I love bread.
There’s no need to elaborate on that, is there really? Because, I’m sure that most of you, if not quite all, feel the same. But I’m going to anyway!
Bread is a glorious thing.
Freshly baked, with some salty butter and homemade jam. Bursting with delicious fillings of all kinds. Toasted and crunchy or covered in melted cheese. Eggy, dipped and fried. Filled with fruit and soaked in the juices for a pudding. Scooping up hummus, garlicky yoghurt and other dips. Made into pizza…
And it’s not difficult to make your own!
As a young teenager, I went through a phase of making bread from scratch. I had a favourite book – part of the St Michael cookery library, I think – which guided me through making loaves and buns. I had great fun kneading and plaiting and shaping and baking but, as is the way with kids and interests, I moved on to something else after a time.
Fast forward a few years… Pete got interested in baking after a visit to stay with a friend in Scotland. Sheila introduced us to butteries (which really ought to be called lardies, given the ingredients) and was determined to recreate them when we got home. Butteries lead to biscuits, and then resumed interest in cakes (which he’d learned from his mum) and, eventually to bread.
We soon got a bread maker with points from our credit card – remember those schemes? But we quickly grew frustrated with the sameyness of all the loaves it produced, not to mention pulling the paddle out of the arse of every loaf we made!
We found an American recipe book recommending using the bread maker to mix, knead and rise the dough and then shaping by hand and transferring to the oven to bake. This gave a definite improvement over baking in the machine, but the bread still wasn’t as good as the best loaves to be found in good bakeries.
Pete moved on to making bread completely by hand, but was soon seduced by no-knead and low-knead techniques.
Dan said: “For years we used to say that it was important to knead in order to “develop the gluten”, but we now know this isn’t entirely true. High-speed dough mixing, the sort used in most commercial bakeries, or the ultra-high-speed Chorleywood process used to produce the well-known sliced brands, shows that the final elasticity and resilience in the dough can be increased by the amount of energy put into it. When dough is mixed relatively slowly by hand on a worktop, even by the most accomplished bakers, the changes that occur will be mostly due to the length of time since the water was first added, and the characteristics of and interactions between the ingredients. So you can knead the dough fast, slow, or even not at all, and end up with similar results.”
Dan Lepard can be credited with getting many Brits baking their own bread and my mum swears by many of his recipes (which are far more varied than just bread). His book, The Handmade Loaf, is a really great resource.
But no-knead (or very little knead) bread left me unsatisfied. It’s texture was too dense and it didn’t make my heart sing, like really great bread somehow does.
Interestingly, Dan Lepard commented recently that “we’re all moving back towards slight kneading”.
Which is good as I’d already started pushing traditional kneading recipes in Pete’s direction.
At just the right time, we received an invitation to review a 2-day bread-making course. Taught by Tom Herbert of Hobbs House Bakery and held at Bedruthan Steps Hotel, older sister hotel to the Scarlet, which we visited a few months ago.
Unlike the Scarlet, Bedruthan Steps is very much a family hotel. Rooms, public spaces, meals and activities are organised to help parents and children find their perfect balance of independence and family time and service is friendly and helpful.
Style-wise, Bedruthan isn’t sleek and sophisticated like the (much newer) Scarlet – its unique original architecture and design features have been heavily disguised in a series of later changes, resulting in a rather muddled and dated look. And much of the interior needs some love and attention provided by a similarly gifted designer as did for the Scarlet.
But that doesn’t take much away from the plus points such as a superb family swimming pool and spa area and an absolutely fabulous adult-only side with steam room, sauna and the biggest jacuzzi pool I’ve ever seen, all with views out to sea.
Bedruthan Steps has an old-fashioned charm which, coupled with an understanding of the needs of families (that has come from many, many years of experience), explains why it’s so popular. Childless couple that we are, we’d pick the Scarlet first, but we found many thoughtful touches that we knew would appeal hugely to our many friends with kids.
The course was held in the small kitchen attached to an upstairs conference area. 9 of us came to learn from Tom Herbert, amongst our number were two food bloggers (myself and Niamh), a number of baking enthusiasts from almost beginners to very experienced, another baker Tom who also runs baking courses, and one of the three sisters who owns and runs the two hotels.
Over the course of two days we learned and made white bread, soda bread, sourdough, pancakes, challah and hot cross buns.
If you don’t think that sounds like very much for two days you’d be wrong!
Because, from the same white dough that we mixed and kneaded on starting the course we made plain white bread, seed bread, pita bread, pizza base, focaccia and small bread rolls. Our sourdoughs included plain, olive and fruit versions.
In fact, one of the most important lessons we took away from the course was how extremely versatile the basic yeast dough and sourdough recipes could be when combined with a little imagination and experimentation.
The other key lesson, if you’re asking, was the ability to recognise when dough has been kneaded enough. That change in texture and elasticity, in the look and feel of what is almost a surface skin stretched taut over the rest, is hard to describe but easy to recognise once you’ve seen it not just once or twice but several times in the space of two days.
Everyone got stuck in mixing, kneading, shaping and finishing the various breads we made. It was a physical course, but a fun and rewarding one.
Throughout, Tom shared countless tips that would help us achieve great results back at home.
So dedicated was Tom to the cause, and so eager were we, that we even returned to the kitchen shortly before midnight on day 1 to shape the risen sourdough into loaves which we then left for a second rise before baking them the next morning!
One of the nicest things about the course was regularly seeing our hard work transformed into bread throughout the two days.
One of the recipes that was far simpler than I realised was foccacia, which we made from the basic white dough.
Tom also demonstrated using the basic white dough to make pizza bases. To our amazement, there was no dough stuck to the ceiling after this exercise!
Tom started mixing sourdough in huge quantities, on a large work surface, before cutting it into smaller pieces for all of us to work individually. We mixed some of it with a mix of dried fruits and some with whole green and black olives.
Last time I made hot cross buns they were really not cross buns as I was too lazy to cross them. This time, we did them properly, crossing them once they’d risen and then glazing them once baked.
Challah is a little like brioche. Tom showed us how to plait and glaze our breads before decorating with black poppy seeds. I went a bit mad and tried a five strand plait (with instructions from Tom on how to do so). The plaiting worked but my finished challah was too long and uneven in width so I formed it into a heart shape. It looked marvellous when baked, if I say so myself!
We finished the course exhausted but elated by how much we’d learned and achieved.
And not only did we get to take home some of our mountain of bread, Tom also invited us to take pots of sourdough starter home with us – it’s a starter that’s been in continuous use for 55 years. Ours is thriving, and we’ve named him Levi the Levain.
Since the course, Pete’s been making lots and lots of wonderful breads, both sourdoughs and yeast breads. They’ve been an absolute delight and we’ve been enjoying them plain, toasted, with cheese, with jam…
Our next project is one Pete’s been talking about for a few years now, and that’s to grow our own wheat, harvest and mill it into flour and make it into bread. We always knew we’d only have space to grow enough wheat for a handful of loaves, though now we’ve got an allotment, we can expand that just a little.
To our surprise and delight, this long-held plan coincides with the Real Bread Campaign’s Bake Your Lawn project, encouraging children to “grow it, mill it, bake it, eat it”.
Wish us luck!
For more information about courses at Bedruthan Steps, contact the hotel directly.
Tom Herbert also runs courses at his family bakery, Hobbs House Bakery.