« Bubble Wrap Tissues | Home | Suprematist Composition (Eight Red Rectangles) — Kasimir Malevich »

October 7, 2021

"I have only one passion in life — cooking." — Virginia Woolf


From Paper and Salt:

Constant self-effacement is a theme that runs through Virginia Woolf's letters. Her talents didn't really lie in the library, she would tell you. They were in the kitchen. "I have only one passion in life — cooking," Woolf wrote to her friend (and occasional lover) Vita Sackville-West. "I have just bought a superb oil stove. I can cook anything... I assure you it is better than writing these more than idiotic books."

Where Woolf hesitated to praise her own writing, she wasn't nearly so shy about her talent for baking. "Cooked lunch today and made a loaf of really expert bread," she wrote. Bread was her specialty, particularly a traditionally British double-decker creation: the snowmanesque cottage loaf (top). Her dedication to the kitchen was unusual for a woman of the upper-middle class. She did, however, draw the line at doing the dishes ("How servants preserve either sanity or sobriety if that is 9/10ths of their lives... God knows").

In "Recollections of Virginia Woolf, Louie Mayer, the Woolfs' cook, marvels at Virginia's calm expertise. "She showed me how to make the dough with the right quantities of yeast and flour, and then how to knead it. She returned three or four times during the morning to knead it again. Finally, she made the dough into the shape of a cottage loaf and baked it at just the right temperature."

From Woolf's letters, the time she spent cooking seemed to be its own rest cure, clearing her head of everything else but the dough. "My bread bakes well," she writes in her diary, and it resounds like a soothing mantra. "If all else fails, I tell myself, my bread bakes well. My bread bakes well."

We don't see many cottage loaves today. Even in the early 20th century, when Woolf was writing, they were going out of fashion. It's believed they were originally shaped to save space in an oven — rising vertically instead of spreading out over the oven floor — but their unusual dimensions make them harder to cut or use for a sandwich.

But Woolf wasn't the only literary champion of the cottage loaf. George Orwell, ever the expert about traditional English cooking, extolled its virtues as among the best food the U.K. had to offer, good just on its own. "If there is anything quite as good as the soft part of the crust from an English cottage loaf," he wrote, "I do not know of it."

October 7, 2021 at 10:01 AM | Permalink


Post a comment