When people now ask ‘What do you do?’, I still find myself seeking to justify my sabbatical, pointing out that while I am a student, I did actually choose to leave my job. Scrawling your details on the back of a crumpled receipt doesn’t exactly have the je ne sais quoi of a business card, and it’s easy to get on the defensive in a society rife with status snobbery. Thankfully though, those I’ve encountered with disdain so far, well, I didn’t care for them much anyway. The truth is, I may not know yet where I’m heading, but you know what? I’m okay with that. Enjoying the moment rather than constantly looking ahead: a skill so important to master when I bake.
So back at college, bread is next on the menu. We take a ‘school trip’ to Shipton Mill near Tetbury which was bought and beautifully restored in 1981. The mill has been producing flour since the Domesday Book and, during a tour from a man more passionate about flour than I ever thought possible, we learn about the history of milling.
The traditional rotating stones used at Shipton have barely changed in principle from ancient times, with the addition of the modern, faster technique of roller milling – invented during the Industrial Revolution. The company’s passion for traditional processes and quality products is evident and they produce an amazing variety of flours from all over the world. On departure we’re handed goody-bags of flour to try out. I can’t wait to put them to the test.
Until the advent of the Chorleywood Baking Process in 1961, a traditional loaf contained flour, yeast, water and salt. Nothing more. By adding numerous chemicals plus three times the yeast, then mixing at high speed, modern white sliced bread was born. Forty per cent softer than previous loaves, lasting twice as long, and cheaper and quicker to produce, it changed baking for ever. Eighty per cent of all bread is still made the Chorleywood way, and today ‘nutritionally empty’ white bread still accounts for more than 50 per cent of what we buy.
Inevitably, mass production put many bakeries out of business, but thankfully in recent years the ‘artisan bread movement’ is changing that. While many believe bread makes them feel ill, there’s still a lack of concrete evidence to suggest modern bread is completely to blame. Professor John Warner at Imperial College London says ‘three-quarters of people who believe they have an allergy or medical intolerance to bread show no signs of any symptoms in blind testing’. Although, he also admits he prefers to eat a ‘simpler bread’ – in other words not Chorleywood. Whether the health implications concern you or not, the superior taste of a ‘real’ bread can’t be denied. Rather than the glutinous, zombie-like form of the modern slice, real bread is fresh, nutritious and delicious even on its own.
Two weeks and a multitude of breads later and I’ve discovered muscles I never knew I had. We practice master baker Richard Bertinet’s French method of working the dough and it’s a winner.
The results are incredible: prune and cardamom bread, lavender and honey loaves, sourdough, baguettes, brioche, sesame rolls, pizzas, ciabatta…the list goes on. Inspired I decide to organise my first Bitch, Bake ‘n’ Booze night – a gathering at home for friends keen to learn too.
With six Bitch, Bake ‘n’ Booze members and bread enthusiasts gathered round the table, aprons donned and ingredients at the ready, the slapping and folding begins. There’s dubiousness as to how it will come together, but sure enough everyone eventually turns out a great-looking olive dough.
With a plethora of ingredients for pizzas, focaccia and other flavoured breads prepared we practice the ‘booze’ part of the event with a well-earned wine break. Excitement rises as the dough doubles in size, pizzas are prepared and they’re straight in the oven, with the flavoured other breads following after their second proof. Success! Ten minutes later everything has been devoured. Best of all it really wasn’t that difficult and the delight on everyone’s face says it all.
Words & Pics: Clare Zerny