Monthly Archives: November 2015

Time for Bread

Today, I made bread. Correction: Today, I Made Bread. As in, Proper Bread. Bread that takes time. The sort of time for the little things that are actually quite big things, which are so often pushed to the side in our all too hectic, pressure-crazy, fast-fast, quick-quick, SMART-criteria lives.

The first bake – helping the Master Baker

Sourdough bread is the ubiquitous hot love of the SMART-crazy commuters inhabiting many a chichi up-and-come-d hot spot in London. To eat sourdough is to care about what you are putting into your bodies and to have enough money to be able to pay the smart London premium demanded for it. Sourdough is being appropriated, in much the same way as have been blueberries, pomegranates, avocados and countless other ‘superfoods’, as a trendy requirement of the money rich and time poor; the sourdough irony is that flying by the local deli to grab a loaf of sourdough to fuel a body fatigued by its frenetic lifestyle slightly misses its point.

My solo bake

My solo bake

Setting out on my own over the last week, keeping an eye on my starter and preparing for Dough Making D-Day, I realised that making sourdough wasn’t nearly as tricky as I might have been led to believe. Using the basics from my master class, (under the tuition of a young couple, bakers ‘extraordinaire’, who are ‘WWoof’-ing their way round Italy and France and whom I invited to stay at casa mia for a few days,) over the past seven days, I have thrown a little flour and water at my starter, chucked the odd spoonful away when I felt it was smelling a bit too sour, stirred it and checked on its bubbles. Today, transforming my boozy-smelling starter into a loaf of bread, I was a little less precise and a little more haphazard with flour types and folding techniques than might have been my ‘tutor’. Guided by the basic instructions, I ‘watched the dough, not the clock’, followed my instincts and the good news is that my bread was delicious. It tasted of bread. It was chewy, flavoursome and it had texture. Proper Bread. Real Bread. Bread worth making and bread worth eating.

So here’s the thing. At the risk of being a bit English teacher-y about it all, it’s something of a metaphor, isn’t it? Bread and life and all that. I was around for my bread today: I checked up on it, added salt, folded it, let it rest, folded it again… folded it again… and left it on the worksurface (the posh phrase for this is giving it ‘the bench rest’), put it in the rising basket so it could do its thing for a bit, then baked it.

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To make sourdough is not to commit oneself to weeks of drudgery keeping the precious starter alive and then to a day of intensive, hands-on kneading time. It’s to commit oneself to being around, to being present. To having time for the things in life that matter and working other things around it. Bread matters because to feed oneself decent food matters – mens sana in corpore sano. And the things in life that matter need time. Perhaps, if the bread-life metaphor is precise, I should rephrase that: life needs time. It’s a bit of a paradox, that, but I think it’s the crux of the matter. Life is time but paradoxically it needs time and only we can give it to ourselves. Life isn’t a dress rehearsal. This is it: here and now. It’s my life and it’s my little people’s lives: they need the kind of time that means being present, being around. Being here. The little people who matter don’t need the helicopter parenting of guilt-ridden adults trying to micro-manage their children’s lives – vicariously or otherwise – in the way they would work their way through a dreaded spreadsheet of checks and balances. They don’t need the constant feeding and kneading of test-driven schooling deified increasingly in the UK and the USA. They need a bit of attention and plenty of space in between – they might be taking the bench rest, they might be playing – to work it out for themselves. They need someone around to love them, to notice if something isn’t quite right, (if there are no bubbles in your sourdough starter, you definitely won’t get a loaf of bread out of it), and to care about the end product. Making sourdough is about being around, about being present. For me and for them.

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A few of my favourite things… about the senza zaino school


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While I do love ‘brown paper parcels tied up with string’, for now, I am content to enjoy these little touches of the senza zaino school.

The tascapane: literally ‘pocket-bread’ – the sort of bag that would have been used in days-gone-by to take a parcel of bread and cheese to lunch in the fields; (you can see why this appeals to my Old School Romanticism); they use this instead of a backpack, or ‘zaino’. H. has a lovely hand made, blue cloth bag, the shoulder strap of which is adjusted by decorative buttons on the side. It’s light-weight, attractive and practical. P. has draw string bag for his water bottle and snack, with a plastic pocket on the front to keep safe letters going home.

Scarpe: Specifically, pantofole (slippers or indoor shoes) and scarpe – outdoor shoes. No explanation needed. Needless to say, I think this is great. I have always admired the practices of other cultures, such as Arab and Eastern European, of automatically removing outdoor shoes on stepping inside. It’s just common sense not to want any number of disgusting things we step on outside, trodden inside.

I like the named scatola (plastic box) on which P. places his shoes and the little, named cubby hole for H.’s shoes. I like the fact that the shelves and boxes are fixed at a child’s height and are easy for small hands to operate. The onus is on them to keep themselves organized and there’s a proper space for everything: for shoes, for coats, for snacks.

It’s not only the boxes and cubby holes, but also the naming thereof: the children have a little wooden tag with a photo of them on one side and ‘oggi non ce sono’ followed by their name on the other: ‘today so-and-so isn’t here’. When they come to school, they turn the tag over to the photograph to show that they are there. It’s functional, personal and also encourages them to take responsibility for themselves. P.’s shoes go on the box and other things go inside – in P.’s case, usually all the warm items of clothing I’ve insisted he wears on these chilly mornings, which he insists on taking off as soon as he can. P. is extremely warm blooded. It is only since we have hit frost in the mornings in the last week that he has reluctantly succumbed to wearing socks and boots instead of bare feet and Crocs.

Asciugamano! Hand towels! Parents are asked to supply a named hand towel with a loop so that it can hang on a peg in the toilets. So easy, so civilized. The towel comes home at the end of the week for washing.

Cuscino: The children of the Scuola Materna l bring a cushion in for agora time, the circle time which starts each day. Cushions and soft mattings are already at school for the Primaria children. And I am reliably informed by H. that scarpe and pantafole are removed before coming into agora.

Colazione. The children are encouraged to bring a snack for colazione (breakfast or mid-morning break) and the Scuola Materna recommends a different snack type on each day of the week, which both encourages a healthier attitude to snacks and less jealousy over who has what, thus we rotate through yoghurt, frutta, salato, dolce and then to libero – free choice. Colazione is put into a designated space at the start of the day. I’m not sure how committed all children are to bringing the correct snack, but the intention is there and it appeals to me. It also encourages me not simply to chuck the same thing in their bags every day.

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The moon at sunset.

 

Grembiule: this is the cover up the children wear over their own clothes. The latest parents’ meeting noted to ‘mettere sempre il grembiule’. I have to say that this isn’t always the case, though I do try to remind H. to put hers on and this is something to work on – again, it makes sense – own clothes might be fine, (you can see I’m not entirely convinced by this), but school uniforms are practical and help to iron out those differences between children which are too often the cause of classroom conflict, so the grembiule is neat and practical.

 

 

 

So, those are just a few of my favourite things. Homework: turn it into a song good enough for Maria to sing. A song, actually, might well have featured here, H. has been singing non-stop ‘La scuola che c’e’ – a song written by a child at another senza zaino school, celebrating all things senza zaino and what it means to a child to be at a school ‘fatto per me‘ – made for me.

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First snowfall

H. is part way through writing me a list – in beautiful cursive script – of the little tasks the children are charged with on a daily basis. In the mean time, I leave you with news that Winter has arrived, stealthily and overnight, shocking us into thick winter coats, scarves and hats and an excitement in the children that could scarcely be contained when we saw the first scattering of snow on the mountain top on Sunday and enjoyed the first frost in the olive groves this morning.

 

Senza Zaino

The impetus for our capricious move here was the Senza Zaino school movement in the area. Senza Zaino is probably best described as a way of schooling not dissimilar to the Reggio Emilia and Montessori teaching methodologies. The name ‘senza zaino’ is primarily symbolic of three core values nurtured in the schools: responsibility, community and hospitality. The name itself means ‘without backpack’: work is completed in school and children are no more sent home with oodles of homework than they are subjected to tests at an absurdly early age. As a vociferous critic of the way in which Primary education in the UK is going, I was – and am – keen for my children to experience a different way of learning.

To this end, I’ve been trying to understand better how Senza Zaino works, usually by listening with almost two ears in a meeting while simultaneously distracting la Principessa with drawings, grissini and finally biscotti and checking up on H. and P. who are enjoying new found freedom running outside in the very small village in whose community the school nestles.

Some of the finer details may well have passed me by, but to date, the Senza Zaino system is practically appealing, educationally interesting and inclusive and feels supportive emotionally.

Above all – aside from the small practical differences which I love (more later) – I have been struck by what it feels like to be part of a school which truly embraces its community. November is ‘banca del tempo’ (time bank) month, when we, as parents, are asked to propose how we will support the school’s curriculum. These progetti are over and above the extra curricular ‘progetti’ already planned for the year.

The first meeting to discuss the progetti was itself was revelatory: parents sat in a circle with the two teachers and there was a genuine sense of working together, of the teachers wanting parental input and support, of being open to and valuing what parents could offer, practically and educationally. There was no sense of ‘them’ and ‘us’ or of parental input being limited to the specific area of fundraising.

view12.11The sense of collaboration from a community which extends beyond parents is already strong: the Vedic Art progetto run by a local artist is already in place once a week. After Christmas, a local mother will hold a series of Yoga Fit sessions and an ex-pat who has lived in the region for years will also be holding a series of Music Therapy sessions. At the meeting, a permaculture specialist from a town some 40 minutes away led the discussion around creating a vegetable garden or ‘orto’ using traditional methods whenever possible, thus it was suggested that we commission a local carpenter to make child-sized wooden spades, rakes and wheelbarrow; everyone discussed how children would be involved at every stage, from preparing the area, digging the ground over, planting and tending crops through to harvesting, cooking and eating the produce of our labours. The parent committee clearly fundraises to support such events, in much the same way as we are used to in the UK, but the advantage of being part of such a small school is that all parents could discuss openly the nature of the projects to be supported. The orto seems set to be a genuine community collaboration and the teachers welcome any help – from a few hours digging the ground over at the start to a regular commitment from parents once the garden is up and running.

Our last letter home was full of suggestions for the ‘banca del tempo’ – for language lessons or activities from other cultures, small carpentry projects, photography or drawing groups; there was also an appeal to help on ‘rainy days’ when the children cannot go out to play. The message is clear: parents have skills and ideas which can surely only be of benefit to the school; it feels a far cry from the UK, whereby parental interaction in school feels strictly limited to set times and occasions.

The pressure is on then, to think of something to offer – not least from H. and P. who are keen to know when I will be coming in and what I will be doing. H. is full of ambitious sewing projects, but I’ve seen the handiwork of one mamma and won’t be competing on that front! Since the first meeting, one mamma has already spent the day in school cooking from scratch small doughnuts with the pupils, who wrote and illustrated the step-by-step method for making them in their books, thus educationally, one activity covers many bases: maths and science, writing and literacy and art. Another mamma will soon be running four afternoons pre-Christmas to make decorations and one parent is considering a polaroid photography project.

autumnAmong other highlights in the calendar, we have been told about a day trip to Siena for a history trip focusing on the famous palio della contrada; there is the ‘degustazione’ progetta, an exploration of the four seasons and five senses through a visit to the local ‘frantoio’ (olive press) where the children will see the journey from olive to oil and taste the finest extra virgin olive oil on fresh bread; finally winter can’t come quickly enough for our children to participate in the ‘settimana bianca’ – the white week when they will go daily to the mountain for ski or snowboard lessons. I’m still enjoying the glorious autumn sunshine of this post’s photos, but even I feel excited about wrapping up warmly for snowy mountain days… just so long as I’ve figured out snow chains, tyres and how those two go together with cold fingers and three children, all will be well.