This week I was lucky enough to spend a morning with the lovely Danny McCubbin from Jamie’s Food Tube, teaching him how to make sourdough bread. After studying this versatile and complex dough for the last few years, I knew it would be difficult to summarise it’s process in a short video.
I hope I have illustrated the fundamentals and most importantly shown how simple, fun and delicious basic sourdough can be. If you decide to bake the recipe, please tweet me your pictures!
I wrote the first post of this blog during my time at a very special bakery. At the end of each dough shift I would walk home up a steep and wet Forest Hill Road – tired, covered in flour, but inspired. Brick House bakery was an inspiring place to be, and an environment that I doubt I will come across again in it’s entirety.
I have so far met two kinds of baker: he who bakes with his hands, and he who bakes with his heart. In December last year I was lucky enough to spend two weeks working with the latter of the two, Fergus Jackson and his team, in an industrial unit in Peckham.
I started learning from the second I tied my apron, and continued to do so right through until I hung it up again on my last day. I began to gather little gems of information given to me every shift, and before I knew what was what I had a treasure chest. “When you fold the dough, pick it up as you would a book, and try not to claw at it with bent fingers” said Julia, a Canadian who had been baking with Fergus since Brick House opened in the summer of 2012. Passing comments like this may not have seemed much to the bakers at the time, but collectively they have changed the way I work with bread.
Every baker had contact with the dough from start to finish, with absolute minimal involvement from machinery. All senses were engaged in monitoring the dough’s progress, and making alterations in the method where needed. Without realising it I was learning something that no book could ever teach me: bread sense.
The slow-fermented loaves were baked daily to a standard that was dangerously close to perfection, both in taste and aesthetic. When I wasn’t baking I was laughing, and at no point did I want to be learning what I was learning anywhere else in the world. Almost all of the bakers previously had careers in other trades, but had turned their hands to baking. This communal choice meant that there was an extremely high standard of passion and enthusiasm. Standing at the dough bench shaping loaf after loaf was where they wanted to be, and this created an incredible environment to work in.
I was taught the importance of temperature, technique and time at Brick House, all of which have made me a better baker, and have given me more confidence when I bake at home. More importantly, I witnessed the importance of bread. As cliche as it sounds, bread does bring people together. It’s the building block of communication, it speaks no language and can be shared by anyone, anywhere and at anytime. Seeing people visit the bakery while we were at work, in hope that there might be a loaf left from the last bake, proved to me its importance.
Fergus and his team, whether they would like to admit it or not, are changing the face of bread in London. They bake honest, wholesome and no-nonsense produce, and do so with a laugh and a smile that makes your loaf taste all the better for it.
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.
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.
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?”
A little over a year ago, on a weekend home from uni, I had my first taste of real bread. Never before had I considered bread and it’s possibilities, other than a sandwich or toast.
I cannot claim to be a life-long bread lover, as until I had sampled the dark caramelised crust and nutty open crumb of slow fermented bread, I hadn’t spared it much thought. The bread I am referring to is shaped, scored and baked just shy of 10 miles from my front door, in a village called Orford, in Suffolk.
Pump Street Bakery produce some of the finest naturally leavened bread around, picking up awards on a national and international stage. It is here that my curiosity for dough evolved into a passion, and ultimately an obsession.
I began baking at home immediately, not such an easy task in student halls of residence, searching books and the web frantically for the perfect recipes. I was amazed that with just three ingredients (flour, water, salt), such varied results could be achieved just by alterations in time and percentages.
I was quickly baking more bread than any one man could eat in a normal diet, so I started to sell my test-bakes to other students living close by, providing me with an opportunity to test more recipes, and giving them an alternative to the Chorleywood processed bread at a large ‘saving you money everyday’ supermarket close by.
Four months later and I was still chasing the perfect loaf, a little part of me hoping to never catch it. I realised that in order to find the bread I was after, I needed to return to where my bread mission had began, sat at the communal table of Pump Street Bakery’s cafe.
After half a dozen emails and tweets, and heaps of faith and kindness from co-owner Joanna, I had managed to secure a summer job at the bakery, waitering in the cafe where the bread and pastries are sold daily. As the summer went on and on, I caught a word with the bakers whenever I could, quizzing them with how’s and why’s.
I slowly began to understand Pump Street bread, and the slow fermentation techniques they employed to create their signature sourdough. Something I had not considered, however, only became clear to me at the end of my first shift in the bread section of the bakery. It was a huge piece of the puzzle that I had not even thought of, and that was passion. The bakers expressed it in different ways, but it was evident in every bit of contact they had with the dough. This passion made the bakery an exciting place to work and learn, and became infectious.
After a handful of 13 hour days, starting at the bakery and finishing in the cafe, the fatigue was catching up with me. I was struggling to fit sleep around family life, work, and my time in the bakery, but wasn’t willing to give up any of them. One morning when I arrived at the bakery, everything changed.
I walked through the shutter door to an incredible pattern of sound and light. Orange sunlight leaked through the wide windows of the bakery, catching particles of flour in the air and creating a haze of yellow light. The alarm from the deck oven rang, signalling the end of the doughs journey, and harmonised with the singing of bread on the rack, as the crust cooled and crackled.
It was then I knew I wanted to be a baker, and my journey to do so had begun.