People - Helen Underwood
Helen Underwood is an extraordinary woman. Loving, intelligent, giving, independent and gutsy.
Her home and bakery are also quite magical. One of the warmest, most relaxing homes that I have had the pleasure of visiting. She and her husband Mark have raised three fabulous daughters in this home - each off on their own individual paths. She also makes extraordinary bread. Fairy dust falls liberally from her fingers.
She now shares her baking skills by teaching others to bake beautiful bread - at her home and bakery just outside of Cambridge. It is a unique and very personal way to make something that is so fundamental to creating homes.
Helen shares with us how childhood memories, emotional connection, safety and familiarity helped her build the right home for her and her family.
She has also been kind enough to share her recipe for a very delicious soda bread - just in time for the last of the wild garlic and a long weekend to enjoy time to bake.
What made somebody else's home feel like my home the minute I walked in the door? It wasn't, after all, a likely candidate. This house had been inhabited by an elderly lady for many years. It had damp, woodworm and dodgy electrics. The paint was peeling, the floorboards crumbling and the whiff of old dog was inescapable. But, we had barely seen the ground floor before I turned to my husband, mounting the stairs behind the estate agent, and mouthed, 'This is it. This is the one!'.
I have reflected on this a great deal, as we have worked to restore the old cottage and make it ours. What was this feeling that overwhelmed me the minute we walked in? In no small part I think it had to do with the vernacular - the familiar fields, lanes, trees and cottages that surround us. My fondest childhood memories abound from visits to the family farm not five miles from here. There, I was free to roam, to explore, to wander the fields with the family dog, to play with the perennial litter of kittens in the barn and to bury myself in forgotten corners with the books I was left to devour. All without adult attendance or intervention. Virtually forgotten. There, I could just be.
So when a farmhouse cottage in lanes familiar to me since my youth became available, in many ways it already felt like home. A wonderful place to raise our young family. A place from which to roam in safety. A place to grow. And slowly, as we repaired and painted, restored and created, we have made a place where we are comfortable to just be.
The damp has gone (we discovered a huge inglenook behind the living room wall which, once opened up, cured the damp), the electrics are fixed and the woodworm held in abeyance for now. And we've slathered the walls with rich deep colours, in spite of the small windows because, somehow, light finds a way.
And my favourite room? The kitchen - my place of work, where I spend so much of my time: the ever-lit stove in the corner, the pantry full of last season's bounty and the passageway into my bakery full of spices, honey and All Things Good. And it's no coincidence that the hue I chose for this room - this place of comfort and companionship, where I teach and cook and laugh and chat - is dark green. That same shade of the now lost but not forgotten farmhouse kitchen of my youth.
Being in my kitchen, my happy place, baking bread or tarts or biscuits, surrounded by family or friends, fills me with an enormous sense of well-being. And being able to share that space with others on our baking workshops is an enormous privilege. I love being able to welcome people into an unintimidating and relaxed space, where I hope people feel immediately at ease. They can concentrate on the learning and leave behind the stress and anxieties of the outside world.
Teaching is my joy. Bread making is such a fundamental skill and one largely forgotten in the UK. There's a real renaissance in craft in the modern age. And not before time. In many ways, it's our salvation. We use our hands and absorb our minds to produce a thing of skill and beauty. It's incredibly mindful, with great restorative powers. My students leave with a sense of amazement and pride in what they have accomplished. And, as I always tell them, it's the start of a journey - a safe place from which to roam.
My own wanderings are taking me to southern France and the hills of Tuscany, where I will be running residential workshops later this year. In France, I will be joined by chef, author and fellow sourdough baker, Hilary Cacchio to run a five day culinary workshop and in Italy, I will be revisiting the stunningly beautiful Castello di Potentino to run a residential bread retreat. Charlotte Horton and her brother, Alexander Greene (nephew of Graham Greene) have restored this magnificent castle, nestled an almost-hidden part of Etruscan Italy, and run it on those same principles of provenance and sustainability that are so dear to my heart.
Running my baking school, both here and abroad, allows me to share the passion for the things I love - to mentor and encourage, to wander and explore and to send others on their own journeys. Because life on our travels is made much sweeter knowing that somewhere, nestled among the trees, lanes and byways, is the place we call home.
I'll put the kettle on...
You can see more of Helen’s beautiful bread - and book a course here.
Images by Kalina Krawczyk.