Friday, July 29, 2011


The birds are tweeting and twittering in the forest that surrounds the clearing here where I sit. I'm in Maine, staying at a beautiful charming house outside Skowhegan. Barbara, the artist who is putting me up, along with some other visitors, makes engaging art, three dimensional painted hang-on-the-wall sculptures as well as paintings. Everywhere I look in the house there is beauty and engagement. And here outside, the woodpile is aromatic and the birds subdued but continously making themselves heard.

I'm here because of the Kneading Conference in Skowhegan. It's the fifth annual, a two day event at the Skowhegan Fairgrounds (site of the oldest coninuously operating ag fair in the USA, quite incredible). On Saturday there's a Bread Fair, when ovens are fired and bread and cheese etc etc is sold.

Yesterday, the first day, I went to a clay oven workshop. We worked all morning mixing clay and sand, making forms (working in loose teams of four or so; altogether the course made six ovens) of wet sand, packed domes. Then we built up clay-sand-mix walls around the sand form, finally enclosing it under a dome. I know I'm not being very clear, but if you find the book by the guy who taught the course, Stu Silverstein, you can learn all about it. The last steps were to cut a front hole, pull out all the sand of the form, then light a fire on the fire brick base. In a couple of hours the colour of the oven changes from damp grey to pale, dried out grey clay and hey presto! there's a working oven.

It always feels magical and empowering to build a tool, and what more amazing tool than an oven built of earth? Lovely to work with unprocessed material (as opposed to manufactured bricks etc), which I've done only once before, when I made a large tandoor oven over nine days in Udaipur about eight years ago, and learned so much. There, in Udaipur, Sangana Bai's material was clay mixed with plenty of dried horse manure and then wetted with water. It was a coarser lumpy blend. For this oven we had sand and clay, so it was smooth rather than lumpy. But I imagine that the horse manure and straw with clay would also work for these domes. hmm A woman from Arizona who was a wonderfully engaged member of the team said that adobe there is made with straw or hay and clay, and I guess some sand too.

By the way the proportions are 1 part clay to 3 parts fine sand, or two parts sand if it's coarser. The trick is to add a minimal amount of water so that the mixture is stiff rather than soft. If it feels good in your hand it's too wet, is a good way of thinking about it.

This Skowhegan junket (eleven hours in the car from Toronto, sharing the driving and conversation with the wonderful Danwthebaker) is my second trip in a week. Here I'm almost at the east coast; the Atlantic is just an hour's drive or so away. And last week I was almost at the Pacific, well, close enough...

I flew to Kelowna (or as non-townies call it Kelownifornia) and drove north past cherry orchards dripping with fruit. At Vernon I turned east and came eventually to my cousins's gorgeous piece of land high on a green hillside. His house, newly built and still needing finishing touches, is beautiful, light and airy, and off-grid. And that's where my aunt, my long-dead mother's identical twin, is now living. Her ninetieth birthday is coming up, and what better place to see out her days than a green fastness, with horses (Icelandic ponies in fact) and dogs and hummingbirds etc all around?

I was so pleased to see her happy, mobile (after a broken hip and cracked pelvis in the last year) and now able to be on horseback, her preferred mode of travel.

There's a connection between the people in these two far-apart places. They tend to be self-sufficient, physically capable, and creative problem-solvers. They live far from the large population centres and from monied communities, and prefer it that way. But here in Skowhegan they are VERY far from prosperity. And that's why this Kneading Conference got started, as a way to try to revitalise farming here. It hasn't died out, but people are struggling. Now there's a grist mill about to reopen in town and a sense of bustle and purpose. There's also some very good baking happening. So as Skowhegan and northern Maine generally bootstraps its way into new patterns and increased viability and confidence, it makes those of us at the conference aware that food issues at the producing level: the farm and the small producer and processor, whether it's a baker, a cheese-maker, or whatever, are a good solid way to generate new life.

I'm hoping to come back here next year... and if you have a chance, do try to come. I've learned a lot, about bread and farming, and I've met some remarkable people. It's a rich opportunity to connect with a culture of self-sufficiency.

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