Hester van der Walt, author of Hester se brood, and publisher Colleen Higgs in conversation with Janet van Eeden

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Title: Hester se brood
Author:
Hester van der Walt
Publisher:
Modjaji Books
ISBN: 9780980272987

Hester se brood is the most delicious book to come across my desk in a long time. Not since Chocolat have my taste buds been so aroused while reading. Hester van der Walt has written an apparently simple book about bread. Delicate pencil drawings share space with recipes for bread and Hester’s musings about her life in McGregor with her partner, Lies Hoogendoorn.

On the surface it’s about her sudden change of career when she gives up a mundane but safe office job to take a path which is less certain in its outcomes. Her decision to search for the perfect ciabatta recipe leads her to explore baking, yeast, ovens and the ancient craft of bread-making. To Hester, the art of making beautiful bread becomes a path towards leading a life of fulfilment instead of merely living a life of survival. In her book Hester reveals to the reader how the slow art of baking led her to realise that all the moments of life should be treated with equal reverence. After reading this book we, too, realise that in the specific lies the universal, in the ordinary lies the breathtaking moment we are all searching for. The book, like bread-making itself, becomes a meditation on the quality of our own lives.

As the book is produced with as much love as Hester’s bread by its publisher, Colleen Higgs of Modjaji Books, it seemed fitting to interview both women together.

Colleen, I’ve followed Modjaji Books with great interest since its inception. Hester se brood by Hester van der Walt is a delight of a book, but it seems like a bit of a departure for your stable. What made you decide to publish a book in Afrikaans about baking bread?

Colleen: When Hester and her partner Lies pitched the book to me, I loved their proposal. I knew that Modjaji Books would make it into a beautiful book. I want Modjaji Books to be a multilingual publishing company, and to find ways to foster a language sensitivity and inclusiveness. The first book I published, Azila Talit Reisenberger’s collection of poems, called Life in Translation, has got four of the poems in both Hebrew and English. Hebrew is Azila’s mother tongue, and even though she has lived in South Africa most of her adult life, she still writes in Hebrew. For me it didn’t feel like a departure. I like the way that Hester se brood is not only about how to bake bread. In other words it is not just a recipe book or how-to manual. It is partly a memoir, partly an appreciation of bread and bread-making and a practical and spiritual journey of exploration and discovery. I can read Afrikaans relatively comfortably and love the feeling tone of Hester’s book and enjoyed reading her writing. I also loved Lies’s beautiful drawings. The book captured my imagination from the start.

Hester: Ek dink Colleen was ongelooflik dapper om my boek aan te pak. Voor haar het ’n paar groot sowel as klein Afrikaanse uitgewers my manuskrip op ’n skynbaar eindelose waglys geplaas!
Hester, ek het net die eerste paar woorde van jou boek gelees en was klaar smoorverlief op die manier waarop jy jou brood begin bak het. Dit was besonders hoe jy ’n liefde vir broodbak ontdek het gedurende ’n moeilike deel van jou lewe. Vertel vir die lesers van LitNet hoekom jy jou werk van baie jare sommerso gelos het en skielik obsessief brood begin bak het.

Hester: Dis alles natuurlik die skuld van ʼn boek. Ek het jare vantevore al verlief geraak op die smaak en tekstuur van ciabatta en het vir ʼn hele ruk sonder veel sukses probeer om hulle te bak. Maar dit was juis toe ek totaal uitgebrand was in my werk dat ek op ʼn inspirerende broodboek afgekom het wat werklik vir my insig gegee het in die maak van besondere brood. In daardie moeilike tyd was die eksperimenteer met broodbak vir my ʼn soort terapie. En dit was die begin van my broodreis.

Hester, ek kan dit nie help nie, maar ek het onmiddellik gedink dat brood meer as net brood is vir jou. Is brood nie miskien ’n metafoor vir die lewe nie? Was jy dalk nie net moeg vir winkelbrood self nie, maar ook vir al die kompromisse wat deel van jou lewe was op die stadium toe jy besluit het om jou werk te los?

Hester: Ek het dit natuurlik nie destyds so verstaan nie, maar agteraf beskou is jy heeltemal reg, Janet! Om met deeg te werk, om te voel hoe dit onder jou hande leef en vorm aanneem, is om skeppend om te gaan met iets wat lewe. En destyds was ek toegegooi onder die skryf van eindelose “funding proposals” om ondersteuning te kry vir die werk wat ek as “broodnodig” beskou het. Broodmaak is tasbaar en bring jou terug na jou lyf en die aarde.

Hester, die mense in McGregor, waar jy woon, is deel van die storie. Die wonderlike jongman Niël wat die broodoond (wat Hestia genoem is) gebou het, is net een van die kleurvolle karakters wat deel van jou lewe is vandat jy ’n voltydse bakker geword het. Is McGregor die soort plek waar elke buurman sy eie interessante storie het?

Hester: Dis nogal ironies dat die meeste besoekers hiernatoe kom om weg te kom van die stad se mense-gewoel. Die mense is natuurlik minder hier, maar jy is baie nader aan die mense wat daar is, want hier is nie hoë mure nie. En ja, die stories loop hier op bene rond; mens hoef nie te soek na hulle nie. Jy moet net jou ore oophou en jou mond toe! Elke Saterdagoggend hou ons ’n straatmark en dit is ’n belewenis om na die uitruil van nuus te luister.

Colleen: I love the Karoo and McGregor and had tasted Hester’s bread several years ago when we made a family trip there and bought food from the local market. So I understood the setting when Hester and Lies pitched their book to me.

Hester, jy haal Thich Nhat Hahn, die Zen-meester, aan, wat sê: “Peace is every step.” Die “mindfulness” van die Zen-Boeddhisme is vir jou ’n belangrike deel van broodbak. “As mens jou asemhaling met jou werkaksie kan sinkroniseer, word jy nie maklik moeg nie. As jy dan boonop die oomblik ten volle beleef, en nie haastig is om klaar te maak nie, word die samespel tussen hout en hand, vuur en oondgewelf, ’n geheel wat die siel voed,” sê jy in Hester se Brood. Dit voel vir my asof broodbak amper ’n geestelike-ontspanningservaring vir jou is. Is dit so? Is broodbak jou “religion”?

Hester: Daar is nie vir my ʼn skeiding tussen die fisiese en die geestelike nie. Hoe ouer ek word hoe meer ervaar ek sommer alles as ewe “heilig”. Om brood te bak gee my elke week weer die kans om te ervaar wat met die deeg gebeur en met myself en my omgewing.

Hester, broodbak op dié manier is nie maklik nie. Ek dink aan die nuwe neiging terug na “slow food”, en broodbak is definitief een van die “slow foods”. Daar is baie betrokke. Die gis alleen laat my bietjie bang voel, want ek het nog nooit gis gebruik om brood te maak nie. Is daar enige wenke wat jy vir my kan gee as ’n “beginner”-bakker?

Hester: Ja, hierdie is glad nie ʼn vinnige manier van broodbak nie en ek besef dat dit baie mense kan afskrik. Dit sal jammer wees, want die proses van gisting word nie bepaal deur bakkers se harde werk nie, maar deur hulle geduld. Gisting gebeur vanself; jy moet dit net toelaat deur bietjie vooruit te beplan. Die geheim van gis is om so min as moontlik te gebruik, maar om die inwerking van gis op die deeg so lank as moontlik uit te rek. Om jou ʼn voorbeeld te gee, ek maak tien kilogram ciabatta-deeg aan met minder as twee klein pakkies droë gis. Daarvan maak ek twintig pantoffelbrode! Die deeg word in twee stadiums gemaak: eers die voordeeg en die volgende dag die res van die deeg. Probeer gerus die resep in die boek. Gelukkig is die bestanddele goedkoop en jy hoef nie bang te wees om te eksperimenteer nie.


Hester, wat is jou gunsteling-broodresep en hoekom?

Hester: Veelgraan-suurdesembrood is my gunsteling, want dit is soos goeie kaas en rooiwyn. Hoe ouer die brood word, hoe meer verdiep die smaak. Die resep is in die boek, asook die maak van jou eie suurdesem-moeder of gisplantjie. Dan hoef jy nooit weer winkelsuurdeeg te koop nie. Ek hou ook daarvan om te eksperimenteer met brood van ander wêrelddele, soos byvoorbeeld Middel-Oosterse platbrode.

Colleen: The chocolate and raisin challah that Hester made for the McGregor launch was out of this world. I have never eaten anything so delicious. It tasted like manna, like pure bliss.

Colleen, how have the book launches for Hester se brood differed from other book launches you have done?

Colleen: Well, we’ve had Hester’s bread to eat and especially the challah is such a special bread. Hester has a wonderful calm demeanour and she is a pleasure to be with. She is peaceful and full of quiet love. Lies is so passionate about Hester’s book and so obviously thrilled about the publication of the book. Her passion and enthusiasm has moved me deeply. I prefer not to compare books and launches, perhaps in the same way that a mother would not like to engage with a question like “Which of your children do you like the most?” I don’t get tired of book launches, although I do find myself tired after a launch. It requires a great deal of presence and engagement to be the publisher at a launch.

How has the book been received so far?

Colleen: We’ve had wonderful feedback and praise for the book. I’m glad I published it, and it’s just the beginning of the book’s life. I have a very good feeling about this book; it is going places. I think it will become a classic of a particular kind.

Peter Veldsman, who was in conversation with Hester at the Book Lounge, loves the book. I was afraid, when I hadn’t heard from him after a week or so, that he wouldn’t agree to do the event. But he loved the book so much that he was reading it carefully cover to cover and underlining phrases and writing questions and comments in pencil in the margins. He particularly loves Hester’s use of language, as well as the bread-making.

Here is an example of a review written by Professor Leslie Swartz of the Psychology Department at Stellenbosch:

Hester se brood tells the story of how with time, attention to detail and dedication to craft, it is possible to create something wonderful and delicious from the simplest and cheapest of ingredients. This beautifully illustrated and produced book tells the reader how to make bread in an old-fashioned way. It is a story of the magic of taste, the mystery (the alchemy, even) of yeast, the joy of producing and eating something which is utterly delectable.

Though the book does indeed give us recipes, and though it tells the reader how to make bread, this is much more than a recipe book. There is a parallel between the magic of Hester’s bread, which comes from the simplicity of yeast and flour, and the gift that is Hester se brood. This is a book written with exquisite simplicity and directness, yet yielding a treasure for all readers, including those who have no interest in bread at all. We are told the story not only of bread-baking, but also of the choices we make in life, the impact of brave and at times frightening decisions on how we can shape what we do and who we are. This is a book about the reward of risks. We learn, in the quietest and almost austere way, of the choices the author Hester van der Walt and her partner Lies Hoogendoorn have made, of the value for them and for all of us of a slow, examined and thoughtful life. Hoogendoorn’s charming illustrations add to the text, and help us in the process of wondering and thinking.

The book looks both backward and forward in time, and is at once utterly in line with tradition and convention and completely original. Van der Walt joins a long and prestigious genealogy of writer-cooks, and recalls the work of C Louis Leipoldt and Marthinus Versfeld, but makes it clear in her own modest way that the way in which she has chosen to live her life and to think about it is also a testament to her faith in originality, in making her own way. Unlike many contemporary writers she does not lampoon or pooh-pooh what has gone before. On the contrary, she does something much more profound, which is to show how even in an unconventional life, a life far from the mainstream, we can only gain by learning from the best of what has gone before.

The book, therefore, seems at once utterly and comfortingly familiar, and completely unlike anything I have ever read. To read it, to savour the purity of language as Van der Walt savours in the purity of the taste of the bread she loves so much, is to experience a rare treat, and an honour. This is a book for reading, for rereading, for sharing with others, and a book which should give us all cause to rejoice.

Hester: Dit gee my die grootste plesier om die kommentaar van lesers te hoor. Libeth skryf byvoorbeeld vir haar vriendin Ruth die volgende: "Ek lê al met Hester se boek vanaf 5-uur vanmôre. Ek gaar al hoe lank meel op en dreig om ʼn brood te bak. Nou lê die boek oop by die pantoffelbrood. Ek het al daai meel en ek gaan dit nou begin maak. Eers die voordeeg ..."

Colleen, not only is Hester se brood literally a very hands-on type of book with its delicious-sounding recipes. It is also rooted in small-town life and exudes a back-to-basics type of existence. This contrasts beautifully for me with the more cerebral works of poetry you’ve published, amongst others, so far. Do you see your publications as spanning all subject matter to do with women, from the most basic need to put food on the table for the family to the harsh realities of compromised life as in Whiplash, to the far-reaching and ethereal dreams of poetic longings?

Colleen: The short answer is "yes". Modjaji Books is interested in the full range of women’s lives, experiences, difficulties, passions, dreams and histories, especially women from Southern Africa.

I also want to add that I don’t see poetry as necessarily ethereal or cerebral. Most of the poetry books have engaged with women’s lives partly as the experience of being lived in their bodies. This body experience gives those poems a physicality, a presentness, a groundedness. For me poetry, especially the poetry that Modjaji has published so far, is about each poet’s inner life, her struggles, her search, her coming to terms with challenging realities, her feistiness (Sindiwe and Helen in particular) and her courage. Her attempt to make sense of a world that is difficult to make sense of. Her engagement with her own psyche and her own journey. Each of the books published by Modjaji so far does these things in different ways.

 
Photograph of Colleen Higgs: Gary Cummiskey

 

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