Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Bread and Beyond

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Back in 1981, when I lived in a Karachi that was a totally different country, the German firm that I worked for sometimes got student interns from Germany. One such was Günther. About four years my junior, he soon became my friend because of our common interest in the outdoors.

Together we haunted the Sandspit beach during the nights and early mornings to watch the turtles coming ashore to lay and sometimes to rescue emerging turtle hatchings from marauding feral dogs. We swam the delightful tarn of Bund Murad Khan, near Hub Dam and discovered a dozen little ponds of crystal water where we could dive to nearly six metres depth and watch the fish shimmering past us.

On his first visit to my flat he noticed I had a spare room and he said he could only just afford the company’s guest house and offered me a sum to take him in as a guest. By then we were pretty good friends so I took him in all right, but without the offered rent. Günther was not just an engineering student; he was a great cook and baker. From him I learned the craft of German baking and cooking.

Three years later, when I got married, I impressed my new wife with my culinary expertise. Though she took over the cooking, I kept at making the cakes which we, being young and without cholesterol worries, consumed with abandon. Over time, the cakes and puddings gave way to the more healthful whole-wheat breads of various kinds.

By the late 1980s, I had become acquainted with two of the greatest mountaineer-explorers of the 20th century: Eric Shipton (born 1907) and his lifelong friend and climbing partner William Tilman (born 1897). I began by reading Shipton’s Blank on the Map, a masterpiece on the Shaksgam Expedition of 1937, to map the until then largely unexplored Central Karakoram Region and the Shaksgam River basin. With this book began an enduring admiration for this man’s extraordinary mountaineering skill, stamina and down to earth attitude. To match this brilliant person and great human being was his mate, Tilman.

From their work, both men come across as witty, unprejudiced (against ‘natives’) and singularly incapable of being irked or tired. What was more important was that in an age crowded with exploration and mapping work in progress, these two were writers of exceptional skill who could tell of their adventures in a light-hearted human vein that captured not only the spirit of the work but also revealed a good deal about themselves and the men who travelled and worked with them.

As I read more of their work and about them, I learned that despite the great accomplishments they already had by the late 1930s, both men never took themselves half as seriously as some of us with far more paltry achievements do. It was said about the duo that they could plan a major mountaineering expedition ‘on the back of an envelope’ and simply get on with the work.

I think it was from Blank on the Map that I first learned of Tilman taking time out from the arduous work of survey and map-making in high and desolate places of the north to bake his own leavened bread. I thought that was a unique and wonderful thing to do. What with the hard travel, living under canvas with the barest necessities and weighed down by the instruments of survey and mapping, Tilman yet could think of taking yeast along!

Then I did not understand the technicality because I lived in Karachi, a rather warm place where dough did not take long to prove. But upon moving back to Lahore, I realised that I could not bake my breads during the colder months of year: the dough would take hours to rise in the cold kitchen. And if I put it in a warmer room it would collapse in that brief time of being removed to the oven. And here was Tilman who could bake the perfect loaf of bread in remote mountain valleys never any lower than 4500 metres. William Tilman was a marvel.

In 1990 I acquired a copy of Tilman’s The Seven Mountain Travel Books, containing all his work in a single volume. The back cover of the book has an image of Tilman, crumpled pants, worn-out sweater, pipe in smiling mouth, one hand akimbo and the other balancing a round and well-risen baked loaf on an ice axe. The caption below this image reads, ‘The master baker, whose unctuous self-satisfied smile betokens the production of a sound loaf (balanced on the ice-axe) and not the achievement of some prodigious climb.’

These words come from Tilman’s 1948 book China to Chitral, an epic of exploration and adventure in the Hindu Kush, Taghdumbash and high Pamir in what is now Gilgit-Baltistan, Chinese Xinjiang and Wakhan. He had been at this baking in unusual places and under extraordinary conditions for more than twenty years. I who greatly admire this remarkable man who was never known to tire from a day of hard work, appreciated him the more. Incidentally, there is only one image of a fatigued, utterly done in Tilman sitting amid rocks with his head hanging down between his knees and that is in J. R. L Anderson’s High Mountains and Cold Seas, a biography of Tilman’s.

I have still not perfected winter baking in Lahore but I do bake my own breakfast bread when the weather is warm and the yeast works on the dough. There was a hiatus in this baking for some years, but it has resumed since we moved into our own home thirteen years ago. Though we enjoy my bread for breakfast, there is one disadvantage: in winters when I cannot bake, even the best the bakery bread tastes and feels like cardboard.

So, here I am with a fresh loaf of leavened whole-wheat and linseed bread just out of the oven. I was tempted to balance it, very much like William Tilman on my own ice axe, but since I was all set to head for a wedding, I refrained. The ice axe would have looked a trifle incongruous with a suit and bow-tie! In good time, this image will be replaced with another to copy the man I have so long admired so much.


Postscript: In their lifelong togetherness, Shipton was never called Eric by Tilman because, so Tilman noted, Eric was ‘such a silly name’. Shipton called him Bill always and made fun of a phrase that Tilman used often: ‘Show a leg!’ This was usually first thing in the morning when Tilman was out of his tent and wanted the others to get stirring. I love the phrase and use it sometimes but to my great disappointment no one has ever asked where I got it and what it means.

Related: So much more than foodie factor

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 12:00 AM,

12 Comments:

At April 9, 2014 at 11:32 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Is this the survival skill in difficult terrain?

 
At April 9, 2014 at 12:51 PM, Blogger Nayyar Julian said...

Looks tasty.

 
At April 9, 2014 at 12:52 PM, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

It is survival in the comfort of home for me. For Tilman it was as you suggest.Baking/cooking is a great stress reliever and much fun.

 
At April 9, 2014 at 4:11 PM, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Come over and try it sometime, Nayyar!

 
At April 9, 2014 at 7:24 PM, Blogger Amardeep Singh said...

The name "German Bakery" continues to be a famous generic brand in hill stations across India, though it is not the Germans who own any of them these days. One such "German Bakery" is owned by a Sikh gentleman in the city of Leh (Ladakh).

 
At April 10, 2014 at 5:43 PM, Anonymous Muhammad Athar said...

It is a pleasure to read the narration written by the Great Salman Rashid

 
At April 11, 2014 at 8:51 PM, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

German Bakery! We do have a genuine German running a bakery here in Lahore. His sourdough bread is divine!

 
At April 11, 2014 at 8:51 PM, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Thank you, Athar!

 
At April 7, 2015 at 9:36 PM, Anonymous Saadia Hameduddin said...

Mr. Salman, loved your piece. I just moved to Lahore and have been on the look out for sourdough bread with no luck. Where is this divine bakery you've mentioned in your comments?

 
At April 8, 2015 at 8:56 AM, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Saadia, sorry to have missed your comment. They used to have an outlet near Shapes (FCC). It was (is?) called Roshni. BTW, I have a recipe for pure German sourdough. Tried it and love it.

 
At April 8, 2015 at 10:24 PM, Blogger Saadia Hameduddin said...

Oh what a coincidence, I've already asked there and apparently they don't have sourdough bread :(.
It would be awesome if you shared your recipe!

 
At April 9, 2015 at 5:14 PM, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Saadia, please send me your email address. Click "About" you'll find mine there. I'll send you my sourdough recipe.

 

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My Books

Deosai: Land of the Gaint - New

The Apricot Road to Yarkand


Jhelum: City of the Vitasta

Sea Monsters and the Sun God: Travels in Pakistan

Salt Range and Potohar Plateau

Prisoner on a Bus: Travel Through Pakistan

Between Two Burrs on the Map: Travels in Northern Pakistan

Gujranwala: The Glory That Was

Riders on the Wind

Books at Sang-e-Meel

Books of Days