‘Hold the bread close to your nose and breathe in deeply. What can you smell?’
My mum and I are standing amidst an assortment of aspiring bakers in the cosy kitchens of Richard Bertinet’s eponymous cookery school in Bath. Any grumbles about leaving London at crack of dawn have long been suppressed by rounds of toasted Bertinet bread and butter on arrival, and we’re bright- eyed and ready to learn. Having undergone a set of AA-style round-the-room introductions – ‘my name’s Kate and I’m a baking addict . . .’ – we’re now ready to address the task at hand. Bread.
We all clutch a piece close to our noses and breathe in. There’s a slightly sweet smell, the unmistakeable tang of vinegar, and vague undertones of…
‘Armpit. Your bread smells like a sweaty armpit’.
You may have guessed, we’ve not quite got around to making our own dough yet. The bread in question is a commercially produced, foil packaged, supermarket loaf. Sealed to stay fresh for days on end, the limp slices within are soft, slightly sticky and rammed full of salt, sugar, vinegar and preservatives. The loaf is an imposter, incongruous in a classroom that is otherwise a temple to real baked goods.
Bertinet makes his point by squashing a slice in his hand. It squidges back into a stodgy ball of dough. Not long ago, he says, a number of councils sent out letters advising their local communities against feeding sliced white bread to the ducks as it was so hard for them to digest. It bloated, and in some instances even killed, the poor unsuspecting birds. Did parents receive the same letter home, advising against using this bread in sandwiches for their kids? I’ll let you to guess the answer on that one.
Maybe this all seems a little over-the-top, but it’s this enthusiasm for bread – and more importantly real bread made with good ingredients, with love and with time – that makes both Bertinet and his classes such a success. He’s a bread evangelist, a man from a country where bread is taken so seriously that the price of a baguette is regulated, and breaking bread marks the start of every meal. Bread making is an art form, but it’s one he wants to share; there’s no sense of superiority in Richard Bertinet’s skill, just pure passion. And it’s contagious.
After a rousing introductory session and demonstration of his unusual kneading technique (I say unusual, apparently it’s fairly standard in French bakeries, but vastly different from the technique described in so many British baking books), we set about making our first batch of dough. It’s straight in at the deep end, and Bertinet’s hands-on approach means we’re soon slapping and folding, lifting and aerating the dough, walking it across our worksurfaces with little plastic scrapers and encouraging it into stretchy, silken balls.
Some take to the technique quicker than others, but there’s plenty of opportunity to practice with two different doughs to make and a variety of shapes and flavours to try – simple slashed fougasse, cheese and olive breadsticks, foccaccia slick with pockets of fruity oil and a crusty white tin loaf. All of these need time to prove, but hunger is kept at bay with various edible interludes throughout the day– rounds of toast, buttery, golden stollen studded with rum-soaked fruit and(are you sensing a theme?), a lethal concoction of rum-soaked prunes dropped into mid-morning cups of coffee or tea.
The whole session lasts nearly five hours, taking us on a step-by-step journey through mixing, kneading, proving, shaping and baking our dough. With our loaves in the oven and the kitchen beginning to fill with the irresistible aroma of freshly baked bread, Bertinet finishes the class with flamiche, a quiche-like bread from the North of France filled with soft melting leeks and sprinkled with cheese. As it disappears into the oven to bubble and bake, we’re given one final lesson in how to arrange a beautiful bread basket, before sitting down to devour the fruits of our labour, accompanied by salads, meats, cheeses and dozens of jars of potted pickles and preserves.
As we’re leaving, we have the opportunity to make some purchases from the kitchen shop. Buoyed with enthusiasm, my Mum buys an enormous block of fresh yeast and I start eyeing up the various cookery books, as well as a pot of little lames, perfect for slashing the top of a loaf. Richard Bertinet follows my eye, smiles and hands me a brand new lame and a packet of blades. ‘A present. I’ve had mine as long as I can remember. This should last you a lifetime little loaf’.
This perfectly sums up the experience of baking with Richard Bertinet. His enthusiasm, his kindness, and his passion to change the way we think about bread, not just today, but forever. If my lame lasts me for a lifetime of baking, I love the thought that it was given to me by this brilliant baker, and that a little bit of his excitement about bread will be baked into every loaf I make.
Top Ten Bread Tips from thelittleloaf (for what they’re worth)
I’ve been baking my own bread for nearly a year, and with this course under my belt and 2012 fast approaching, I’d like to share some of the things I’ve learnt. If you’re not already a bread baking fanatic, or are only just starting out, I do hope some – or at least one – of these tips will inspire you; to make your own bread, to think about where it comes from, and to enjoy it as much as I do.
1) Real bread matters. Eat good bread and you will be happier, healthier, more satisfied and more fulfilled. No nasty add-ins (I’m talking E-numbers, preservatives etc, not lovely things like herbs, cheeses, spices and seeds) – just good, honest ingredients.
2) Good bread comes from good dough. It might sound obvious, but if you don’t get the basics right, don’t expect miracles to suddenly happen when you sling your loaf in the oven.
3) Good dough takes time. I’m not talking hours and hours, but you do need to allow time for your dough to rise, to prove, to bake. Too much yeast or too warm a dough will produce a crumbly bread that dries out quickly. Be patient, and you will reap the rewards.
4) Love your dough. Be gentle. Treat it like a baby. You wouldn’t pummel, push and knock about a baby, so don’t do it to your dough (ok, you probably wouldn’t dust your baby with flour and bake it in the oven, but you know what I mean).
5) Dough loves air. Whether you follow Richard Bertinet’s kneading technique, or adapt to your own method, just remember that you’re trying to get air into the dough, not knock it out. This will help it rise and create a lovely, light loaf.
6) The wetter the better, and stick to recommended ratio of ingredients in your recipe. If your dough seems sticky, don’t add flour, continue to work the dough and it will become smoother and more elastic. Adding flour simply makes for a drier, door-stop–like loaf.
7) Use fresh yeast if you can. It may seem like more hassle, but it produces the very best bread. And you can freeze it. Who knew? I thought this would kill the live bacteria, but apparently it’s fine. Richard Bertinet says so, and his word is gospel
8) When first mixing your ingredients, keep the salt and yeast apart. If they mix, the salt will kill the yeast and stop it from working.
9) Get your oven as hot as possible before baking, and use a water spray to add mist to the oven. This will help you to achieve the perfect crust.
10) And finally, have fun. Remember that while baking is all about rules and timing, some rules were made to be broken. I’ve read in a number of places that you shouldn’t slice a loaf until fully cooled – it’s still full of steam and slicing too soon can yield a denser, doughier slice. But I defy anyone, on occasion, not to tuck straight into a freshly baked loaf of bread, hot from the oven and slathered in butter. It’s one of life’s greatest, simplest pleasures.