Scenes from a Renaissance Bakery

The “Production Scale Renaissance Bakery” experiment continues…

There are certain fringe benefits of working an outdoor kitchen. The view, for instance, is quite often simply amazing.

This was the scene Friday evening on the edge of the Washington Midsummer Renaissance Faire that is dedicated to living history displays. A group of friends of ours who teach period games sits next to us and beyond that, the military encampment where Goode’s Company of Foote and the Salle St George demonstrate the life and martial studies of a renaissance soldier.

By the way, I’m convinced that the whole “Red sky at night/sailor’s delight” thing is a lie. I may not be a sailor, but even I know that a beautiful sky like that presages nothing but trouble.  Sure enough, six hours after this photo was taken, the temperature stopped falling and began to rise as a thunderstorm moved north out of the Mount Rainier National Park, split around the flanks of the mountain, and fell on us like the wrath of a vengeful god.

Now, contrary to what you might see on television shows like Grey’s Anatomy, it hardly ever thunders or downpours in the Seattle area. We generally have too many mountains and too much water. Fronts that create thunderheads get snagged and chopped up on the peaks that surround our cities.

This storm front missed that memo.

Those of us who hail not from the placid weather patterns of the Pacific Northwest, but from the center portion of the United States where the weather frequently and actively tries to kill you, watched the clouds surround our campsite with some trepidation. While lightning danced across the surrounding hilltops, I sat with two friends (both also from the plains states) drinking beer and speculating about what it felt like to get hit by 1.21 gigawatts of electricity. As the rain started to fall, we began to retreat to our cars, urging our northwestern friends to do likewise. Better to weather the storm in a Faraday cage (which is what a car is, if you think about it) than in a canvas box suspended from lightning rods (which is what a tent is if you think about it, God help you).

I’ve known people who died sleeping in tents during a storm. I learned early in life the lesson “Thou shalt not mess with the storm”.

So it was that the engineer and I spent half the night in sporadic catnaps amid the relative discomforts of a rain-drenched vehicle. So it was that once the storm passed and the day dawned (all assembled were thankfully unhurt no matter where they spent the night) it was a cranky and ill-tempered brood of bakers that greeted the morning’s light.

Well… everyone except for that guy. I told him that naming his horse “DeLorean” wasn’t going to be enough to get it up to 88 miles per hour…  

The things we’ll do for the sake of a project, I swear.

A Day Weekend In the Life…

A baker’s life is not one that allows for much in the way of sleeping in. We admittedly don’t get up nearly as early as the bakers of yore since the festival does not open its gates until 10:00. But there’s still precious little time for catching up on storm-addled dreams as the unrelenting mistresses of beer, bread, and hearth beckon.

I and my fellow bakers are up and tending our hearth by 7:00 in order to be ready to have bread coming out by the time the patrons begin filtering in.  In our first weekend at our new trade, we had nothing but trouble with an oven that hadn’t yet dried to a point where it would give back the heat we put into it in an efficient manner.

Friday evening, I got to site early and rebuilt the oven’s mouth, making it a bit deeper and doing what I could to increase the wall thickness (with mixed results). The reason I had a fire in the oven for that picture up top was to dry out the new cob I’d added. And that fire was the main reason I was still awake in the wee hours, sitting with soldiers and watching the approaching storm. A hot oven can’t go under a tarp.

The oven was barely cool enough to get tarped when the storm rolled in and Saturday morning, condensation on the inside of the tarp had made a bit of a mess out of what was already a bit of a messy application of clay to the outside.

We over-compensated and fired it way too long, the result of which was burning the first batch of bread for the day because it must’ve been at least 700 degrees fahrenheit when we put the dough in.

Nevertheless, we got our feet under us and kept our hands in the dough all day, totally on Saturday alone more than our entire previous weekend’s output.

For all the time I spend with tools, there are some simple things that I just didn’t know how to do, skills that I might never have noticed my lack of were it not for this project. For instance, this year, I had to teach myself how to peel an apple or a potato with a knife instead of a peeler. (Turns out I needn’t have bothered, when it came time to make the apple tart, The Engineer was already a dab hand with a knife… of course.)

At the end of the first day, we had totalled more loaves than we’d baked the entire first weekend. By the end of the day on Saturday, we’d more than doubled it.

I’ve been going to renaissance faires in one capacity or another for quite some time. They crack me up for both what they are and what the most assuredly are not. What they aren’t is Living History in any sense. Faire is essentially a theatrical enterprise. Participants are either cast in specific roles or create their own and are expected to act the part. Historical fact plays second or third fiddle to entertainment and that’s just how it goes. Welcome to ye olde theme parke.

People who cannot handle that don’t last long.

This was my first real experiment in something that I think we can (I think) genuinely describe as living history. My crew spent the entire day either baking or explaining what we were doing to the onlookers. And boy did we draw a crowd. I explained the principles of oven construction hundreds of times. People are/were fascinated by what we were about, challenged me on what ingredients I’d have had and where I got them in a 16th century context.

As a card-carrying nerd, I’m not ashamed to admit it was some of the most fun I think I’ve ever had in public. We educated a lot of people, we made over 100 loaves of bread, and — if comments are to be believed — might have even inspired a minor oven-building boom in the Pacific Northwest.

Now that’s what I call a job well done.

The Engineer channels a character from a Breugel painting as she measures out the flour for a new batch. She’s even wearing wooden shoes though you can’t see them here….

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