Thursday, 13 March 2014

Birthdays, Bread and Bannetons

It seemed a good idea. Booking my brother onto a River Cottage bread making course for his 40th birthday, that is.



Back in the autumn he inherited a bread making machine, and I received a flurry of texts about sunken loaves and there were tense moments when the bread wasn't mixing properly.

When it came to dreaming up a unique birthday experience for him, a surprise River Cottage bread making course seemed a no-brainer. And happy days, River Cottage happens to be situated not far from the ancestral home in Devon. He could advance his culinary skills and it would be an excuse for a jolly family get-together. What a brilliant plan!

Several family members agreed and we all clubbed together, and it still seemed the best idea ever, until I actually booked it. Then I had a severe case of post-purchase cognitive dissonance...Would my brother's passing interest in chucking flour into an old Lidl bread maker translate into a really long day of baking by hand at River Cottage HQ? It was an awful long way for him to travel. Or perish the thought, was it one of those things where you end up completely subconsciously choosing a gift for someone that you would quite like for yourself? Not to mention the huge expense! What were we thinking of?

These misgivings were not made any better by the fact that in January, when the course took place, much of the South West was under water and it took my poor brother and his two small children, hours to get to Devon from London. Oh dear.

On the day, however, a cloudless blue sky seemed to bode well. A large number of the participants consisted of people who, like my brother, had been gifted the day and it was rather like leaving your child at nursery for the first time. Partners, children, wives (and this nervous big sister) hovered nervously in the car park as the tractor bore our loved ones down the hill to the venue.


I'm not entirely sure what went on down there, but my brother came back a baker, through and through.

Although Hugh himself was not in evidence, the River Cottage philosophy was intrinsic to the course and the real joy is that, along with all the goodies that he had baked on the day, my brother came back so evangelistic that we have all benefited from his newly acquired knowledge. Aidan Chapman, the master baker who ran the course, is a passionate Dough Anarchist, and for a while we were all subjected to many Aidanisms.
  • Aidan says supermarket bread in a plastic bag is to be avoided at all costs. All those nasty additives. Yuck. It will give you a tummy ache. Instead, source local stoneground flour from a mill near you and bake your own bread. 
  • Aidan says real bread takes time. Don't rush it. Yeast will do its stuff without the aid of an airing cupboard. (My brother now makes his bread in the evening and leaves it to rise overnight.)
  • Aidan says get as much water into the dough as possible.
  • Aidan says there are four magic ingredients. Flour, water, yeast and salt. (No sugar required).
  • Aidan says you must savour the whole sensory experience: the aroma and the feel of the dough.
  • Aidan says any bread maker worth their salt should have a banneton* and a dough scraper (so my brother did what he said and got them).
We were all sure that even if my brother never baked a focaccia again, it would be a day to remember. But back at home he has baked focaccia and all sorts of other breads. I think he enjoyed it...


Freshly baked Philippine Pandesal for breakfast baked by Brother!

The moral of the story? Experiences do make good birthday presents. "Collect moments not things." The River Cottage experience didn't come cheap, but sharing the cost made it affordable. (And River Cottage frequently have discounts on offer - e.g. during March all cookery courses are 50% off the usual price). I think my brother would agree that the location, seasonal refreshments and quality of the venue coupled with the enthusiastic tutoring were worth the money. You might think that getting your hands floury would be the best part of a bread making course, but my brother was wowed by the demonstrations and seeing a true professional in action. Long may he continue practising what he learnt, and long may we continue to eat the products!

Please note, I am not affiliated to River Cottage and they haven't sponsored this blog post in any way.

* I didn't know what a banneton is either until my brother got one. It's a special basket in which you prove the dough, and which gives a lovely shape and pattern to the final loaf.

12 comments:

  1. I think I will start trawling online for an artisanal bread making workshop in my area - that sounds wonderful!

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    1. Good luck - I'd love to do something like that one day!

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  2. Oh my, what a gift. Im 50 this week and wouldnt i love something similar in Oz. Well Done Sister.

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    1. Hope you had a nice birthday and got some good prezzies!

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  3. I bet that after that course the bread making machine is gathering dust. Can't imagine it was recommended in the course.

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    1. You're right - my brother didn't dare mention the breadmaker and although I'm not sure if he's abandoned it entirely, he's certainly making a lot by hand.

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  4. What a nicely written piece. I knew the course would be interesting as soon as you showed them going down the hill in with a tractor.

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    1. The tractor's quite a selling point! But I'm sure my brother would like me to point out that he refused the tractor on the way back and walked up the hill!

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  5. Great post. I was looking at doing a Knife skills course, but they were also quite expensive. However one turned up on http://www.craftsy.com/ and it was FREE! Ive enrolled, but am yet to tune it, good thing it doesnt expire.
    I bet you feel quite proud that your brother got so much out of his course. Well done you!

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    1. What a good find! I'm going to check that website out!

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