I’ve been watching a few videos on beauty. One of the most interesting is presented by Roger Scruton, the British philosopher, that he names 'Beauty and Consolation'. I can’t pretend to understand all that he has to say, but some of it sticks, I guess because it aligns with my own thoughts. In particular, he talks about how the recognition and appreciation of beauty is fundamental to a healthy mind. He then goes on to connect that with how one can be consoled by taking time to stop and take in beauty in the midst of the angst of modern living. Now, I often wonder when I am just seeing or witnessing beauty.
This question was on my mind the other day when, after a hike, I was looking at a round of fresh bread in a French bakery and commented on the beautiful looking bread to the attendant behind the counter. She agreed that it was truly beautiful. She then explained what she thought of as the beauty of the round. Her description was not about its looks, but rather what was in it, when it was baked, and the texture of the interior and the crust. Her thoughts were what you might get from a painter if asked ‘how’ they produced a painting. Rather technical.
My thoughts were more about the shape of the round and the variance of tan colour evenly distributed over the bread. Knowing the quality of the bread in that bakery, my tastebuds were already causing my mouth to water. I realised it was going to be up to me to define the beauty of the round.
There were four different types of bread rounds at the bakery. I knew I was going to be eating most of what I bought, so I let go of the idea of getting one of the larger rounds. What I focussed on was a smaller round of baked bread, golden brown with two slashes across the top exposing a lighter brown indentation that gave it a perfectly balanced look. I pointed to my selection and watched the attendant lift it carefully out of the display case with tongs. She took care to not touch it with her hands as she slipped it into a special bag for me to take home. I thought of it as the equivalent of a high quality jewellery store wrapping and boxing an expensive piece of jewellery. The bag was not plain brown paper, nor was it clear plastic with the shop’s logo stuck on to it. No, it was a bag fit for purpose. A thick bag with a wax-like surface. The attendant told me that sort of bag was the best way to keep fresh bread and that I should keep it there until the round was finished. With a knowing smile on her face she told me that she guessed it would be consumed in a couple of days. I snickered and told her she was very clever.
I took my ‘beauty’ home. I approached it as I would a good bottle of new wine, slowly. I put everything away that I had brought home with me that day. Then I changed my clothes, turned on some familiar, relaxing choral music and went about cutting into this bit of perfection sitting on the bread board. I decided to sample an edge piece first. As the blade of the bread knife cut into the surface crust, little pieces broke off and spread over the table. I continued to saw through the round and off came the first piece. The inside was firm yet porous. With a mix of whole wheat and white flour the interior was an off-white colour. I took that piece as it was and bit into it. Perfect! Crunchy crust with a firm bread interior that had a taste similar to the smell of the bakery and with a hint of saltiness. Just as it should be.
I then went a bit out of control and prepared a couple of slices with a layer of unsalted butter. Out of control might seem overstated, but for someone with a heart condition and old, clogged veins, consuming any butter is out of control behaviour.
I felt somewhat consoled as I ate that bread. My thoughts were no where else but in my kitchen, at home, senses alive as I experienced that familiar taste and texture. Butter is a treat for me these days. I hardly use it anymore. Nevertheless, I relish the need to taste good bread and butter once and a while, and this was one of those moments.
And so it went for the next couple of days. Knowing that incredible round was available, I was seduced into eating more bread than I normally do. I would steal into the kitchen, cut off a small piece and eat it, slowly. When the round was at its largest diameter I made a sandwich with two pieces and filled it with salmon and lettuce. It was special.
The final engagement with my round of bread was on the third morning when I toasted the last two pieces to help return the original smell, texture, and taste. I then put a finish on them as a woman might put on simple makeup. A base layer of unsalted butter with an accent of homemade strawberry-rhubarb compote. The assembly of those tastes on the warm toast was a perfect way to say goodbye to what was a beauty, all the way through its short lifetime. I know I had far too much bread during those two days and it probably all went directly to my waistline, but the consolation was that I felt very, very good while I consumed that round. It was all worthwhile and I intend to repeat that sensual experience soon.
Footnote: The ‘bakery’ in this story is Le Fournil in Canmore. They're closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. I no longer go up to Canmore on those days.