As for many people, the pandemic provided the opportunity for Hannah Bironzo’s bread making to step up a gear.
I’m a busy working mum who’s hooked on sourdough. I’ve been known to mix dough at my home, cover the bowl whilst it proves in the car and travel to the home of a family member or friend to bake it for us to share. A fresh loaf of bread is often my way of saying “welcome”, “thank you” or “sorry”.
At the start of the pandemic, talk of baking sourdough was everywhere. Why was it that the idea of home-made bread suddenly appealed? Maybe people wanted to learn something new and sought slower-paced, mindful pursuits while stuck at home with time on their hands. I also wonder if people also craved a connection to nature.
Being known in my community as the ‘bread-baker round the corner’, I was inundated with requests for my starter and easy recipes. Social distancing rules meant that I decided to set up online sessions to get people started on their sourdough journeys. Word spread and The Gypsy Baker sourdough workshops came into being.
What’s in a name?
The Gypsy Baker is a name of which I feel rightfully proud. My paternal great-grandfather was a Gypsy born in 1875, who ended up travelling the world. My maternal grandfather ran a family bakery in my hometown and a fresh loaf was always the centrepiece of my grandmother’s table as I grew up. Travelling and baking Real Bread are so integral to my life that The Gypsy Baker feels like a perfect celebration of my roots and who I am.
A friendship that lives on
Alessandra, my starter, has a beautiful story. Her roots are in a microbakery in San Francisco, where she was adopted by a dear Italian friend, Alessandra Pigni, in 2018. Alessandra was a writer visiting her publisher in California, so I asked her to bring me back a tiny dollop of starter from her favourite bakery.
Alessandra and I would often enjoy eating my sourdough together, accompanied by hummus, lively conversations and a glass or two of wine. Listening to my frustrations with my day job, she would often encourage me to pursue my passions and do more than just bake for my family. Inspired by our chats, she even wrote a chapter about me in her book The Idealist’s Survival Kit, entitled ‘I am not my job’.
Devastatingly, Alessandra passed away on 26 December of that same year, aged 44. We lost a kind and wise soul, but I feel that part of her lives on through my baking project. The starter she brought me bubbles, responds, thrives and has given birth to so much bread and passion! Through the nurturing of this culture, and with each loaf I pull from my oven, it feels almost as if Alessandra is here beside me.
Since April 2020, I have taught hundreds of people from all over the UK and beyond how to make bread. In my monthly Zoom workshops, I connect with small groups of people in their home kitchens. We bake together in real time over three days using portions of Alessandra the starter, which I post to participants after they sign up.
Real Bread is a huge part of my local community too. One project was inspired by the work of Pauline Beaumont and her book Bread Therapy. In October 2020, I launched Love Your Loaf to mark World Mental Health Day. By baking bread for our friends and neighbours, together we raised over £300 for Oxfordshire Mind.
In April 2022, I featured in Waitrose Food Magazine’s Full of Pride section. My friend Emily Tammam nominated me as someone who has shown kindness through food. She wrote: “Hannah and I became friends over our love of baking sourdough bread. When my daughter was diagnosed with brain cancer in July 2020, Hannah set up a bread rota. And for the past 18 months, local friends have left handmade loaves, baked with love, outside our door – true kindness and comfort, at a painful time.”
As Zoom fatigue started creeping in, I expected that interest in online workshops would decline. However, I am pleased to report that my virtual sessions are still going strong! The fact that people join conveniently timed sessions, from the comfort of their own homes, has made the experience accessible. Additionally, baking in real time, moving through the steps over several days, with each baker using their own equipment, makes the learning experience comfortable and straightforward.
I want to bring my sourdough workshops to a broader audience. Inspired by the work of Proof Bakery in Coventry (see True Loaf 39), which sadly no longer exists, I would love to develop a bakery project with a social purpose. As my background is in English language teaching, I would also like to work with people from different cultural backgrounds to exchange stories and skills.
For now, I am content to connect with others and share my knowledge through Zoom classes. If anyone is keen to join me, I encourage them to drop me an email.
Originally published in True Loaf magazine issue 55, July 2023
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Published 18 Sep 2023
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