I have known Geoff for a while now, attending as we do a number of the same food events. He sells his handmade artisan bread, which always makes for a good photograph. As I usually have some home bread on the go I don't often buy much from him but I do find it hard to resist his cinnamon rolls. Cameron from The Chocolate Mill MK goes completely crazy for his brie and basil rolls and buys up half his stock at any opportunity so I guess they are pretty tasty too!
There is a great deal of satisfaction to be had from making bread and I find that every time I make some I feel I want to photograph it and show it off to the world because it makes me feel accomplished. Usually I make my bread with the aid of a bread machine. I did once mention this to Geoff and then feared I may have offended him as he does everything by hand - even when his orders stretch into the thousands. I tried to explain... I only use the dough setting and then do the shaping by hand and cooking in the oven... it means the dough can be preparing whilst I am picking my kids up from school or otherwise out of the house/busy. He was still unconvinced and told me it probably resulted in an overworked dough that would affect the texture and moisture of the bread. I suspect he knows what he is talking about but without a bread machine I certainly wouldn't have got into making bread in the first place and I probably wouldn't do it as much. It did start me wondering though about my bread and my methods.
When I heard that Geoff was running a bread making course I got excited and soon convinced my husband that a place on it would make the perfect birthday present for me. He obliged but then spent the next few weeks tucking into my homemade breads saying, "Are you sure you need to go on a bread making course?" It is true, I do make a lot of successful bread that we all enjoy but, firstly, you don't have to be bad at something to want to improve, and secondly, when a recipe fails I really have no clue how to trouble-shoot.
On 11th March I joined two others on a course at the bakery in Westbury, a little beyond Buckingham. Geoff explained that three people on the course was about the right number and certainly by the end of the day we had completely run out of flat surfaces and bowls so any more would have been tricky.
At the start of the day we had four bowls of flour blends at our work station, each with a coloured sticker on them that related to the recipe sheet Geoff had prepared. During the course of the morning we added ingredients to these bowls and stirred, turned, kneaded, rested and proved them as required. Because bread making requires time, this multi-tasking approach meant that we were kept busy whilst the yeast did its thing and there was always something to be doing. It did make for a bit of head-whirling though, as I couldn't always remember what we had previously done with that bowl of stuff. Not that it mattered as the simple colour coding of the bowls meant we always knew which one we should be working with and Geoff knew what we should be doing with it. It is only now, back at home with my colour-coded recipe, that I am wondering if I will be able to do the same again unsupervised!
These processes showed us the gentle working methods that Geoff employs and how he uses time more than anything else to help develop flavours and do the work. In our previous conversations I had imagined him spending hours kneading and working the dough and figured he must have pretty strong shoulder and arm muscles. I guess he does, but his methods certainly involved a lot less kneading than I had anticipated and made me realise that I could make bread this way, using time rather than physical exertion. Maybe I didn't need a machine to do the work - a machine that is not capable of assessing the look and feel of the dough, knowing when to step in with an adjustment and knowing when to stop. This feedback from the dough sits very much at the heart of what Geoff does and really appeals to me as this is how I like to work when baking cakes or making jam... or pretty much any other type of cooking. This is the stuff that is so often missing from recipes. Where all recipes say things such as "beat the mix for about five minutes", a good recipe will say something along the lines of "until it looks pale and fluffy". But even this is no substitute from someone showing you and saying, "this is what it looks like when it is ready for the next stage," and "we do this because..." and "if it does this it is wrong but we can do this to sort it out."
During the course we made a selection of Geoff's bread recipes, familiar to me from seeing them on his market stalls. By lunchtime we had made a pizza, which we then sat down to eat.
Then the various breads went into the ovens and by the middle of the afternoon we were icing our very own batch of his wonderful cinnamon rolls. On the cooling racks our country blonde, malted tin loaf and focaccia were gently letting off steam.
Somewhere along the line we had learnt about ratios, flour types, starters, wet dough, kneading techniques, gluten structures, equipment, shaping, yeast, oven temperatures, steam, scoring and storage. I realised the course hadn't been about following recipes but instead about properly understanding the dough and the methods.
It was deeply satisfying to leave the bakery at the end of the day with armfuls of freshly baked bread and a head full of inspiration and information.
At home, with a piece of pork roasting in the oven, we had to re-think our Sunday dinner and soon we were sat down to something along the lines of a country-fayre hog roast. OK, so the pork hadn't been slow cooked all day but when served up on slices of fresh bread with stuffing and gravy it was a tasty treat. Despite tucking in heartily, everyone still managed to find room for a sticky cinnamon roll for afters!
Geoff only runs this course a couple of times a year so if you fancy giving it a go, get booked up onto his next one in November.