Breaking of the Bread
“There are probably few people in civilized life, who- were the question put to them directly – would not say, that they consider bread one of the most, if not the most important article of diet which enters into the food of man. And yet, there is, in reality, almost a total and universal carelessness about the character of bread. Thousands in civic life will, for years, and perhaps as long as they live, eat the most miserable trash that can be imagined, in the form of bread, and never seem to think that they can possibly have anything better, nor even that it is an evil to eat such vile stuff as they do.” A Treatise on Bread, and Bread-making – Sylvester Graham.
“Nomokemana” – is not a real word. It is a word made up by reading “namakemono” – meaning “sloth” in Japanese – backwards.* Yes, that sloth, which hangs upside down from a tree branch; yes, that Mr. Funny Face which has been given the ignominious name “sloth” because it is believed to be such an incurably lazy creature. (*Japanese takes one consonant and one vowel for each letter; therefore, in Japanese, “na-ma-ke-mo-no” read backward is “no-mo-ke-ma-na.”)
Yes, it is true that the sloths do not move, not much anyway: they only come down from the trees to defecate under the same said trees (talk about recycling). Yes, it is also true that they seem to be always smiling – a silly grin or a sad grimace. These are not mere myths. A sloth is like that – a caricature of itself. However, a sloth is like that because it has very little musculature, so that its own body cannot support itself; as a result, a sloth has a slow metabolism so that it does not eat very much. Therefore, due to the lack of muscle and lack of energy, all it can do is hanging down from a tree branch and succumbing to the gravitation; and it cannot but smile that sagging, sorry smile because its cannot control its own face.
Yet one little bakery in Nara – just steps away from the deer, the people and the largest Buddha in the world – has decided to name their shop the “sloth,” only reversing the word. Backward, reversed, or opposite – chanting “nomokemana” like a mantra, the answer to the riddle is soon revealed, and an image of an anti-sloth appears, wearing a faded T-shirt and a flour-covered apron, waging a war on all that a sloth represents – carelessness, idleness and lethargy.
For who else is more hardworking and industrious than a baker? From the sunrise to the sunset, a baker has not rest. He toils a lonely road where the dough is his only friend, foe and family – mixing the dough, fermenting the dough, shaping the dough, baking the dough, then prepares yet more dough for the next day. Day in and day out, even when the shop is closed to the outside world, a baker must tend to his lifeblood – the yeasts and the sourdoughs – for it is as alive and dear to the baker’s heart as his own child, and it requires regular care and feeding just as much. Bread-making is indeed hard work: it requires dedication, discipline and pure physical strength. In this age of mass manufacturing and computerization, baking is pure labor of love and bread is the ultimate anti-sloth.
The bread made and sold at Nomokemana is authenticity itself. Not only are the ingredients – be it wheat or rye – are organic or pesticide-free (also “domestic” but Japanese provenance means absolutely nothing, except perhaps less post-harvest pesticide used), but Nomokemana also makes everything that goes into their bread as well – the jams, the sweet red bean paste, the curry and the custard, using again organic or the best available natural alternatives. Wholesome and whole meal – that is Nomokemana’s bread.
On the German front, the rugged roggenbrot becomes even better as it ages – two and a half days brings it to the optimum – and the rustic landbrot provides a solid and sturdy companionship to the best of the cheese board. On the French side, a bite of the hefy pain de campagne aux noix fills the mouth with the fragrant wheat and walnuts, avalanching and cascading. If English sandwich bread is your heart’s desire, then choose either the lean white toast for a simple cucumber sandwich or opt for the wholemeal loaf for the quintessential cheddar & chutney. Coming back to the Japanese soil, the curry bread is made of tasty chickpeas in tangy tomato curry – imagine a fat calzone – and the “anpan” is stuffed with homemade red bean paste from the rare pesticide-free azuki beans. Any bread lover will not care which side the bread is buttered on, so long as it is buttered on Nomokemana’s bread.
However, bread itself is under attack. First it was the additives, then it was the low-carb, and now it is the gluten-free, with a handful of false advertising here and there.
The first problem of additives is a legitimate concern for any kind of food in a world where the use or misuse of technology has become sadly the norm. There is no need, however, to moon over the good old days. Modern industrialization did not just happen to us, they had happened already in the 19th century; in fact, it was worse back then. The frenzy of industrialization did not favor food industry any more than others: bleached wheat flour, addition of chalk and ashes as fillers and the use of toxic chemical for rising – just to name a few. It was the doomsday for the bread at end of a long 3000-year journey. The state of miserable and miserly bread so outraged one minister, Sylvester Graham, in Philadelphia, that he embarked upon a mission to revolutionize the bread making. The name should sound familiar as he is credited with the invention of Graham crackers and Graham flour. In his epic “A Treatise on Bread, and Bread-making” – a clear and comprehensive guide even for the modern bakers – he advocated the use of the coarse whole wheat flour and long and slow fermentation. Furthermore, his strong recommendation on making bread at home was influential enough to seriously and violently anger the commercial bakers as to cause riots.
The second, the low-carb movement affects all the members in the carbohydrate family – all guilty by association – not just bread. Overgeneralized, however, not all carbohydrates are created equal. On the one hand, refined, white flour indeed produces a refined version of bread – crusty baguettes, flaky croissants, fluffy loaves, but its very refinement comes at a high cost as it spikes up the blood sugar, so that once the initial “high” is over, the consumer falls faster than the unfortunate Icarus to a low blood sugar hell. On the other hand, when the whole wheat is used – germ, endosperm and bran – the complexity not only slows down the absorption of sugar, but also produces a more powerfully nutritious and flavorful bread. In any case, truth be told, the long-term effect of the low-carb diet is still in the scientific limbo, awaiting the final judgment.
But the third is the latest mode for the hypochondriacs, and it hits bread smack in the face. Wheat – which the human race has been consuming for as long as humans learned how to cultivate – is the new enemy. Or rather, it is the gluten in wheat, that has turned out to be the traitor. Gluten – a type of protein in wheat and the wheat family – is an essential component of bread since it traps the gas during fermentation and forms those telltale holes of a good, hearty bread, creating that airy, spongy and springy crumb, whose resilience sustains the chewing by mandibles and whose elasticity tosses us right into a toothsome heaven.
What is the point of eating bread without that scrumptious sensation? The secret of bread and the glory of bread lie in the fact that a humble few ingredients – wheat and water and a sprinkle of salt –can be transformed into a myriad of flavors and textures. The pleasure of cracking that crust with the teeth, shattering the shell of defense, and finally sinking the teeth into the comfort of the springy and bouncy interior is transcendental. The simplicity of bread allows for pure pleasure of mastication – the mixing of the external world with the internal. The act of chewing stimulates the saliva, and as it oozes and seeps into the dough, it opens up the floodgate of flavors.
There are many gluten-free “breads” sold today in the market, toting that it is as good as, or even better, than the real bread. But, no; it is not; and it cannot be. Moreover, just flip to the list of ingredients and you will see that they are not really bread at all as they are pumped up by fillers and binders galore in the forms of xantham gum, corn starch, tapioca starch, eggs, and the list continues and continues. Often the rising agent is not even entirely yeast, instead relying on baking soda and baking powder. Ironically, in pursuit of pseudo-health, one falls from one pitfall to the next, as the other starches and substitutes also come with their own brand of woes.
The problem of the current gluten-free craze is the mass media and mass hysteria. We are all experts nowadays, armed with any information gleaned off the screen – four years of medical school condensed into four minutes. On the one hand, there is the real and serious celiac disease and potentially equally real but less serious non-celiac gluten sensitivity and wheat allergy; and on the other hand, there is a host of other imaginary intolerances and imagined ill-effects. Aside from the celiac disease, it is difficult to diagnose because the possible causes for the symptoms are numerous and difficult to separate. For instance, the afflicted may be actually reacting to the chemical additives to “improve” (or more likely to impoverish) the bread and various preservatives or suffering from the residual pesticide in the genetically modified grains.
Even in the absence of added chemicals, the quick and expedited modern method of bread making, using commercial-strength yeast at high temperature, curtails the natural process and results in inadequate fermentation, which can also make bread indigestible since there will not have been sufficient time to convert the carbohydrates and to extract the nutrients. Fermentation, too often overlooked, is one of the greatest human invention – since it breaks down hard to digest grains, seeds, nuts and beans into a form easier for the genteel human dietary tracts. After all, humans were not blessed with multiple stomachs. In their original state, these little grains and seeds are even naturally toxic because they need to protect themselves from predators and leave offspring. In effect, fermentation kindly detoxes and pre-digests the grains and seeds for us, thus transforming mother nature into food. Therefore, many sufferers of less severe form of gluten intolerances often have no issues with authentic bread – such as Nomokemana’s – made of organic grains and slow fermentation.
We are so quick to point the finger at anything and everything as long as it is pointing away from us. Just because something happens concurrently or even antecedently, it does not automatically follow that the same something is the cause of the effect (a classical “post hoc ergo propter hoc” fallacy, which fools many, lawyers and doctors, notwithstanding). Hence, while the physical improvements from a gluten-free diet may be genuine, it may not be wholly attributable to the simple elimination of gluten since reading the food label and being mindful of what you eat tend to lead to better and healthier habits over all. The human mind is a powerful thing; it can poison us just as it can heal us. A belief is a double-edged sword.
Nevertheless, regardless of whether based on facts or fiction, the reputation of bread has been indelibly tainted and tarnished. Being neither blessed with vitamins like the broccoli, nor packed with protein like the beef, bread loses on any nutritional competition. Nowadays, if the food does not contribute toward immortality, there seems to be no point in eating it at all.
But food is not just about nutrition, is it? Bread has been strengthening a man’s heart and body for thousands of years. From the moment that humans have discovered the technology of grinding the grains, bread had been an inseparable component of daily nourishment. From the simple, unleavened flat breads to the leavened sophistications, there are as many breads as there are civilizations and cuisines. Pick any point on the globe, so long there are flour and water, there will be a bread: Jewish matzo, Indian Chapati, Greek pita, Armenia lavash, Afganistan naan (different from Indian naan), Iranian taftoon, Turkish pide, Finnish reikäleipä, Russian black bread, Swiss zopf, Italian focaccia, Mexian tortillas, Chinese mantou (steamed buns), Irish soda bread, English muffins, Ethiopian injela and American bagel. And, of course, in the two baking empires, France and Germany, the variety of bread explodes exponentially: the glorious baguette, brioche, pain de mie, croissant, pain de campagne in the former, and the sturdy pretzel, roggenbrot, folkornbrot and stollen in the latter, with countless other variations in-between.
To deny bread then is to deny the heritage and history of human society. To cut off bread is to cut off ourselves from our roots. For bread is primordial. Bread was the first step toward humanity: its birth was the birth of human civilization as the first seeds were sewn into the ground. By converting nature into art, we became “us,” and by having mastered the use of fire, we have become kings and gone on to build empires. With bread, we have conquered.
But, now we have lost. We have become stale and brittle like forgotten bread, and we hide behind the hardened crust, afraid and angry. Not only so, we have also become lazy and lethargic, like the sloth, smiling out of sheer passivity because it is easier than crying, ensconced in a high riser because we are terrified to join the real world down below. Therefore, we must break the bread again and anew. We must destroy in order to return: returning to the roots, which stem from the dark earth, and in the deep soil is our salvation.
Addess: 1076-1 Takabatakecho, Nara, Nara Prefecture
Phone: +81 742-24-4560
Closed on Tuesday and Wednesday.