(Note – this post was written in November 2012, and has been copied over from my previous blog. All the information remains relevant and correct/corrected. Except the collection of bread below, all photos in this post were taken by Veronica Burke of Bread Matters.)
I haven’t bought a sliced supermarket loaf in a long time, but I’m a long way away from bread mastery. After my struggle to produce a good loaf for Britain’s Best Dish (baking four loaves a week was just a conveyor belt of disappointments) I’d finally managed to turn out something you might enjoy eating by getting the bread maker to do the dough, and then shoving it in the oven. I couldn’t even get the bread maker to do a decent job otherwise.
Then I went on Andrew Whitley’s Bread Matters bread-making masterclass, ‘A Weekend of Bread and Wine‘ (have you ever heard of a more appealing combination?) – though at a day and a half of baking, it was more like five masterclasses divided by tea, cake and lunch. The class was run in partnership with the Horseshoe Inn at Eddleston; most of the other students were staying there, and that evening there was a wonderful sounding dinner at the Inn, complete with talks about bread, four courses stuffed with local food (accompanied by the best bread in Scotland, of course) and biodynamic wines. Sadly I couldn’t make it as I was at the also-wonderful Charlie and Evelyn’s Table supper club [2016 note: now ended as they have moved to Perthshire to open Ballintaggart Farm], but after the two days I came home with this, all made by me:
Check out my pain de campagne!
When Andrew told us of an ex-student whose bread always rose better than everyone else’s because he was blessed with hands full of good bacteria, I began to wonder if I was the opposite – cursed with hands that killed loaves. I was proved wrong. The only thing killing my loaves was not knowing how to make them properly.
Andrew makes sourdough breads. Of the five breads we made, yeast was only added to the croissant dough. I’d always thought sourdough was something you could only make if you had a lot of time to lavish on bread-making, but with forward planning it’s easy to incorporate it into a working day. We all left with some of the Bread Matters rye leaven, so I’ll use that as an example: refresh the leaven in the morning (not feed it, we were told: you feed animals, not starters), come home from work and make the dough, leave it to prove for 2-4 hours while making dinner etc, then bake it before bed. Keeping enough leaven back to make a new loaf next week, of course.
The class took place in Andrew and Veronica’s home in West Linton – near Whitmuir Farm Shop, for a point of reference. Classes have been run from Macbiehill Farmhouse since the company moved from Cumbria in 2009, and they’ve built a beautiful kitchen and work space. Large windows show weather fronts coursing across open fields towards the Broughton Hills, and lunch was had with the sun warming our backs, even in November. Seven of us, plus Andrew, worked at wooden tables, with the focal point being the huge wood-fired brick oven that, sadly, gave everything an edge that’s going to be missed with my domestic range. We all had a go at depositing our pain de campagne into the oven from the wooden peel (slowly forward then draw it sharply back), most of us committing the rookie crimes of either shoogling, hesitating or, in my case, totally missing the stone I was aiming for. The loaves survived, despite everything.
Macbiehill is set in five acres of certified organic farmland, and everything we ate flew the flag for an organic, sustainable way of life. Everything was recycled, ecological and energy-saving; the farmhouse itself is run on renewable energy. The bread flour is organic, as was all the wonderful food Veronica prepared for us in our regular breaks – soup, artisan cheese, mushroom quiche, salad from the garden and quinoa with fried green tomatoes, fresh cake and smart fruit skewers.
Good bread’s not just about taste for Andrew, but is very much interlinked with the fundamentals of creating an economic and sociological template that can bring about a sustainable, ethical and practical way of living, from an individual point of view right up to a national one. He co-founded the UK-wide Real Bread campaign, and is a founding member of the Whitmuir Breadshare Community Bakery. He is campaigning for better distribution of Scottish wheat, more wheat to be grown here, and more research into the impact of crap vs proper bread on the human body. (See an article of his on why bread is making so many people sick here.)
An emphasis of Andrew’s good-humoured, extremely knowledgeable tuition is stripping away the many myths that even experienced bakers ascribe to. The need to constantly ‘feed’ leavens, for example (a waste of time. Did you know there’s even a sourdough starter hotel in Stockholm that will unnecessarily feed your starter for you when you’re away?). The need to knead some doughs – the leaven does all or most of the work to sourdough bread. We didn’t knead the Borodinsky rye bread at all. What we have come to expect of our croissants – they’re supposed to be crescents, for starters, the clue’s in the name, and not those mass-produced, pappy, lazily straight rolls of Chorleywood air that have become ubiquitous. And there were tips, as well, picked up from a career of baking – Andrew started and ran the famous Village Bakery from 1976 to 2002
I’m not going to run you through how we made everything – you can try it all for yourself in Andrew’s book, Bread Matters, a copy of which we were all sent away with. I highly recommend you do – there really is nothing like your own croissants, and I’ve not even tried my stollen yet.
Andrew’s top five tips from my Bread Matters course (picked by me, not him!):
- To pick up thin pastry, marzipan, royal icing etc after you’ve rolled it out, quickly press the rolling pin across one end so the pastry/marzipan sticks to it, then roll it up over the pin, before unrolling back over your pie/stollen/baked good.
- Don’t knead dough on a floured surface – if it’s going to stick, wet the surface with water rather than use flour. More flour = stiffer, denser dough. Similarly, don’t be afraid of a sticky dough, better too wet than too dry.
- If your bread is sticking to the bottom of your bread tin, sprinkle a layer of seeds, e.g. sunflower or coriander in before you put your dough in. The heat of the oven makes them release some of their oils, helping bread turn out more easily.
- ‘Air knead’ bread by stretching it between your hands, rather than pummelling on the work surface. It allows more of the dough to be worked at a time, and means you don’t need to flour the work surface, thereby adding more flour to your bread and making it stiffer.
- To get wet dough neatly into your bread tin, as with our Borodinsky rye bread: scrape as much dough from your hands as possible (or hand, as you should only mix dough with one hand); wet your hands and your dough scrapers; scrape the dough from the sides of the bowl down to the middle and scoop it all onto one wet hand; with the other wet hand shape it until it’s neat (like clay); pop it into your tin. Simple!