Although sourdough bread has become extremely fashionable in recent years, it’s fair to say that its chewy texture and characteristic tang are something of an acquired taste. Personally, I can’t get enough of the stuff (though there will always be a place in my heart for the guilty pleasure that only a slice of totally plastic white bread, dripping with butter and Marmite can provide), which is why, many months ago, I put myself on the waiting list for Laura Hart’s wonderful Bread and Breakfast Workshop. The workshop takes place once a month throughout the year over the course of a weekend: a three-and-a-half hour session on Saturday evening followed by a shorter session on Sunday morning.
In my excitement at finally getting an email alerting me to the fact that my time on the waiting list was over, I didn’t really take on board what the workshop would involve beyond mastering the art of sourdough. And I couldn’t quite believe my luck when I realised that we would also be making croissants, Danish pastries, cinnamon buns (one of the bakery’s signature creations), chocolate tarts and pizzas — the last of which we ate together that evening with a glass of wine while the various doughs rested prior to shaping.
The session began with the sourdough and, although most of us had some sourdough experience, none of us had ever come across the autolyse technique which Laura uses at the bakery. The idea is very simple: the first bit of kneading, which is often extremely sticky and messy, is sidestepped and the dough is left alone for 20-30 minutes during which time the gluten begins to develop naturally (nice explanation of the theory here).
Incredibly, the dough was much easier to manage after the rest, and at this point the salt is added. A further rest, of an hour, and we then began to folded the dough a few times every thirty minutes until it was time to shape it for the proving basked. There is no doubt about it, sourdough takes time — there are no viable shortcuts — but get your timings right (the folding only takes a moment or two) and the whole business is easily fitted around whatever else you are doing: making an evening meal, watching the television, or even gardening. Over the course of the evening we filled the gaps between tending our dough with thwacking lumps of butter, folding and shaping pastry for our croissants, rustling up a marmalade and chocolate tart and making and eating pizza.
It was an intense session, but enormously satisfying. And as we chatted over pizzas (a half sourdough base) we all agreed that we’d learned many valuable tips and techniques: weighing water rather than measuring it; the autolyse technique; working the dough in the bowl rather than on the work surface; creme fraiche with a sprinkling of parmesan makes a fantastic pizza topping; butter for croissants needs to contain at least 82% fat; a heavy iron pot (not a le Creuset though) can be used to mimic a professional bread oven…
There was also much discussion of sourdough itself, with one participant admitting that she didn’t like it — too sour. Why on earth was she there, we all asked. Unlike me she had read through the details of the course and, well acquainted with Hart’s delicious pastries, she’d come to learn how to make croissants.
On Sunday morning we returned to the bakery, each of us accompanied by someone with whom to share breakfast (I took Matilda), and while our guests drank coffee and read the papers we got back to work. First we had to tip our loaves out of their proving baskets and onto a baker’s peel, then we slashed them with a sharp knife (scissors will do if you don’t have a suitably razor-sharp blade) and finally shot them into the depths of the oven. Next we put the final touches to the pastries: creme patissiere and apricots for the Danish pastries, a glaze for the pain au raisin, croissants and cinnamon buns.
And then it was time for breakfast. But despite our enthusiasm, there really was no hope of us polishing off all that we had made, so once again we left the bakery laden with treats to take home. Best of all we were given a pot of Laura’s 50-year-old starter, which I’ve already put through its paces several times in the weeks since the workshop.
Laura waved us off with the promise that should we need any help, she’d happily talk to us at the bakery or reply to our emails. And she has been as good as her word, taking the time to reply to various queries I’ve had. I really cannot recommend the course enough — whether or not you are a fan of sourdough, if you enjoy making bread you’ll almost certainly leave harbouring fantasies of starting your own bakery. I’m hopeless at early mornings, so my bakery dreams lasted all of twenty-four hours, but at least I’ve got back into the habit of making bread on a regular basis.