Learning in London [Part one]

Bread Ahead bakery
Bread Ahead bakery. Source: Flickr

My notebook had only ever been occupied by my timetable and scrawls of shorthand practice, but by the end of the summer it was brimming with formulas, figures and dough schedules.

What I needed to learn now didn’t lay on pages or on blogs or forums, only within a bakery, amongst mixers and dough benches. It was only here that I could pick up the priceless nibs of information that experience with the dough can teach. My only problem now lay in what I had experienced already. My time at Pump Street Bakery had left an impression on me for better and for worse. I now knew just how good bread could be, and wherever I went to learn next it was going to be hard to settle for anything less than that.

After a handful of e-mails, phone calls and a short bout of man flu, I had managed to arrange some time in Borough Market’s brand new bakery and bread school: Bread Ahead. I knew that bakers Matthew Jones & Justin Gellatly (inventer of the St John doughnut) were leading the bread side of things and despite the short time I would be there, I knew I was in for a real treat. Excited, nervous, and a little daunted – I packed my bag and boarded the train to London.

Justin scoring loaves. Source: Spitafields Life
Justin scoring loaves. Source: Spitafields Life

My alarm rang at 4am the next morning, notifying me of the time rather than waking me. I had little sleep whilst trying to recount everything I had learnt so far, so as not to appear (as much of) an idiot amongst the bakers I would be working with the next day. I wrapped up and made my way through the dark and empty streets of sleeping London. In the shadow of Southwark Cathedral I found the bakery, a wide glass fronted building oozing warm light and a sensuous smell into the surrounding dark streets.

I was expecting to be shown the sink and broom, but after a brief tour I was put to work on their famously delicious bread pudding, cutting up the (very few) loaves left from the day before. “Nothing is ever wasted here!” Matt exclaimed.

Every time a new loaf was pulled from the oven Justin would bring it over to me and explain the scoring technique, the flour blend used, the hydration and how long it had been rising the night before.”Real bread should only ever be scored with a razor blade, and baked with a crust that makes your gums bleed,” Justin said, knocking the side of a white sourdough he was holding.

Bread Ahead stall
Bread Ahead stall @ Borough Market. Source: Flickr

Gradualy the Shard lit up in front of me as commuters arrived one by one, all peering through the glass front of the bakery weary-eyed. Once the last loaves had been baked we began to pull a tower of proving baskets from the fridge, all waiting to be filled with today’s dough.

Justin had a strange and unique way of teaching, one that has stuck in my mind ever since. Earlier on in the day I had mentioned that I was relatively inexperienced in shaping, and was expecting little or no contact with the loaves that day. But, as the huge tubs of dough made their way to the bench Justin summoned me over and put me to work shaping the boules.

He watched on and would say nothing, which after 3 or 4 loaves began to concern me. Then he would stop and ask why I was shaping it that way and what I wanted the loaf to look like at the end – something I had never particularly considered before. I quickly lost the closed-mindedness I had arrived with, and instead of just following orders I started to think of the effects that my actions were having on the bread.

The day ended as quickly as it had started and before I knew it I was on my way home, back to the pile of textbooks and deadlines that awaited me. Over the course of the next two months between  lectures, seminars and inconvenient library sessions, I would bake when I could.

Days were dedicated to books, and nights were dedicated to bread. One batch at a time I was getting closer to the loaf I was after. This became a regular routine until one day in November I received an email with the title: ‘When can you start?”