Breast cancer lesson 141: Why cancer has inspired me to spend a year baking – rather than buying – bread

It will come as no surprise to those of you who know we well, that my latest blog for Breast Cancer Care (click here to read) is all about food (it was only a matter of time before I moved on to the subject!).

What is more surprising, however, is the fact that when confronted with the long list of side effects associated with chemotherapy treatment, the prospect of losing my tastebuds (and what impact that might have on my life) never really crossed my mind. Focused as I was on neutropenic sepsis, peripheral neuropathy and the more visible side effects of these toxic drugs, I didn’t even spare a thought for the day that a slice of bread might resemble a brillo pad (admittedly I have not dined on a brillo pad, but you get the picture).

Funnily enough, it’s not the day I first turned my nose up at toast (I never did think there would ever be such a day in my life) that sticks with me. It’s the evening I was sat in a little restaurant with a friend and discovered I could once again enjoy the subtle flavours that a good chunk of bread has to offer. Needless to say, there wasn’t even a crumb left in the bread basket and, had I not gobbled up my friend’s share too (with her approval I hasten to add), I would have probably ordered seconds before the starter!

2013-12-24 16.59.33 copy

I can trace my fascination with bread all the way back to a little Italian cookery school in central London where I discovered how to make focaccia years ago. Having been slightly under-confident in previous evening classes, the action of kneading bread was such a revelation. I even remember the chef saying I had hands (and the right amount of aggression) for breadmaking. Not sure that was a compliment, but, while I have never made focaccia again, the experience did inspire me to buy a cheap dough scraper and get mixing. I still have my trusty blue dough scraper and I still have a real passion for all things beige and yeasty!

Over the years, I have tried everything from bread bowls (Duncan was eating casserole out of them for weeks on end) and stilton and bacon rolls (tasty with ham on Christmas morning) to bread shots (good party fodder) and olive buns. But, up until about three weeks ago, I had never made a proper loaf. Now, I’ve already made four (along with some crumpets)! I have also just discovered that you should never wash a loaf tin or make a ferment when you have scrubbed down the surfaces (cooking without cleaning up is my idea of heaven)!

2014-08-15 17.15.182014-08-05 19.31.32

With my tastebuds firmly back in my body (and heightened I feel – although this is probably to do with the fact I have been settling for bland for four months now), my love of bread has never been so strong. So much so, that I find even the thought of a seed-filled sliced loaf from the supermarket deeply underwhelming.

That’s why I have decided to spend the next year avoiding the supermarket’s slices and baking my own. Why do I need to buy bread packed with preservatives, when it doesn’t last long enough to go off? Cancer has taught me that I no longer wish to fill my body with pre-packaged foods that favour convenience over taste. My body may not be everyone’s idea of a temple, but it’s my temple. And, temples all deserve nice bread.

With just my peripheral neuropathy-affected hands and my dough scraper for company, I am under no illusions that this will probably be a bit challenging at times (even though I have discovered you can leave a dough to prove on the counter or in the fridge all day before knocking back). But, there really is nothing better than watching a heap of flour, oil and water turn into a freshly baked loaf that is just crying out for a scraping of butter. And, it is that thought that will keep me going if I find myself veering towards the bakery aisle once more.

If you’re tempted, why not join me? Perhaps we could start a virtual bread baking appreciation society! I would also love to hear about any bread triumphs you’ve had – or top tips!

Happy kneading!