had all these responsibilities. And I just remember this growing strong urge to do something practical, to make something real,” she explains. “For whatever reason, I alighted on making bread. And, immediately, it felt like I’d come home.”
A few years after Beaumont starting baking, she went through her own personal time of tumult. After 20 years in her job, the organisation she led folded, and she and her team were made redundant.
“That was quite a chastening experience. But one of the things that I hope comes across in the book is this really very powerful idea that it’s not what happens to us, it’s how we think about it and how we respond to it and react to it, that contributes to our emotional state,” she explains. The parallels to lockdown life are not lost.
“Obviously, I’m a very, very strong advocate for therapy,” she smiles. “For many of us, it’s the best route to recovery from whatever we’ve struggled with in our lives. But increasingly, I’ve been realising there are so many things that we can do to help ourselves which are highly therapeutic, but are not therapy and that actually don’t cost a lot of money. Things that we can actually help ourselves with.
“The resurgence of crafting and gardening and making things and baking, baking bread in particular, that we’ve seen in lockdown, it all makes perfect sense to me. These are all things that are soothing and grounding, that give us the chance to be creative, to go on learning, to feel productive. And that’s really, really good for our mental health.”
So beneficial, in fact, that Beaumont decided to write her first book from precisely this standpoint, seeking to explain why so many of us have become so taken by creative pursuits of late. “Having benefited myself from those things, and having gained the theoretical context from my professional life, it suddenly occurred to me that the thing that I really wanted to write about was at the end of my nose,” she laughs.
While Beaumont admits Bread Therapy could be seen as fluffy, the result is anything but. The book instead offers a sincere, thoughtful and thought-provoking look at the many and varied life lessons to be learned from time at the dough-face. Lessons on patience. On accepting imperfection. On nurturing ourselves by nurturing something else. On connecting with our surroundings through ingredients, and with our peers by feeding them.
As a reader, one of the main draws of the book is Beaumont herself, and the knowledge that the warmth of her tone, the implicit kindness of her writing, belies what must be a core of steel. A mother of six children aged between 18 and 43, Beaumont was just 19 when she had her first daughter. Born very prematurely, Sarah suffered significant brain damage and now lives, “very happily” in a small group home with round-the-clock care. Being separated in lockdown has been a hardship for both mother and daughter, and has made Beaumont reflective about their story.
“I have a daughter of 18 and a daughter of 20 now, and I look at them, so lovely and so relatively speaking carefree. It’s quite hard for me to think, ‘God, I was like that’,” Beaumont muses, thoughtfully. “I was plunged into this very different world where I had to leave the studies I was doing because Sarah was so ill, and I was just in and out of hospital with her for some years.
“I then went back to university when I was 28. So, I’ve always felt that I’m ten years behind and I need to catch up. It’s funny how it never leaves you.” Now, having once again retrained as a therapist, Beaumont quips that, late again, she’s now coming into a third profession as an author.
Jokes aside though, this constant theme of flux, of rolling with the punches, is evidenced in the thoughtfulness with which the book views the very particular circumstances of 2020. “I think that there’s something about the recent months that, even if people haven’t been directly affected by COVID, the whole atmosphere is one of threat and anxiety,” Beaumont explains. “And I think that a very natural reaction in those sort of situations is to hunker down and to do things which somehow take us back to that sense of safety and reassurance. It sounds a facile thing to say, but there are parallels with wartime. People gardening or making do with things. We’ve been somehow reconnected with more authentic values.”
A recent convert, thanks to her publisher, to Instagram, Beaumont says the medium has been a great aid in helping to sum up her approach to this year’s uncertainties. “In the middle of lockdown, I did a post that was a juxtaposition of a Birkin bag and a bag of flour and saying, “Which is the most valuable one now?” And I was really pointing at something quite profound, which is that all the things that people have felt were terribly important – expensive clothes, celebrity culture – sort of things suddenly pale into insignificance.
“Because actually, what matters is the fact that I haven’t seen my daughter for months, that people need to make food and there’s been nothing in the shops at times. I think that’s come through hugely in this growing recognition of the people in society who we absolutely depend on and who have not been properly valued – health workers and care workers, people who work in shops, people who empty the bins.
“It’s almost as if there’s been this reversal, and I think that that’s a very healthy thing that I hope that will persist after this virus is chased away. I resisted Instagram at first, but the thing that I’ve loved the most is when people send a message to say, ‘Oh, you know, I saw your post and I’ve tried making bread.’ That just gives me such a lovely feeling that, because of something I’ve written, someone has changed something in their life, which hopefully could go on giving them great benefits for years to come.”
Pauline Beaumont’s spinach flatbreads
“There are only four ingredients in this unleavened bread that makes healthy wraps. You will need a mixing bowl, a small pan, a blender and a heavy-bottomed frying pan or cast-iron skillet. If you have a stick blender, then use this with a measuring jug or beaker, otherwise use a regular blender. The mixture starts off being bright green but becomes less lurid when cooked.
Makes 12 flatbreads
240g wholemeal spelt flour, plus extra for dusting
½ tsp fine salt (unrefined sea salt if possible)
100g baby spinach
- Mix the flour and salt in a large bowl.
- Place the spinach in a pan with the water over a medium heat and cook until wilted.
- Transfer the spinach and its water to a blender. You should end up with about 230ml of liquidised spinach; add a little more water to make up the volume if necessary.
- Mix the blended spinach with the dry ingredients and knead gently into a ball of dough.
- Form the dough into a log shape and divide into 12.
- Dust your work surface with a little flour. Roll each piece of dough into a ball, then dust it with a little more flour, before rolling out into a thin disc, about 16cm across. The dough can be a little sticky so you can use a dough scraper or spatula to lift it.
- Heat a large, heavy frying pan and dry fry each tortilla for 1–2 minutes on each side. As they cook they will turn a darker green and brown spots will appear.
- Wrap in a cloth or foil to keep warm and to stop them drying out before eating. Like other flatbreads, these are best cooked and eaten fresh but the wrapped dough will keep in the fridge for a day or so.
Bread Therapy: The Mindful Art of Baking Bread by Pauline Beaumont is out now, published by Yellow Kite (£12.99). Buy your copy here.