Everyone loves bread – but is it worth going to all the effort of making your own? Let’s find out…
I love bread, me. The stuff you make sandwiches with I mean, not the 80s scouse sitcom – though I’ve always quite fancied one of those ceramic chickens.
Unfortunately the humble loaf has developed a bit of an image problem over the last few years, mostly down to the dubious claims of carb-fearing self-appointed health gurus; generally posh girls with excellent genes who wouldn’t put on an ounce if they subsisted entirely on a diet of Caramacs and lard.
I’m not The Angry Chef – he can debunk all that self-loathing misery-gutsery far better than I ever could; suffice to say the fact that we’ve been munching on bread since at least 300BC suggests to me that it can’t be that bad for us. Also, you can do this with it:
Though you probably shouldn’t.
Of course there’s an argument to be made that since the sinisterly named “Chorleywood Process” was invented in 1961 to make industrial baking quicker and more profitable, we’ve not really been eating proper bread at all.
I’m not sure precisely what the process involves, but judging by most bakers’ reactions it seems to involve chucking a bag of kittens and some asbestos into a mincer while cackling maniacally and dumping the resulting mulch into the dough. Whatever, it doesn’t make for the most inspiring end product.
I will say one thing in defence of supermarket bread though; if you’ve never had a hot roast chicken sarnie on Tesco tiger bread with lashings of butter, stupid amounts of salt and pepper and a shedload of full fat mayo, you are missing out on one of late capitalism’s finest creations. When the inevitable fall of Western civilisation begins it’ll make a decent last supper.
The real deal will always be best though, and I’m lucky enough to live on the West side of The ‘Diff right between two epic bakeries.
Brød, the Danish Bakery who I’ve raved about before, make gorgeously gnarly loaves that look hewn from exotic hardwoods – until you slice into them and realise that they’re so light they’d float away if not weighed down with an obscene quantity of butter.
And then there’s Pettigrew’s. Their sickeningly Instagrammable British racing green bakery opposite Victoria Park produces bread for umpteen different local restaurants and cafes, and with good reason – it’s flipping great.
From sourdough to sodabread, it’s probably my favourite place in town to pick up a loaf. They have a real talent for producing perfectly crisp, crusty bread for sandwiches that’s so good it often outshines the fillings. Also, having seen owner David a bit tipsy once, I’m pretty sure he’s spectacular value on a night out.
As great as my local bakers are though, I can’t help thinking about how nice it’d be to do it for myself.
Imagine it – getting up after a long lie in on a Sunday morning and making your dough then treating yourself to a fresh pot of coffee and a bit of Cerys Matthews on 6 Music while it proves. The smell of hot bread wafting through the house as it bakes, followed by the satisfying crunch as you slice through the golden brown crust – you can practically taste the salty butter melting into the still-hot bread… God, this is turning into a middle-class Guardian reader’s Fifty Shades of Grey.
Unfortunately though, I don’t actually know how to make bread. I’ve always seen it as something best left to the professionals – like electrical engineering, brain surgery or cooking proper chips. You could do it yourself, but there’s a fair chance you’ll make a right mess of it and potentially burn the house down or end up in a coma.
So when our friend Jen asked me and @BlysiauBach to go on a breadmaking course for her other half Andy’s birthday, I was a bit sceptical.
The fact that it was in someone’s house in Cwmbran didn’t exactly put me at ease either, but that was before we met our baked-goods guru to-be, Bill King. Bill is a graduate of Ballymaloe Cookery School, where he rubbed shoulders with the likes of Rachel Allen. He’s since spent a lot of time on the food festival circuit doing baking demos, runs his own bakery, and when he’s got five spare minutes he teaches small groups of buffoons like us how to make bread.
Bill is not what you might expect on first glance. Other than the ‘Real Men Bake Bread’ t-shirt, he looks like he’d be more at home elbow deep in the guts of a Triumph Bonneville than a mixing bowl. But then he greets you, and instead of the greasy callused paw of a petrolhead, you’re presented with a hand that’s spotless and as soft as the proverbial baby’s behind. Bill doesn’t just bake; he’s a baker.
More than that though – he’s an excellent teacher. The course costs £30 a head, with Bill taking you on a six-hour adventure through various styles of bread, punctuated with anecdotes a-plenty and tons of handy tips.
We start with the wrist-knackeringly challenging wholemeal before an extremely time-sensitive (and frankly terrifying) side-quest with Irish sodabread; get your timings wrong with this one and you’ll end up with a cannonball rather than a loaf.
The real fun begins with good old-fashioned white bread though. It’s much easier to pull together the mixture initially, so it’s ideal for us Millennial/Generation Y/whatever-we-are-this-week types who are so used to instant gratification. And then there’s the kneading. As with many of the most fun things in life, it’s a blend of technique and extreme violence, and it’s easy enough that even the most ham-fisted goon can be flinging dough like a pro in minutes.
In an act of overconfidence rivalled only by that one time Hitler looked at Russia and thought ‘It doesn’t look that big’, I even tried to make a plait. By which I mean I started making one, then Bill took over when it became clear I was going to make a total hash of it.
By the end of the day we’d made a literal bin-bag full of bread, and learned a ton of useful practical stuff. For example: weigh your liquids because measuring jugs are pants; you don’t need to sift your flour because it’s not the seventeenth century; and never, ever wash your baking tins.
And the results? Well, I can’t lie – they were a bit mixed. But I 100% blame our lack of expertise for that rather than Bill’s teaching abilities.
Our white loaves were perfectly serviceable and made for cracking toast for the best part of a week. Meanwhile, our wholemeal loaves were a bit like the cast of Love Island – they looked great but were actually a bit dense. And the sodabread? Well let’s just say I wouldn’t want to be hit in the head with it.
Has it put me off though? Not at all. We were never going to master bread in an afternoon – people spend literally decades learning how to bake it properly. To me, Bill’s course wasn’t about making the perfect loaf – it was about giving you the confidence to have a go at home, cock it up, and try it again. And again. And again, until you finally get that mix of art and science bang-on and produce something to be proud of.
I’m not likely to start making my own bread every weekend when there are a pair of top-notch local bakeries within spitting distance of home, but I’ve definitely been encouraged to give it a go again soon.
Are you a baker born and bread or are you more Paul Gascoigne than Paul Hollywood? Let me know in the comments or over on Twitter at @fuudblog. Also, are you following @blysiaubach on Instagram? What do you mean no? She took most of the pics for this blog, so it’s the least you could do…