One of the nicest things about being a chef is how willing other chefs are to share their knowledge, their experience and their passion with you. It is rare to find a chef who is not passionate about what he/she does, and this passion is contagious. Working with food is a constant learning process: however many times you have made something and however scientific and precise you are about it, there is always the potential for disaster, and thus always the opportunity to learn something. All the chefs I know are hungry for knowledge: eager to learn more about what other chefs are doing and how they are doing it. In what other job would you find employees choosing to go to other offices on their days off to learn more about the industry? For chefs, however, it is common to do ‘stages’ in other kitchens: spending a couple of nights in another kitchen and learning new skills from a willing teacher. This is the joy of cooking, it is a social activity, a fun activity and a constant learning process: in kitchens you can bounce ideas off each other, use and adapt others’ ideas; test, tinker and trial numerous variations of endless recipes. There is nothing more satisfying than spending time learning from people who are passionate about what they do.
Yesterday I spent a day at The Almond Thief (@thealmondthief) bakery at Riverford Farm (http://www.riverford.co.uk/) Shop in Totnes, with bread afficionado Dan Mifsud. Dan is a self-taught baker, and he began baking in October last year. Yes, that’s right, he’s been baking for a grand total of 8 months. I’ve been baking for about 8 years and I’m still too lazy to measure my ingredients precisely and I almost always screw something up. But Dan is a scientist: a former biologist who taught himself baking in a few months, then took the plunge, bought a 4K bread oven and set up in the backwaters of Devon. And thank God for the good people of Devon that he did: because Devon needs good bread.
The Almond Thief is still relatively young: only 6 weeks old, and Dan is still developing his signature recipes. My favourite, and the first I tried – the loaf that inspired me to ask for work experience – is a classic white sourdough. This sourdough is made with a simple half-rye, half-white starter, Shipton Mill flour, water and salt. Nothing more, nothing less. A perfect loaf: dark,crusty and chewy on the outside; springy, toothsome and moist on the inside. Perfection. It tastes almost exactly like my favourite loaf from a tiny French bakery in Chinon in the Loire which is the best bread I’ve ever tasted. Not bad for a newbie on the bread scene, I’d say.
Yesterday Dan showed me how it’s done, and in return I smashed his favourite Puffin mug, spilled water and flour all over the floor, purloined some of his ‘starter’, and left with a bag full of goodies and a head full of ideas. He reminded me of the fundamentals: chiefly that whilst I can bang on and on about instinctive and intuitive cooking and all that pretentious guff, there are some areas of cooking where precision matters, and baking is one of them. Whilst instinct and intuition are still important for judging timings etc, it is essential to always be precise with your measurements, and as precise as possible with temperatures too. Thus, if you are serious about baking good bread, and I mean really good bread, you will have to accept it is going to take time, and cost you a little money to get the ingredients and a few bits of equipment. But the equipment will last you a lifetime, and economically it still works out much cheaper making your bread at home. Making your own bread is time-consuming and requires precision, accuracy and dedication. But it is worth it, and if you want to try, I’m willing to share my secrets (or Dan’s secrets) with you. So, faint-hearted readers turn away now: afficionados read on…..
This is your rising agent: also known as a starter or a levain. It is a living thing: a flour putty harbouring natural yeasts which are present in the flour you use and trapped from the air around it. It needs constant care and attention to remain alive.
50g rye flour
50g white flour
Mix the whole lot in a tupperware container with plenty of room to spare and put a lid on it.
Discard 100g of the starter and add:
25g white flour
mix well and seal
Days 3 – 5
Repeat the process above. By day 5 you should have a bubbly, porridge consistency mixture which smells sweet and sour at the same time. It should look like this:
Now you’re ready to bake.
Basic White Sourdough
350g water at 29 degrees
25 g water
Ideally you would start your bread at about 5.30 or 6 on a Friday/Saturday night, when you got back from work, so it would be ready to bake in the morning for fresh bread at breakfast/lunch the next day.
For the initial stage, mix the starter and water until it forms a runny liquid. Add in the flour. Mix well, until there are no dry patches or lumps. Cover and leave for 20 minutes. Now add the salt and 25g of water. Knead this in well until you have a smooth and even dough. Cover and leave for 30 minutes. Now, with wet hands, lift the edges of the dough from the bowl, left them over the whole mass, and fold, then turn the bowl and repeat, lifting and folding to trap the air in. Do about 3-4 folds, then cover and leave for another 30 mins. Do this for another 2 hours: in total the bread will have had 5 folds over 3 hours.
Now shape the bread. You can find videos on YouTube showing you how to do this: or you can simply buy a proving basket, flour it, and shape the dough into a rough round, then plop it in. Cover and leave overnight in the fridge.
In the morning, preheat the oven to its highest temperature (most often this is 220). Plop the bred onto a floured flat tray, slash the top with a sharp knife, and , spraying some water into the oven first, place it on the top shelf. Bake for 40-50 mins, until brown and crusty.
Your mother will now need to be ‘fed’ every day, at the same time (morning/evening) to stay alive. Use the same ratio: discard half, replace with 50g flour and 50g water. You can ‘pause’ it in the fridge for a couple of days then re-awaken it by discarding half, then replacing the half with 50g water, 50g flour. Within two days of this it should be ready to bake with again.