A friend gave me a copy of 52 Loaves by William Alexander as a gift recently and, to my absolute surprise, I could hardly put it down. For a few days straight, I squeezed in time to read chapter after chapter on trains and buses (and whilst waiting for trains and buses – why do they take so long!), whilst eating lunch, one hand blindly feeling for food and delivering it to my mouth as my eyes stayed firmly fixed on the book, during a long hot soak in the tub and indeed, any time when I could snatch a few minutes.
I didn’t expect to find the book so engaging, informative and even, occasionally, gripping.
Pete’s the baker in our household and I am happy to leave it to him. So a book about baking bread didn’t seem the best fit for me. But I was wrong.
The book takes the reader through a year in the life of American author William Alexander, as he strives to achieve the loaf of his dreams. Determined to create a rustic “peasant loaf” with an airy crumb and crisp yet chewy crust, he commits to baking a loaf a week every week for a year.
In another author’s hands, this could have been a dry and dull account of the incremental changes and improvements made over that time.
But as well as his baking efforts, Alexander weaves in entertaining glimpses of family life, educational visits to yeast and flour manufacturers as well as other (more expert) bakers and even a special conference for bread makers, both the sandal-wearing and non-sandal-wearing kind! His efforts building a bread oven in his back garden are particularly amusing. He even grows his own wheat and thrashes and grinds it, just as Pete did last year.
Further afield, his bread quest leads him to Morocco, where I can’t help but smile at the friendship he strikes up with a helpful shopkeeper, to the basement kitchens of the Hotel Ritz in Paris, where he learns a more commercial form of baking.
Finally, he writes about his visit to an ancient monastery in Normandy where he has somehow agreed to teach the monks to make bread. This section of the book is surprisingly uplifting and moving; surprising because I’m not a religious person and had not expected to be charmed or interested by reading of the life of the monks; moving because I found myself desperately rooting for his success and cheering each tiny achievement along the way.
Interspersed in Alexander’s story is also plenty of solid practical information, much of which was new to me and quite eye-opening.
The hardback version of 52 Loaves (with the subtitle “One Man’s Relentless Pursuit of Truth, Meaning, and a Perfect Crust”) is available on Amazon uk for £13.33. The paperback version (sold with the subtitle “A Half-Baked Adventure”) currently costs £8.88. The kindle e-book version is £8.44. (Prices correct at time of writing).