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The Wabi Sabi of Artisan Bread

Carolina Avendano
Carolina is a Canada-based writer and journalist who enjoys learning and sharing information about how to lead a meaningful life. She is passionate about traditional culture, handmade crafts, the connection between humans and nature, and human rights.
Published: March 13, 2022
According to Japanese philosophy of wabi sabi, everything beautiful is imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete in nature. Traditional artisan bread meets these criteria in its delectable crusty simplicity. (Image: Flo Maderebner via Pexels)

Wabi sabi () is a world view rooted in Zen Buddhism that believes that life is made of three simple realities: nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect. Thus, this philosophy proposes that everything that exists – including humans, nature and objects – is authentic in nature and its beauty cannot be replicated. 

This philosophy has its origin in Japanese culture and its meaning can be found in the words wabi – the beauty of simplicity, and sabi – the passing of time and subsequent deterioration. Wabi sabi celebrates what is simple, modest and aged; and finds beauty in asymmetry, roughness and imperfection.

Japanese handmade ceramic pots are each completely unique and unrepeatable, conforming to the philosophy of wabi sabi that the beauty of the natural world cannot be replicated. (Image: Ksenia Chernaya via Pexels)

However, contemporary ideals seem to go in the opposite direction from this centuries-old philosophy. Current aesthetics place perfection as the main goal, and praise youth, symmetry and longevity as the most desirable traits. This has resulted in laborious efforts to achieve and preserve perfection, and adopting methods to deny and resist the inevitable deterioration of things.

The food we eat is a telling case. Wheat, for example, is highly refined in order to obtain a fine-textured and shelf-stable white flour. In the process, the highly nutritious germ and the fibrous bran are removed from the grain, lest they interfere in the perfectly golden color and light texture of the factory-made, fluffy pastries and breads that, unfortunately, have little nutrition. 

The manipulation of wheat has resulted in bread that is highly processed and, from a Japanese perspective, less beautiful. This staple food is commonly mass-produced to ensure uniformity from loaf to loaf, and also contains artificial additives to extend its shelf-life. Luckily, the art of breadmaking is not dead, and we can still find a beautiful loaf in its natural and nutritious form: artisan bread. 

Artisan bread meets the wabi sabi standard:

Artisan bread refers to a traditional loaf that is usually made by hand. It is commonly offered unpackaged and is characterized for having a distinctive flavor and aroma as well as a simple, asymmetric and rustic look.

Wabi sabi teaches that there are three principles of beauty: Imperfection, impermanence and incompleteness. These characteristics, manifested in traditional forms of art, are also present in artisan bread.

Imperfection: The asymmetry of artisan bread

At the core of artisanship is the mastery of a craft. When our hands are used as the main tools to create, precision and accuracy cannot always be achieved. Thus, the result obtained is always different.

The lack of uniformity, far from being a flaw in artisan products, is seen as a source of authenticity. It follows that a bread loaf that is made by hand using longer and more traditional processes, is unique in shape and can hardly be replicated.  

Artisan bread loaves have irregular forms and may have uneven glazing. But these ‘flaws’ and ‘blemishes’ demonstrate the imperfect nature of handmade creations, making them consequently unique and beautiful.

To tell if bread is truly artisan, one can tap a loaf on the bottom. If the sound produced is hollow, it is a sign that the bread is not dense and thus, it is authentic artisan. (Image: Iva Torres via Pexels)

Incompleteness: A few simple ingredients

Artisan bakers are commonly depicted as skillful crafters that make delightful creations from a few simple ingredients. In fact, most artisan bread is made from just flour, water, yeast, salt, and most importantly – time.

The label on store-bought loaves often displays a long list of ingredients that many consumers may be unfamiliar with, such as flour treatment agents, emulsifiers, preservatives, reducing agents and flour improvers. These ingredients are added, among other reasons, to promote a quicker fermentation process, often at the expense of flavor and character.

The lean formulation of artisan breads ensures a lower sugar and fat content. Whole grain options, especially those made from ancient grains like kamut, emmer, einkorn and spelt, offer a higher nutritional value.  Moreover, its longer fermentation periods allow the enzymes in the dough to begin to break down the gluten present in most bread flours, thus benefiting the gut. 

Artisan breads are characterized by few ingredients and lack of dough conditioners and preservatives. (Image:Klaus Nielsen via Pexels)

According to Nathan Myhrvold, author of The Modernist Cuisine, bread was “one of the most basic human foods, and at one point in time, it was the primary source of calories for all of our ancestors.” 

Traditional breads, simple and nutritious, may seem wanting and unsophisticated when compared to the myriad of modern bread options. However, in light of Eastern Wisdom, this incompleteness and simplicity make artisan bread all the more valuable. 

Impermanence: A short shelf life

With time, baked products naturally become stale, hard, dry and moldy when left at room temperature. Advanced processing technologies and innovative ingredients have led to significant shelf-life extension. Breads that used to last six or ten days, can remain soft, springy and mold-free for up to three weeks.

Artisan bread, naturally preservative-free, has a shelf life of only four to five days. If stored in the fridge, this bread becomes stale significantly faster, and if frozen, its flavor diminishes in time. 

It seems as though no technique can preserve the matchless taste, aroma and texture of a freshly baked artisan loaf. Artisan bread has a wheaty flavor, ranging from mild and lightly sweet to tangy and sour. It has a rustic exterior with a deep golden brown crunchy crust, and a soft interior with large irregular holes. Its texture can range from crunchy to chewy and soft; and its aroma is so particular that its perception becomes an individual experience. 

Artisan bread is usually offered unpackaged- commonly in paper bags or baskets- and consumed immediately after baking for maximum freshness. (Image:Anna m. w. via Pexels)

The ephemeral nature of fresh artisan bread makes the rushed love affair more precious. It is the fleeting character of its taste, aroma and texture that remarks the impermanent nature of beauty.

It has been explained by science that smells have the power to evoke memories. Thus, the experience of enjoying bread in its most natural and austere form has become, to many, a source of nostalgia for earlier times, expressed in the words “like grandma used to make it.”

As expressed by the author Andrew Juniper, “If an object or expression can bring about, within us, a sense of serene melancholy and a spiritual longing, then that object could be said to be wabi-sabi.”

Rediscovering beauty through tradition

Our current pursuit of perfection can be manifested in the simple act of getting rid of anything that seems damaged, flawed or no longer useful. But as Zen masters see it, pots, cups and bowls that become damaged should not simply be neglected or thrown away. They should continue to receive our respect and attention, since the chips and cracks left by damage are simply a manifestation of the forces of nature.

Repairing them with care is a virtuous deed. Fixing the damage or turning its sequels into art, symbolizes a process of reconciliation with the flaws and accidents of time. The renovated piece would then be imperfect, more honest, real and thus, fascinating.

Kintsugi is the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery by mending the areas of breakage with lacquer inflected with a very luxuriant gold powder. As a philosophy, it treats breakage and repair as part of the history of an object, rather than something to disguise (Image: Haragayato via Wikimedia Commons)

As we break our bread to enjoy it, its imperfect artisan form reminds us of a philosophical principle: there is beauty in imperfection. The inherent imperfection of nature proves its authenticity, meaning that each element of existence is unique and cannot be replicated.

The wabi sabi philosophy is one of gratitude for what exists and the way things are. By contemplating the most natural elements of life and reflecting on the circumstances, stories and events that shaped them – including humans – we may be able to see beyond the apparent simplicity of things and perhaps find beauty and fascination in everything that surrounds us, including the rough-looking loaf of bread from our local bakery.