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Sourdough in Winter

The act of baking bread in a cob oven outdoors in winter invites the mingling of complimentary aromas: fresh tobacco and fresh bread. Sourdough-bread making is an act of reverence for Rolando. It transcends time and place. It connects him with the Old World, recalling timeless, eternal acts of leavening since the dawn of civilization.

"Pipe smoking is about the moment," Rolando says. In particular, it's about that sweet spot of time just before he slides the loaf out of the oven and brings it piping-hot into the house. That's when, inevitably, the pipe comes out. There's a rhythm to getting bread to rise, especially in freezing conditions, and knowing just when and how to pack the pipe when fingers are chilled to the bone is part of the baking cycle.

Rolando brings the loaf into the house just as its crust has turned golden, the bread crisp on the outside, moist and spongy within. Alexandra and Rolando have invited a handful of guests to partake of a multi-course meal, every dish a savory delight, the dessert deliciously sweet. The couple approaches meal preparation with the same artful craftsmanship with which they approach life.

Rolando's principal role is providing the bread. That suits him well, because bread is earthy and fragrant, like good soil. Baking it also serves as a practical way of meditating on life. He slices the loaf and serves it in wooden bowls fashioned in his workshop. We take slices and place them on the handcrafted wooden plates before us. The dining table itself is a masterwork of craftsmanship, hewn out of a single slab of wood polished to reveal the grain, and left roughly furrowed around the edges.

So much of the functional life of the kitchen and dining area got started in the workshop downstairs. Useful items created in the shop regularly wind up in the kitchen. The main household is accessed from the ground-floor workshop by going outside and up a wooden staircase that leads to the front door porch landing. From the snow-covered railing, you get a good view of the canopy-covered cob oven where Rolando does his baking.

Just inside the kitchen door is a small foyer with a coat rack. That's where we visitors hung our heavy winter gear and doffed our boots. Just beyond is the open kitchen, its counters laden with food preparations.

Rolando speaks of the sourdough fermentation process as part of the ritual of bread making. The wild yeasts and lactobacilli that enliven the "starter" have to be nurtured with occasional additions of flour and water. The microscopic fungi and bacterium really are quite hardy and tending them is simple, yet their health benefits are astounding! Fermented dough eases digestion by breaking down gluten into amino acids; it introduces a host of vitamin and mineral nutrients and deposits a bounty of beneficial bacteria in the gut.

With at least a foot of snow packing the ground around the cob oven, baking bread in winter is no walk in the park. The cold has a way of penetrating and invigorating the senses. Rolando loves the synchronicity of the moment, the meshing of sourdough bread baking and pipe smoking. Fermented dough and cured tobacco go naturally hand in hand.

Baking bread is meditation. Smoking a pipe is contemplation. In each case there are embers to tend, a warming of the hands, a breathing in of tantalizing aromas. Out here in the woods of the Northeast, where Alexandra and Rolando built their homestead from scratch, largely by hand, the two activities ground Rolando, reminding him why he wanted to be out here in the first place, braced against the cold. A headier sensation could hardly be found in any other setting.

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