Estate agents will tell you that it helps to sell a house on show day if you have a bread baking in the oven. The rich aroma and its association with homeliness seems irresistible to humans. We have apparently been making bread for 300 centuries.

Baking bread is very satisfying, even therapeutic, especially if you do it the old fashioned way with two risings. I’ve made leavened bread since university days and never find it a chore. The transformation of just three simple ingredients – water, flour and yeast – into a wholesome food seems almost miraculous.

As one kneads the dough it becomes silky, smooth and elastic. Your hands smell fantastic. Not to ruin the mystery, but what one is doing by kneading is crosslinking two proteins, glutenin and gliadin, to form gluten (from the Latin for ‘glue’, named by the Jesuit scholar who isolated it). The molecular structure of this protein traps the air produced by the yeast (the same type of yeast used in beer), which is why bread needs flour with high gluten content; cake flour won’t work. In recent years, Eureka Mills has been producing quality, slow, stone-ground flours from wheat grown by crop-rotation and good-tillage practices. It makes for excellent breads, and works out to around R7 a loaf (add R3 for yeast).

It is possible to use an electric beater, but any such appliance that mixes at more than 40 strokes a minute injures the bread (literally damages its cells), accelerates rising and decreases flavour. This is why factory bread needs additives to cover its poor taste.

Today’s instant dried domesticated yeasts make baking very reliable. The air is of course full of wild yeast, and this is what you start experimenting with when you get into the fascinating world of sourdough breads, making ‘starters’ or ‘sponges’ for them (though it is actually the bacteria in the dough that is responsible for the sourness which in turn attracts the yeast).

Never rush the rising by putting the dough somewhere too warm. You want the flavours to develop. For a classic white or plain brown bread the first doubling should happen in about two hours and the loaf will take another hour to rise (or “proof”) after it has been punched down (‘degassed’ is the technical term) and shaped. When the dough has risen you realise you are dealing with a living thing. It gives one a thrilling feeling. Bread is itself “the staff of life”, and we still talk about an agriculturally productive place as “the bread basket”.

No wonder the Bible has hundreds of references to it. Most of us know “I am the bread of life” and “give us this day our daily bread”, but there is also, “For by means of a whorish woman a man is brought to a piece of bread” (Proverbs 6:26).

No whorish woman guided me to the new Knead bakery in Kloof Street when it opened in December, a great addition to my neighbourhood. One doesn’t bake one’s own every day, and Knead does it terribly well. On sojourns in Europe there is nearly always a good family bakery nearby, London being an exception. It’s something we’ve missed in South Africa, but in Cape Town this is fast changing. Knead has now opened in five locations in as many years. Evan Faull, of the Faull family that started Silwood Kitchen, is clearly on to a good thing with his neighbourhood bakery cafés.

Knead specialises in artisan breads, favouring sourdoughs, putting this enterprise in a very different bracket from your supermarket bakeries. They use “no preservatives, improvers, premixes or stabilizers”.

They offer over a dozen breads including French baguette, ciabatta and various rolls. I particularly like their scrumptious, flat “Turkish” loaf, the straight sourdough, and their buttermilk rye (the breads keep well enough for up to three days if stored properly). Sometimes, late afternoon at their Wembley Square café, you’ll be offered two loaves for R30 or some such deal. Don’t wait for bargains though, certain breads sell out quickly and you won’t always get your first choice.

Knead also creates handmade confectionaries, sweet and savoury pastries, tasty hut-shaped pies, muffins and cupcakes.

Attached to the bakehouses are café areas with heavy duty wooden tables and airy spaces. They serve coffees, light meals, brioche, charcuterie, and breakfasts, and are popular places with the laptop crowd. I find the Kloof Street premise a bit echoey and noisy and only use it as a bakery. The Wembley Square café is cosier; their Muizenberg spot, in a great old building, faces on to the beach.

And if you prefer to try your own hand at bread-making, you’ll find a useful chapter titled ‘Breaducation’ in Faull’s book Café food at home.

Knead, Shop 17, Palmyra Junction, 9 Palmyra Road, Claremont. Tel: 021 671 0802.
Knead, Wembley Square, North Building, McKenzie Street, Gardens. Tel: 021 4624183.
Knead, Surfers Corner, Beach Road, Muizenberg. Tel: 021 7882909.
Knead, Shop 7, Dean Street Arcade, Dean Street, Newlands. Tel: 021 685 7769.
Knead, Shop 16, Lifestyle on Kloof, 50 Kloof Street, Gardens.

This article first appeared in the Mail and Guardian on 3 February 2012.

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