RECIPE: Bread for Michaelmas, A 'Locavore Feast Day' for Urbanites | Sojourners

RECIPE: Bread for Michaelmas, A 'Locavore Feast Day' for Urbanites

Fresh homemade bread. Image courtesy Symbiot/
Fresh homemade bread. Image courtesy Symbiot/

As Americans continue to condense into urban centers, our ability to stay connected to the land that sustains us has become more fragile. Our disconnect will continue to have dire consequences unless we intentionally sow a creative relationship with the land and the people that work it. One way to connect urbanites with farming concerns is with the observance/celebration of Michaelmas on September 29. 

Never heard of Michaelmas? Neither had I, until I read the recipe for struan in Peter Reinhart’s Brother Juniper’s Bread Book: Slow Rise and Method as Metaphor. The ancient Celts baked struan, bread made with harvested grains, for Michaelmas. The day was a locavore feast. The more I researched Michaelmas, the more I realized this largely-forgotten holy day could be the day for urban churches to connect with the land.

What if on the weekend before Michaelmas churches offered locally harvested/sourced meals? What if churches imagined Michaelmas as the day to lift up compassionate and sustainable agriculture practices as part of its mission? What if churches offered Michaelmas as the holy day for urban populations to reconnect with the land and rhythms of life our ancestors intuitively knew?

Like most religious holy days, Michaelmas originated as an agricultural observation. The ancients Celts celebrated the last harvest after the equinox with bread, poems, songs, dancing, and feasting. To the protector of the harvest, Saint Michael the Archangel, they offered prayers and incantations.

Michaelmas could become the “urbanite-locavore holy day.” By the time the fourth Thursday in September rolls around, our tomato vines have shriveled and apples have dropped. September 29 is the perfect time to enjoy the peak bounty of the harvest season. 

By observing the day we can both reconnect with the land and deepen the relationships with the communities we will need in order to flourish. Environmental author and activist Bill McKibben has stated the best thing we can to do adapt in a changed climate is to forge deep relationships in small communities (like churches).  We cannot afford any more too-big-to-fail institutions. We need communities so small and deep they succeed. 

This week, deepen your relationships by going to your local farmers’ market and filling up your basket. Then invite over friends, family, neighbors and soon-to-be friends over for a local feast. Bake a loaf of struan (recipe here and below), write a blessing, place some “Michaelmas daisies” (or asters, or any local flowers) on your table, say thanks to those who nurtured the land, and have a joyous local Michaelmas meal. 

Struan Five Grain Bread

Adapted with permission from the author from Brother Juniper's Bread Book: Slow Rise As Method and Metaphor, by Br. Peter Reinhart, Addison-Wesley Publishers, pp.47-48.

2 1/2 cups bread flour (high-gluten)
3 tablespoons uncooked polenta (coarse corn meal)
3 tablespoons rolled oats
3 tablespoons brown sugar
2 tablespoons wheat bran
1 1/4 teaspoons salt
1 tablespoon instant yeast (or 1 1/4 tablespoons active dry yeast, dissolved in 4 tablespoons warm water)
3 tablespoons cooked brown rice
1 1/2 tablespoons honey
1/3 cup buttermilk
Approximately ¾ -1 cup water
1 tablespoon poppy seeds (for top)

In a bowl mix all the dry ingredients, including the salt and yeast. Add the cooked rice, honey, and buttermilk, and mix. Then add 3/4 cup of water, reserving the rest for adjustments during kneading. With your hands squeeze the ingredients together until they make a ball. Add water as needed to keep the dough pliable. Sprinkle some flour on the counter and turn the ball out of the bowl and begin kneading.

It will take about fifteen minutes to knead by hand. The dough will change before your eyes, lightening in color, becoming gradually more elastic and evenly grained. The finished dough should be tacky but not sticky, lightly golden, stretchy and elastic rather than porridge-like. When you push the heels of your hands into the dough, it should give way but not tear. If it flakes or crumbles, add a little more water.

Clean and dry the mixing bowl. Put in the dough and cover with a damp towel or plastic wrap or place the bowl inside a plastic bag. Allow the dough to rise in a warm place for about one hour to an hour and a half, until it has roughly doubled in size (it may take longer, depending on the temperature).

Forming Loaves
This recipe makes one regular size loaf of bread (about 1 1/2 pounds finished weight) or about 15 dinner rolls. Roll into a loaf by pressing on the center with the heels of the hands and rolling the dough back over itself until a seam is formed. Tuck all the pieces of dough or end flaps into the seam, keeping only one seam in the dough. Pinch off the seam, sealing it as best you can, and put the loaf, seam side down, in a greased bread pan. Spray the top with water and sprinkle on the poppy seeds. Cover and allow the dough to rise till it crests over the top of the pan, approx. 60-90 minutes.

Bake in a pre-heated 350 degree oven (300 if convection), for approximately 45 minutes. The loaf should dome nicely and be dark gold. The sides and bottom should be a uniform medium golden brown and there should be an audible thwack (or thunk), when you tap the bottom of the loaf. If the bread comes out of the pan dark on top but too light or soft on the sides or bottom, take the loaf out of the pan, return it to the oven, and finish baking until it is twackable. Bear in mind that the bread will cook much faster once it is removed from the pan, so keep a close eye on it. Allow the bread to cool thoroughly for at least 40 minutes before slicing it.

Rev. G. Travis Norvell is the pastor of Judson Memorial Baptist Church in Minneapolis, MN.  He strives to be an urban agrarian.

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