Virtuous Bread

by Jane Mason18th February 2011

Baker Jane Mason has kept readers of her Blog, at www.virtuousbread.com, enthralled and immersed in the subject of virtue for a year. Founded in 2010, Virtuous Bread teaches people how to bake very good bread and how to help others along the way. Jane regards bread not just as one of life’s essential necessities, but also as a catalyst for positive social change. 

In a series of four insightful articles, Jane describes how she bakes bread with children at East Sheen Primary School and with prisoners at Highdown Prison in Surrey. We are treated to a priceless account of an afternoon spent with the legendary Italian cookery writer, Anna del Conte and last, but not least, a very inspirational account of a contemporary understanding of virtue and its importance in life. We find her writing arresting, sometimes moving and always thought provoking.

Breaking Bread with East Sheen Primary School - by Jane Mason

One of the charitable activities of Virtuousbread.com is baking with primary school children.  Get them while they are young.  Children are impressionable.  Children can be fussy. Many parents believe their children will only eat white sliced bread out of a bag. Yawn. Children, in our experience, will eat anything they prepare themselves. A child who makes a whole meal bun that has his or her initials carved into it before baking will snatch that bun off the baking tray and cram it into his or her mouth without butter, jam, or golden syrup. Unless the adults in their world feed them white sliced from a bag again, they will never go back.

Virtuousbread.com was fortunate enough to meet a governor, and then the deputy head teacher of the East Sheen Primary School (www.eastsheen.richmond.sch.uk).  The school is wonderful and it has an allotment that the children tend. They cook with the produce in the canteen, they keep chickens, they visit farms and have "Fab Fridays" in which no formal lessons are held and the children learn through other kinds of activities, such as dance, drama, music, sport, and cooking.

In their brand new kitchen, Virtuousbread.com will be teaching baking once a month.  The idea is that the children learn all about bread: farming wheat, milling flour and baking bread. They bake their own bread and, while it's rising, we will make soup together, or maybe jam - whatever takes our fancy on the day as long as it complements the bread. We will bake, eat, talk, have a great time, and learn all about good bread. 

We will be writing up our experiences on the Blog at www.virtuousbread.com, so please follow us.

Baking with prisoners. “The Clink” in HM Prison, Highdown, Sutton, Surrey - by Jane Mason

One of the four charitable activities in which Virtuousbread.com is involved is baking with prisoners. This was one of our original aims for setting up the bakery activity and the reasons for this were many.

Baking bread builds self-esteem. It is calming. It is practical. It is a skill that enables you to be self-sustaining and that you can use to earn money. People appreciate you for baking bread. They acknowledge and thank-you. You can make a contribution.

These are all good things - especially if you are in prison or about to be released from prison. In addition, prisoners should eat good bread too.

It was nigh on impossible to even get meetings with prison wardens. The prison service is large, bureaucratic, and terrified of publicity of any kind. Although many prisons used to bake their own bread (and make their own cheese, run their own farms, and grow their own fruit and veg) the reality now is that most prisons are no longer self-sustaining. From the early 1990s, the prison service started selling off their land. Prisons today rely on huge catering companies to provide their food and many prisoners are in their cells for up to 23 hours a day.

I am not criticising the prison service, as most prisons do their absolute best with limited resources in stressful circumstances, I am merely depicting the facts.

At Highdown Prison in Sutton, Surrey, a restaurant called "The Clink" opened 18 months ago.  It is the culmination of a ten year campaign by Alberto Crisci who felt much the same way we do: provide an opportunity, training, support, and enable people to contribute and achieve and maybe their chances of surviving and succeeding in society when they leave prison will be higher. The Clink has had amazing results, so please do visit their website to find out more about them, at www.theclinkonline.com.

Yeast, however, is something that is not allowed in prisons and so The Clink has not made its own bread - until now.  Virtuousbread.com is going to work with The Clink to help the staff learn to bake their own sourdough bread.  They have already started their rye sourdough. The Master of the Dough is looking after it and will be responsible for keeping it alive and well.  Virtuousbread.com will contribute wheat sourdough from 1857.  Between the two and with a little help from flour and water, we can do anything. We will update on our progress through the Blog at www.virtuousbread.com.  Please follow us.

An interview with Anna del Conte

Anna del Conte sits in her Dorset garden and offers me sherry.  Her grandson, Johnny, brings it out very correctly on a tray: the bottle, two glasses, and little napkins just in case. The sun is shining, the apple blossom is in fullbloom and her daughter Julia's family is hard at work in the garden planting, edging and digging.  It's rather nice to watch their labour and talk bread and virtue.

"Virtue", muses Anna, "I don't know that I know very much about virtue....although I do know about "le virtu".  This is an Italian soup that one makes in the spring with the first greens and all the pasta and pulses in the cupboard left over from the winter.  Shall we go find the recipe?"

How brilliant. As we pore over Italian cookery books, dictionaries, and gastronomic compendia, I observe Anna del Conte, a cookery book writer, food commentator, expert on all matters pertaining to Italian cooking, and a national treasure. More or less self-taught, she has published scores of books and is working on more. Although a grandmother, she is as slender as a girl and has a fine, incisive, and curious mind.  She also eats bread every day, three times a day. 

"Bread is like life to an Italian. Like life. I cannot imagine life without bread. Not one single meal goes by when I don't have bread. I must have bread. Italians must have bread. Italians have bread with everything. I have a memory of my father having bread with grapes. Yes!  Just with grapes. He sat down in the middle of the day for a little meal of grapes and insisted on having bread with it. Of course, there are hundreds of varieties of bread. The bread in Tuscany is famously not salty because their sauces are terribly salty and you will always mop them up with bread. My favourite bread is called Biovette (see the recipe at www.virtuousbread.com). I remember it from childhood trips to Venice. It is just like a puff of air when you break it open. The key is the Italian flour. And lard. Never compromise on the lard."

Does Anna bake? 

"Well sometimes, yes, in my bread maker. Although, I must say, Italians are not the Earth Mother English types who seem to need to bake in order to express their womanhood! In Italy there is good bread on every corner and people buy it every day - maybe even twice a day. In England, however, I have not always been able to get good bread and so yes, I have made it. We have an excellent miller close by - Cann Mill - which is good and that is where we go to get flour. He is such a nice man, you should go and see him."

There are various stories about le virtu.  Some books say it is made with seven ingredients - one for each of the seven virtues. Others say it was made of three ingredients to honour three virtuous sisters. Still others don't really offer an explanation about its origins. Anna is a follower of the "seven virtue" theory and maintains that the seven virtues are seven types of dried pasta and pulses combined with various other things like spring greens, pigs trotters, snout, rind, and sofritto, the cooked vegetable base.

Johnny comes in again. This time he is making pesto and wants us to taste it.

"Very nice, Johnny", compliments Anna, "a bit more salt." 

Anna is a believer in salt. She is also a believer in encouraging children how to cook. 

"Food is critical to the conviviality of families.  Preparing food and sharing food is a great act of love. Sitting at the table: that is how children learn to eat and talk.  Why is it important to eat good bread?  That is an excellent question..."

She thinks.

"Because it makes you happy!"

The Virtue Project by Jane Mason

About eighteen months ago I undertook a project to develop a contemporary understanding of virtue. I wanted to explore the causes of the financial crisis and what we, as a society, could do about it. I honestly do not know what to do with the hours of tape and pages of transcripts other than publish some of the summaries here and be thankful that it led me to founding Virtuousbread.com. 

The fight to change society must be fought at many levels from the policy and governmental level to the institutional level and the individual level.  I get up every day to change the world and always have done so. Until early 2010 I was absolutely up for fighting the fight at the institutional level, working with senior executives at some of the world's biggest financial institutions. I believe that if organisations are better run, more humane, and led by more enlightened people, then staff will be able to "bring more of themselves" to work, resulting in more creativity, more energy, and better results for all. Today, however, my appetite has changed and I am content to let someone else fight at that level. Today I choose to get up every day to fight the fight at the level of the individual - with bread as my medium

Bread, as the representation of goodness and life, is an excellent catalyst for social change. All that could be good and much that is bad is all there in a simple loaf of bread.  Bread is so much more than the sum of its parts. You cannot eat flour or salt or yeast on their own even in small quantities. Yet together, they make one of the cheapest and potentially nourishing foods: the building block and the basic food for most people around the world. Good bread is the end product of a good process that involves responsible farming, milling, baking, and distribution. It can be made with minimal negative impact on the planet and, if good quality, will benefit individuals and, as a result, society as a whole. I believe you can build relationships through baking and breaking bread. Virtuousbread.com was founded to make it fun and easy for people to bake and break bread and to provide information so that they can make their own bread choices.

Virtue is the set of behaviours we observe when people are developing and maintaining productive and positive relationships in which people feel supported and valued, enabling them to:
      

  •  Forge productive and positive relationships with others in their lives – including strangers

 

  • Feel confident and positive that what they do and who they are is worthwhile which means they will do it better, with more energy and enthusiasm, and take more personal risks, thus making an even greater contribution to the world around them.
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Because nobody is perfect, the core of virtuous behaviour is the cycle of apology and forgiveness that enables us to recover from hurtful (non-virtuous) experiences and build long term relationships.  Virtue does not like a vaccuum: it does not exist when we are on our own. Giving money to charity on line, although a good act, and a generous one, is not a virtuous one. By definition, virtue can only exist when we are interacting with others.

Marketers talk about three categories of benefit they must communicate to an end consumer in order to get them to buy their products. The three categories of benefit include rational, (the message that communicates the science that proves the car is safe), emotional (the message that communicates that you will feel comfortable driving your children around in this car because it is safe), and self-expressive (the message that communicates that people will think you are a good parent, having bought this safe car). If we want to embed virtue in society we have to accept we are asking people to change some of their behaviours. In order to do this we have to understand and communicate "what's in it for them" - in other words, the benefits.

There are rational benefits of being more virtuous:  if I do good things it forwards my cause.  

Example 1:  I sit on a board of a charity. I earn nothing. I meet people who further my career.  
Example 2:  I am really friendly to the lady who runs the canteen. I forget my purse one day. She trusts me to pay her the next day.

There are emotional benefits of being more virtuous: if I do good things I feel good. It gives me a sense of wellbeing and that builds my confidence and happiness. Neurologically we know that these emotions are “real” because the chemicals in the brain change when we make positive connections with other people: we sleep better, we are more patient and we are kinder.

There are self-expressive benefits of being more virtuous: if I do good things, people will think I am a good person because what I see reflected back at me when I do good things is that I am a good person.

Embedding virtue more widely in our society is a matter of both individual and institutional responsibility.

Individuals can build virtuous relationships with other people all the time: thanking the bus driver, greeting the person who sells them their coffee every day, acknowledging when a stranger is considerate, or helping strangers who are, for example, lost on the road. In doing so they make the other person feel good about themselves and that can only be a positive thing. Individuals can also decide to be kinder, more courteous and considerate to their most intimate circle. Relationship counselling is ultimately aimed at helping couples in trouble to forge better relationships by breaking bad habits and creating good ones. On a more existential level, many of the people interviewed felt that individuals should engage in the discipline of taking a break every day just to be alone. To spend 5 minutes with no phone or e-mails or anything at all, just to contemplate the world, a little meditative moment which provides the opportunity to "re-group".  This is a big ask, even if it seems simple.

Leaders in institutions have a responsibility to role model virtuous behaviour by treating people well in their institutions on a day to day basis, by “doing good things” and communicating them (blog/company website/company magazine) and by creating opportunities for their employees to be virtuous by:

 1. Linking the institution with good works – giving to charity, sponsoring charities/individuals to do charitable things (matching donations for marathon runners, as an example)

2. Creating a virtuous culture in the organization with clear standards regarding how people interact with one another, with clear values that are reviewed, measured and, therefore, implemented

3.  Creating opportunities for their staff to “do good things” outside of work such as give everyone half a day per quarter to volunteer for the charity of their choice and give one month off every three years to work for a charity at half pay

4. Making it a lot easier for staff to take individual responsibility by publishing, on their corporate website, charity events in which staff can participate – like the marathon, or balls, parties, competitions where the proceeds go directly to good causes.  They can also pay for the criminal check that is required to work with vulnerable people.

5. Using their own networks to get interested and qualified staff on boards of charities as Non-Executive Directors and thus provide staff with valuable outside management experience which will contribute hugely to their experience and performance at work.

The people interviewed to develop a contemporary understanding of virtue include academics, psychologists, artists, politicians, business people, journalists, and spiritual leaders.  Some were happy to be named and some were not.  All of them are fascinating.  The points above are a summary of the work done about virtue to date.

A little over a year ago, in response to the financial crisis, I set about interviewing 25 luminaries to develop a contemporary understanding of virtue.  As a strategy consultant I was working with companies whose employees changed overnight from confident leaders to frightened employees.  Monday's change agent was Tuesday's trouble maker: people felt they needed to keep their heads down and avoid being noticed if they were going to keep their jobs.  The creative energy that companies need in a time of crisis was being withheld out of fear. 

Column inches were dedicated to analysing the causes of the financial crisis.  However, when push came to shove, it was about greed and envy.  Greedy and unscrupulous sales people preying on ignorance, selling things to people that they never should have bought.  Envious and foolish consumers making purchases they could ill afford.  If greed and envy got us into this mess maybe virtue could get us out.  However, how can we make it more comfortable to talk about virtue and how do we embed it into society at large?  Is there a benefit of doing so and what it is?

Copyright © 2011 Virtuous Bread. All Rights Reserved.

About the Author

Jane Mason is an inspirational baker, teacher and food writer. She teaches bread baking at Virtuous Bread's bakery in London, and has also taught in schools and prisons. In her Blog, at www.virtuousbread.com, she writes about the development of a contemporary understanding of virtue, using bread as a catalyst for social change.

 
 
Proving baskets. All photography by Jane Mason of Virtuous Bread.

Proving baskets. All photography by Jane Mason of Virtuous Bread.

Flour sacks

Flour sacks

Baking equipment

Baking equipment

Pain au raisin

Pain au raisin

Hot cross buns

Hot cross buns

Knotted bread

Knotted bread

Spelt loaf

Spelt loaf

Cracker bread

Cracker bread

Jane Mason in her kitchen

Jane Mason in her kitchen

Logo of Virtuous Bread.

Logo of Virtuous Bread.