Kneading, proving, baking… is homemade bread really worth the effort? Emma Hagestadt rises to the challenge
Cactus Kitchens, based in Clapham North, is home both to the TV series Saturday Kitchen, and Michel Roux’s popular cookery school. It’s the perfect place for anyone with a secret desire to bake at a GBBO-style workstation, as well as improve on their basic cooking skills.
Kneading, proving, baking – breadmaking has always sounded a little too much like hard work to me. So it was with some trepidation that I signed up to Roux’s much recommended baking course. I needn’t have worried. An introductory breakfast with the other wannabe star bakers was immediately cheering – a group of middle-aged home cooks on a birthday jolly, and a smattering of clued-up younger bakers. Our tutor for the day was the knowledgeable and hugely capable, Bridget Colvin, a Leith School graduate who has worked closely with Jimmy Doherty and Gennaro Contaldo.
Coffee was followed by the aproning-up ceremony, and things began to feel more serious. Perched on stools in the school’s airy top-floor kitchen, we gathered around Bridget to learn about our first assignment. Michel himself might not be present, but his sourdough starter was. Bridget took a reverential whiff, before passing around a small pot of greyish gunk. We all followed suit.
The class began with a fascinating lecture on the complexities of creating a sourdough starter. We learnt about the voracious appetite of a sourdough starter – it needs ‘feeding’ as often as a baby – and how the flavour of a San Francisco loaf is entirely dependent on California’s airborne bacteria. Although impossible to replicate here, Bridget assured us that the microorganisms of South West London were no less distinctive.
The day’s first challenge was to bake our own pain ancien couronne, an artisanal sourdough crown. The process involved several steps – concentration was required! – but even the klutziest amongst us were saved from humiliation by Bridget’s team of kitchen helpers who demonstrated how to knead and fold our stretchy dough. Best of all they restored our sticky counter-tops to their original pristine state. When our loaves emerged we were delighted – they wouldn’t have looked out of place on the shelves of Poilane.
Worn out by our labours we were rewarded by a delicious communal lunch of creamy cheeses, Italian hams, and a punchy panzanella salad. There was plenty of well-chosen wine for the revellers amongst us, and tales of past culinary adventures were exchanged. Our only regret was the lack of a pudding – but how greedy was that?
The afternoon session was largely devoted to a baking staple: Irish soda bread. Bridget’s traditional recipe called for a mix of spelt, self-raising flour and a pint of buttermilk. We were instructed to work the dough with a gentle touch, and created two loaves which we swiftly packed with handfuls of enticing flavours. For the savoury loaf: thyme, pumpkin seeds, caraway seeds and coriander; for the sweet loaf: sour cherries, semi-dry prunes, dark chocolate and hazelnuts. As the bread baked, Bridget demonstrated how to make a Provencal rosemary and olive fougasse. We ended the afternoon with a short diversion into the art of the breadstick – an easy win at any dinner party, or a fun way to kick start children into the joys of bread-making.
A sociable and non-pressurised way to learn, my day at Cactus Kitchens was an unexpected pleasure from start to finish. My worst blunder was a mix up at home time when I accidentally pocketed my neighbour’s pain couronne, and she mine. Not that it mattered. Both were show-stoppers in the making.
Bread – the Roux Way: classes with Bridget Colvin at www.cactuskitchens.co.uk run throughout May and June.
Of special interest: two additional classes will also be run with the Luminary Bakery , a social enterprise helping vulnerable women to learn to bake, supported by the London chapter of Les Dames d’Escoffier. Dates are Sunday 11 and Sunday 18, June. £189 pp. Ten per cent of each booking fee will go directly to the Luminary Bakery and be put towards their training and employment courses.