For some reason, I find myself fascinated by Māori bread. When I was kid I used to love making damper bread – basically just flour and water mixed and cooked on long sticks over a campfire. For a long time that’s what I thought Māori bread was. How wrong I was. I have since learned that Māori bread, commonly called Rēwena, comes in a number of guises. For a start, the generic word for bread is parāoa. Then there’s Rēwena parāoa (Māori bread) made with a potato starter; parāoa takakau (damper bread – real takakau has no raising agent); parāoa parai (fried bread or scones); and parāoa kinikini (dumplings).
I’m not a big bread eater myself but there’s something very enticing about a big, fat, freshly-baked Rēwena loaf straight out of the marae oven. Cut warm and spread lavishly with butter and jam, it’s a tasty treat that’s hard to beat. I keep telling myself I’m going to make my own Rēwena but I keep delaying because I know that, once made, I’ll scoff the lot. So instead, I thought I’d pass on a few tips I’ve gathered lately.
To make Rēwena Bread, you need to start by making a ‘bug’ or starter – the rēwena (leaven). I’ve heard that in some whānau, these starters have been passed down through generations, feeding hundreds of people along the way. I like the idea of that ‘accumulated culinary history.’ Every cook has their own favourite recipe but here’s an easy one to kick off.
Boil 2 peeled potatoes in unsalted water, Strain, remove potatoes and save the water. It is the potato cooking water that is required. When the water is lukewarm, whisk in 1 cup of plain flour until it is a smooth batter. Cover with a clean tea towel and leave 1.5-2hrs in a warm place (a hot water cupboard is always good) to start the fermentation process.
When you come to make the bread, split the dough in two, saving half for the next loaf of bread. The reserved dough can be kept in a sealed container in a warm, dark cupboard. To keep it ‘active’, feed it with half a teaspoon of sugar the night before the next batch of bread is needed. I suspect there are as many versions of this as there are Rēwena bakers - some people for instance, boiled the potatoes to mashing consistency and leave the soft potato in the starter mix – but this one should get you started, then you can experiment further.
To make the bread, combine 4c plain flour with 1tsp salt and 1tsp baking soda. Make a well in the centre and add the rēwena bug. Mix until it forms a dough and then knead lightly for 10 minutes. Place in a buttered tin, cover and leave to double in size in a warm place (possibly overnight if the temperature is cooler).
It’s easy to bake in loaf tins at 200degC (reducing heat to 150degC after 10 minutes) for 1-2hrs, depending on your over and the load size. Test with a skewer to see if it’s cooked. When done, turn it out of the tin and cover with a damp tea towel. This creates steam and softens the crust. Happy Baking!