The School, tucked away down a side street in Bath is welcoming and as you walk through the door promises an experience. It just looks dedicated to really good bread, and a subtle smell of fresh yeast and baking permeates the atmosphere.
Over coffee and toast – home- made Sourdough naturally, you get to know the other students (12 in our case), before donning aprons and meeting the man himself.
Full of Gallic charm and with a great sense of humour Richard Berthinet sets the tone for the day in his introduction. A discussion on bread from supermarkets – or bread related products as he prefers to call it – makes you realise that bread from commercial bakeries is not bread as we know it. Comparing the smell of a commercial sliced pan to a wash cloth used to clean down after a busy day he then crushes the slice into a compact ball and explains that is what happens in your stomach.
No wonder a sandwich can make you feel positively bloated.
Four ingredients are needed to make good bread, flour, water, salt and yeast. Then reading the ingredients from a commercial loaf he lists the 10 15 additional elements and asks why? Purely to make the bread consistent and quickly. But, at what cost?
Today we will be using just the four and allowing the bread to prove and rise, each stage taking as long as a commercial loaf does from initial mix to sliced, packaged product.
Instead of wooly, pap we will be making breads which require chewing and allow the acids in saliva to start the breakdown of the crust and crumb making it much more digestible than the suck and swallow commercial sliced.
Then it’s on to the actual making. Combining the four basic ingredients to a sloppy sticky dough – “a bit like porridge” he tells us – we pour the mix onto the work surface. There is no flour on which to place the dough – baking books which advocate a well-floured surface and which advocate adding more flour if the dough is sticky are fundamentally changing the recipe we are told.
The bread is not kneaded either.
This beats all of the air out of the dough when we should be trying to get it in.
Instead the dough is lifted, one end slapped down on the bench, and folded over and stretched. Use of a plastic scraper to ensure a ball of dough forms is required on a regular basis – every four stretches – and amazingly a smooth silky dough begins to develop within minutes.
Proved for an hour the dough is poured back onto the surface – this time with a literal pinch of flour on which to rest it. There is no knocking back!!! Again the logic is why punch all of the air and gasses that have developed during fermentation out?
The dough is taken for a walk around the work-surface with the scraper to ensure the smoothness before being worked in to the final shape. Very careful cutting and moulding – “building the spine of the bread” produces the final article which is then risen again before baking.
This produces a bread with a good crust and smooth crumb with real taste and texture.
The first bread we made was Fougasse, an interesting bread which looks like the leaf of a Swiss Cheese plant, with patters produced by cutting lines with the ubiquitous scraper. Even though we all followed the same basic pattern each Fougasse was unique. Different angles for the slashes, lengths of cut and degrees of separation of the sides produced different results. The result was a collection of artisan breads – or as Scott one of the chefs at Ballymaloe House once said “ Artisan, another word for inconsistent” Inconsistency of shape aside what came out of the oven was a crusty chewy delight, which Richard then used as the centrepiece of his basket of breads for the table.
We also made an olive oil dough converted to focaccia, with two toppings and some baguettes as well as standard loaves, trimmings were made into breadsticks with olive or cheese fillings.
Richard converted one dough to a a large, pizza like square, covered with onions, cheese and herbs with an egg and cream mix which then got baked off.
Finally we sat down for lunch, our breads, some soup, a selection of meats, rillettes, olives, a glass of wine, cheeses and coffee.
What a great day, so much learning, hands on practice, personal attention from Richard and his two teachers and good companions in the kitchen. Go there if you have an interest in bread, the only danger is as Richard put it “You will turn into a bread bore!”