Damned Fine Bread

Pain de Compagne

I am not a bread-nut.  I’ve spent time over the last couple of years making a small radio series about bread because I’m interested in people.  Bread is a culinary blank canvas, certainly in Europe and West Asia, and the tiny differences in the way we make it, think about it, revere it, celebrate with it, talk about it and so forth, tell us quite a lot about us.

Nevertheless I can’t help but suspect that when it’s broadcast that someone is going to ask me whether I can actually bake the stuff.

To whit about a month ago I started to get to grips with the task of baking a sourdough loaf.  I turned to Chris Young of the Real Bread Campaign for advice and he simply pointed me towards a useful link explaining how to make a sourdough starter.

The thing that really grabbed me was the insistance that you give your starter(s) a name.  Thus, I started mixing small amounts of rye flour and water together, stuck it in the airing cupboard, fed it 30g of rye flour and 30G of water daily and after about four of five days it began to bubble; and lo! ‘Daphne’ was born.

Daphne eventually gained a sibling, a wheat leaven I’ve called ‘Doris’.

I turned to Andrew Whitley’s ‘Bread Matters‘ for further guidance and followed the recipe for a Cromarty Cob (p198) using only Dove’s Farm’s so-called ‘heritage’ wholemeal (I say so-called because there’s some dispute over whether the wheat varieties used are truly heritage wheats).  I won’t attempt to kid you.  Daphne’s first offspring looked a little like a cowpat and had a leaden quality that meant it sat on my stomach like a rugby player in a collapsed scrum.  I wouldn’t use that flour for breadmaking on its own again – though the flavour was good and it produced a good leaven.

Four loaves later however and I think I’ve cracked it.  Today’s loaf is one I’d be really happy to buy from an artisan baker- albeit as this one probably used about 850g of flour to produce a 1kg loaf I reckon it cost me about £1.10 in organic flour (not including electricity for the oven) as against about £3.00 if I’d bought it from a baker.

But the real lesson was just how robust and forgiving sourdough bread is in the making. Andrew W does his best to demystify the whole process but I reckon he could go even further.

I used his French Country Bread recipe (p182) and my wheat leaven.  I left the bowl with the production leaven in covered with clingfilm in the sun for 4-5 hours, longer than Andrew recommended.  It developed a thick skin.

Having made the dough and let it rest I lined a sieve with muslin, floured it and dropped the dough it – stood the sieve back in the bowl, popped the clingfilm over the top of the dough and put everything – dough, sieve and bowl  – inside  a plastic carrier bag and shoved it in the fridge because I didn’t want it prooving to fast.  That was about 5pm yesterday.

My father took it out of the fridge before he went to bed and left it to proove overnight in the kitchen (which was quite cool – and not in the ‘hip’ sense).  Twelve or thirteen hours later I shoved it in the oven on a heavy cast iron baking dish that had been heating up.

In short I did loads of things wrong.   The dough went in the fridge.  It was left out overnight.  The production leaven had gone all crusty.  Blah blah blah.  (I think, however, that I did do something right in that I resisted the temptation to slash the top.  Bad idea, even if it’s what you’re ‘told’ to do…)

The lesson being, people, that you don’t need to worry too much.  A little practice (this was my fifth attempt, even maybe my fourth…I forget) and you soon realise you can make the process fit around your schedule quite easily.

The best bit is that it’s damned good and even better with a little Lord London cheese which I snaffled from my father.  It’s not rocket science.   It’s just flour, water and salt.  If there’s anything really amazing about it, it’s that given how easy it can be why more of us don’t bake more often.

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