Small Beginnings

Two round loaves of sourdough

Mixed: 9 pm

Molded: 12:30 pm next day

Baked: 4 pm

Left one loaf of sourdough on the front porch of a friend–a friend who is a lot like Caddie Woodlawn…

Recently I’ve been reading through Caddie Woodlawn, a short novel by Carol Ryrie Brink as part of my daughter’s homeschool history studies. The story follows Caddie and her siblings as they learn and grow and stomp through the woods of Wisconsin in the early 1800’s. The story is endearing–Caddie is allowed to run with her brothers, and because of this freedom ends up having a heap of adventures.

Near the end of the book the author inserts just the first few lines of a poem written by Charles Mackay, a Scottish poet. The poem touched me and I wanted to share it here since it is so much about giving. (By the way, I’ve found this poem under three different titles and I can’t seem to find which one is the original. They all fit the meaning of the poem. They are: Song of Life; Small Beginnings; and Little and Great.)

The poem is made up of four short and separate stories. Each one is about giving something small, something that may seem insignificant, but that may amount to very much later… If you have time, read the poem aloud, and enjoy both the rhythm of the language and the meaning. And may we all seek to do some good that may later benefit someone else!

Small Beginnings
by Charles Mackay

A traveller through a dusty road strewed acorns on the lea;
And one took root and sprouted up, and grew into a tree.
Love sought its shade, at evening time, to breathe its early vows;
And age was pleased, in heats of noon, to bask beneath its boughs;
The dormouse loved its dangling twigs, the birds sweet music bore;
It stood a glory in its place, a blessing evermore.

A little spring had lost its way amid the grass and fern,
A passing stranger scooped a well, where weary men might turn;
He walled it in, and hung with care a ladle at the brink;
He thought not of the deed he did, but judged that toil might drink.
He passed again, and lo! the well, by summers never dried,
Had cooled ten thousand parching tongues, and saved a life beside.

A dreamer dropped a random thought; ‘t was old, and yet ‘t was new;
A simple fancy of the brain, but strong in being true.
It shone upon a genial mind, and lo! its light became
A lamp of life, a beacon ray, a monitory flame.
The thought was small; its issue great; a watch-fire on the hill;
It sheds its radiance far adown, and cheers the valley still!

A nameless man, amid a crowd that thronged the daily mart,
Let fall a word of Hope and Love, unstudied, from the heart;
A whisper on the tumult thrown, – a transitory breath, –
It raised a brother from the dust; it saved a soul from death.
O germ! O fount! O word of love! O thought at random cast!
Ye were but little at the first, but mighty at the last.

Fifth Century–The Brewer and the Baker

Three loaves of Jim’s Irish Brown Bread–from Jim Lahey’s My Bread

Mixed Tuesday and Wednesday eves

Molded–Baked–All that…

Gave one loaf to neighbors on the next block that we sort of, kind of know. Ate one loaf. Gave the third loaf to Brian at Telegraph Brewing. Here he is by his shiny tanks…

These past two days have been all about brown, Irish-style bread. Who would think that bread made with a small scoop of bran, a lot of wheat, both white and whole, plus buttermilk and brown ale would be so very good! The loaf that we saved for ourselves was gobbled up in no time. It’s already being requested as a favorite by the kids. We slathered the slices with a hazelnut chocolate spread. Oh, my…

Most of what went into these loaves makes them quite authentic to Saint Brigid’s time. There would have been both whole wheat and “fine” (white–what they preferred, if they could afford it) flour available. There would have been buttermilk, especially as Brigid and her mom tended cows, including one white cow with red ears… And there would have been brown ale. Brewers and bakers back then were important folks to have around. Have you ever seen this poem attributed to Saint Brigid, where she wishes lakes of beer for everyone? There are a variety of translations from the original; this is one that I like:

I would like the angels of Heaven to be among us.
I would like an abundance of peace.
I would like full vessels of charity.
I would like rich treasures of mercy.
I would like cheerfulness to preside over all.
I would like Jesus to be present.
I would like the three Marys of illustrious renown to be with us.
I would like the friends of Heaven to be gathered around us from all parts.
I would like myself to be a rent payer to the Lord; that I should suffer distress, that he would bestow a good blessing upon me.
I would like a great lake of beer for the King of Kings.
I would like to be watching Heaven’s family drinking it through all eternity.


So, there I was hanging out with my husband and my four year-old at Telegraph Brewing Company here in Santa Barbara.

Brian, the proprietor and Master Beer Guy, was kind enough to give us a quick tour and talk to us about “spent barley” and “yeast trub” and the whole world of brewer’s yeasties. Though I have some very potent sourdough starter at my disposal, and I do think the sour starter is a very valid method of rising dough that was used in the fifth century–a method that pre-dated those cute little packets of instant yeast :)–brewer’s yeast is mentioned so often in my research that I just had to try and see what all the fuss was about.

Brian first let me taste some of the spent barley–it was sweet and warm and delicious, reminding me of a satisfying, hot morning cereal–and then bagged some up for me to bring home and bake with. Here it is, still warm in its copper tank…

This barley is the grain that is going to eventually make a batch of experimental brown ale that Brian is trying out. Normally he sends his spent barley off to a farmer in Carpinteria, who uses it in his compost mix, but today that farmer got one baggy less, thanks to me! I’m anxious to fiddle with barley. It seems to be the poorest of the grains used in the fifth century–the one that monastics seem to have used frequently in their bread baking. I’ve never eaten bread made with barley, have you? I have a batch of slow-rise bread working right now, that has some of that barley mixed into it.

After a quick tour of the brewery we got down to brewer’s yeast business. Brian opened the tap off the bottom of his Robust Ale, which he makes each spring, and after a plug of hops sludged its way out…

The nice brown, batter-like yeast mixture filled the cup. Ooh, it smelled so good, so alive and ready for adventure.

So we headed home and I immediately got to work. I’m sure Saint Brigid’s days were full of chores, too. I had laundry, and dishes, and notes to write, but I wanted to get some dough working as well. While the baby played, and the washer trudged through another cycle in the other room, I mixed up a new starter, using just the brown ale brewer’s yeast, mixing it with a cup of flour and a bit of water. My very own Telegraph Starter. I then mixed up a batch of barley/wheat bread, using brewer’s yeast instead of the typical 1/4 teaspoon of instant yeast… and also started a batch of French bread, using just the yeast trub as a leavening agent. We’ll see. So fun to experiment with all these natural grains and methods. So fun to head back several centuries and pretend to be a part of another time.

Tomorrow I’ll let you know the results of today’s play.

In the meantime, I know one thing. The people in Haiti are suffering, and I’m here baking in my cozy kitchen. One reason I love to bake, and knead by hand, is so I can pray while I work that dough, watching it change before my eyes… Please join me in praying for those people, who could use more than a loaf or two of bread. Who could use some mercy, and many hands reaching their way in love.