Every now and then I like to spring a little surprise on Tim to liven up our lives – Could be anything – a breakfast picnic at Ballyandreen, a trip to visit the Organic Centre in Co Leitrim, a spot of foraging in Glenbower Wood – it has to be said that some surprises delight him more than others! This weekend I whisked him off to a remote village in Cumbria via Edinburgh, so that he could at least visit our son Toby and his adorable Scottish wife Penny.
The raison d’etre of this expedition was a course on sourdough breads in the Village Bakery in Melmerby. I got this brainwave some time ago because I felt it might provide extra inspiration while he toiled on his long-awaited bread book which is due to be published early next year by Gill & Macmillan.
It was a huge success, Andrew Whitley has been described by Derek Cooper of the Radio 4 Food Programme as one of the best and most uncompromising bakers in Britain.
Originally a BBC Russian service producer, Andrew set out in 1976, on a baking journey which has led from a wood-fired oven in a converted Cumbrian barn to recognition as one of the leaders in a revival of artisan baking which has bucked the trend towards tasteless uniformity in bread.
Having established a successful village enterprise, Andrew travelled to France and Switzerland in search of brick oven designs for a larger bakehouse completed in 1991. Around the same time, he revisited post-perestroika Russia to perfect his knowledge of traditional sourdough rye bread. Committed from the start to using organic ingredients, produced by farmers who use sustainable methods of husbandry, Andrew is also keen to share his enthusiasm and skills in the interests of better baking everywhere. He has been involved in collaborative ventures as far afield as Russia and has run courses since 1992.
Both Tim and I have a passion for bread making, I’ve been popping loaves of bread into the Aga since I learned how to make brown soda bread by my mother’s side when I was 6 or 7 years old. Tim discovered the art of bread making later in life but is now messianic about it.
Our fellow class-mates, 12 in all, were a cosmopolitan lot, several accountants, a management consultant, an energy trader, a doctor’s secretary, a restaurateur …
We were all united by the love of bread and a burning ambition to extend our repertoire and make the perfect loaf, or in the case of beginners, any loaf! This had somehow become all the more urgent and relevant in the light of the recent oil strikes in the UK when customers tussled with each other for the last few loaves of sliced pan in the supermarket.
We had all started our sourdoughs a week earlier according to Andrew’s instructions. We arrived clutching the seething ferment, ready to incorporate it into our bread. Making sourdough by harnessing the wild yeasts in the air and the flour, is a lengthy process, a far cry from whipping up a quick loaf of soda bread, but the results are immensely rewarding and diverse.
During two very full days we hung on to Andrew’s every word of wisdom and were harangued and cajoled by his two handsome bakers, Paul and Tiff who assisted with the course.
We baked an amazing array of breads, having started tantalizingly with what Andrew called a Benchmark loaf on Saturday morning.
We made North and East European breads with the exotic sounding names of Rossisky and Borodinsky, leaven bread called Campagne, Italian breads – Ciabatta, Focaccia, Tuscan Harvest bread and Olive Bread, also Croissants, Cholloh, Brioche, Stollen …
Everyone left proudly carrying baskets of the breads they had made . Tim and I nibbled our Focaccia and Ciabatta on the way to Edinburgh, the latter was certainly the best I’ve ever tasted, so if breadmaking is your thing, contact Andrew Whitley at The Village Bakery Melmerby Ltd. Melmerby, Cumbria, CA10 1HE. Tel. 01768 881515, Fax 01768 881848. Email:firstname.lastname@example.org. website: www.village-bakery.com
Ballymaloe White Yeast Bread
Makes 2 x 1 lb (450g) loaves
¾ oz (20g) fresh yeast, non GMO
15 fl.ozs (425ml/2 cups) spring water, more as needed
1 oz (30g/¼ stick) butter
2 teasp. dairy salt
½ oz (15g/1 tablesp.) sugar
1½ lbs (675g/5¼ cups) strong white flour
Poppy seeds or Sesame seeds for topping – optional
2 x loaf tins 5″ x 8″ (13 x 20cms) (optional)
Mix the yeast with ¼ pint lukewarm water until dissolved. Put the butter, salt and sugar into a bowl with ¼ pint of very hot water, stir until the sugar and salt are dissolved and butter melted. Add ¼ pint of cold water. By now, the liquid should be lukewarm or blood heat, so combine with the yeast.
Sieve the flour into a bowl, make a well in the center and pour in most of the lukewarm liquid. Mix to a loose dough adding the remainder of the liquid, or more flour or liquid if necessary. Turn the dough onto a floured board, cover and leave to relax for 5 minutes approx. Then knead for about 10 minutes or until smooth, springy and elastic (if kneading in a food mixer with a dough hook, 5 minutes is usually long enough).
Put the dough in a pottery or delph bowl. Cover the top tightly with cling film (yeast dough rises best in a warm moist atmosphere. If you want to speed up the rising process put the bowl near your cooker, or a radiator, or close to an Aga. Rising time depends on the temperature, however the bread will taste better if it rises more slowly. When the dough has more than doubled in size, knead again for about 2 – 3 minutes or until all the air has been forced out – this is called ‘knocking back’. Leave to relax again for 10 minutes.
Shape the bread into loaves, plaits or rolls, transfer to a baking sheet and cover with a light tea towel. Allow to rise again in a warm place, this rising will be shorter, only about 20 – 30 minutes. The bread is ready for baking when a small dent remains when the dough is pressed lightly with the finger. Brush with water and sprinkle with flour. Sprinkle with poppy or sesame seeds if using.
Bake in a fully preheated hot oven, 230C/450F/regulo 9 for 30 – 45 minutes depending on size.
N.B. If you are using tins brush well with oil before putting in the dough.
The bread should sound hollow when tapped underneath. Cool on a wire rack.
If you prefer to test the internal temperature with a thermometer, it should register ?? when inserted into the centre of the loaf.
To make a plait:
Take one quantity of white yeast bread dough after it has been ‘knocked back’, divide into three equal pieces. With both hands roll each one into a rope, thickness depends on how fat you want the plait. Then pinch the three ends together at the top, bring each outside strand into the centre alternatively to form a plait, pinch the ends and tuck in neatly. Transfer onto a baking tray. Allow to double in size. Egg wash or mist with water and dredge with flour.