What is a ritual? What is slow living?
A religious or solemn ceremony consisting of a series of actions performed according to a prescribed order.Oxford Dictionary
The dictionary definition of a ritual is not entirely what I mean in this post. I am not sacrificing virgins on my countertops, nor performing satanic rites. Instead I want to talk about the things I do regularly in when it comes to cooking that follow a particular process that I find therapeutic in some way.
This is combined with the notion of slow living. The idea that life happens in the details, not in the lottery wins and promotions, but instead in caught glances and meaningful actions. For me, slow living is made up of a series of rituals to take time over and relax; some may even call it self-care.
Why are rituals important?
It’s the therapeutic element that makes rituals important. Today we are surrounded by a constant, mounting pressure for speed. Online shops give you 15 minutes from adding an item to your basket to purchase, crash diets offer results in only 7 days, and last month Netflix has been testing the ability to speed up the consumption of programming and films so that you can binge-watch efficiently. There is now a guilt associated to spending ‘too much’ time on a single activity, where panic masquerading as busyness is worn as a badge of pride.
I find that food and drink are effective escapes from the anxiety caused by the desire for instant gratification. There are shortcuts that can be made, or bought, and from time to time those are invaluable. However, I believe that there is an evermore forgotten pleasure in the actions surrounding the satisfaction we seek, using well-made tools to create the sounds, smells and ultimately tastes that we anticipate. The ritual of making fresh coffee in the morning, from the smell of grinding the beans to listening for the moka to percolate takes less than 10 minutes, while you can collect your thoughts, plan your day or do last night’s washing up. It forces a brief moment of calm where you must concentrate on what’s in front of you.
Cooking is full of these mindful moments, if you make good habits. Baking bread, picking blackberries, carefully trickling the oil into eggs as you make mayonnaise. These are things you cannot rush, which starts to sound awfully indulgent, but that’s kind of the point. You can indulge in hurriedly buying clothes so you can watch films at 1.5x the speed the director intended, or you can indulge in stirring a risotto, breathing in the vibrant scent of herbs and rich stock, knowing that this will nourish you and anyone else that may eat it.
One new, one old: 2 kitchen rituals I wouldn’t be without
Baking is something that gives a lot of people a lot of comfort. From memories of making cakes with your Grandma to being absorbed by the camaraderie on the Great British Bake Off, it is an incredibly wholesome act. For me bread baking is where it’s at, specifically sourdough bread.
When I was at university beating up a lump of dough was a great way to remove tension – I suppose not all rituals have to be peaceful. Essay proving harder that anticipated? Hit that loaf. Flatmate caught stealing your spices (again)? Time to knead some rolls. It was a great habit that I got into, and mainly because it gave me some kind of physical, emotional, outlet whilst still being centred on food. Some people run, I make bread.
For my 21st birthday my brother took me on an advanced bread making course at River Cottage. We made sourdough and pizza, croissants and fougasse. I learnt so much on that course that I went home and feverishly scribbled everything down in a notebook that I still use for foody thoughts and ideas to this day.
Great habits, much enthusiasm, so I must be a pro by now, right? Well, no. As with all these things, sometimes life just gets in the way. I finished uni, moved home and began working, commuting for 2 1/2 hours each way, each day. (You do the maths.) And so, baking bread was one of a few things that I didn’t keep up, and eventually I gave in and threw out the sourdough starter lurking at the back of the fridge.
Fast forward 5 years and I’m back on the sourdough trail. This time it seemed harder to begin with. More failed attempts, poor feedings, overproving, underbaking – it has taken many experiments to get right. But now not only do I have at least 1 steadfast recipe that I make once or twice a week, but I feel like I’ve earned it. The bonus is that I get to work out my frustrations, whilst also knowing that I’m avoiding the additives and sugars often found in loaves elsewhere.
If baking is something that has a familiarity, a feeling of nostalgic comfort, then for me fermenting is the opposite. It’s new and exciting, and I have only just begun to scratch the surface. Though, I should say Harry and I, because he is in charge of our initial foray into fermentation – kimchi.
Kimchi has grown ever popular in recent years, which I couldn’t be more thrilled about. The spicy cabbage is completely delicious, with an almost pickled tang, and to make it better it’s so good for you, as with anything fermented, due to the gut-friendly bacteria that the process creates.
Maybe because it’s so new to me, or because there is space to get really quite ill if you mess up (hello, botulism), this feels like a much more analytical process than making bread. However, it’s a similarly mindful, meditative feeling, focusing on the one thing in front of you to create something delicious.
First up Harry makes a Korean chilli paste. There are more involved types called Gochujang that call for rice and take months to ferment themselves, and then there are more simple variants, which is what we’re currently experimenting with. Whipping up a batch of the chilli paste is not only enjoyable, but also super useful, because as well as the kimchi it can be used in stir fries, marinades and basically as a sriracha alternative. There’s cabbage prep: chopping, brining, rinsing before adding said chilli paste and leaving to ferment for a few days (depending on how strong you like your kimchi), then putting in the fridge.
I love the process of making kimchi after the initial making it is out of the way. We currently have a big Kilner jar on our kitchen table fermenting away. It’s day 2, it’s beginning to bubble, and you can see the liquid rising having been drawn out of the cabbage. We covered the jar, leaving the lid off, because as the kimchi ferments carbon dioxide is released, which causes pressure to build up in a closed jar that can lead it to explode if you’re not careful. The kitchen smells delicious.
I’m now looking for other things that we can ferment. Gherkins perhaps, or maybe yogurt. And as for new rituals for the kitchen, I’m always looking for more ways to add mindfulness into my cooking, so do let me know if you have suggestions.