Yesterday I took my godson/nephew Matt for his long-overdue, ‘well-done-on-your-exam-results’ present: a class on bread-making at The Bertinet Kitchen Cookery School. Bread, or rather the baking of it, has become a bit of an obsession of mine and, having met Richard Bertinet at Port Eliot last year and bought his fantastically helpful book, to say I was excited is, well, a bit like saying that Wigan thought they did all right in the FA Cup (I don’t give a fig for football but even I registered that news). And I was right to be. I learnt more than I could write about in this post, or in several, and yet also learnt that I know absolutely nothing and should probably just stick my head in a bag and stop posting on a blog forever. Let me explain…
There are cookery classes and cookery classes: I have been fleeced for large sums of cash then found out that I am allowed to watch not touch; I have made very complicated recipes that I will never repeat (the five terrines I learnt at the Ritz Escoffier school in Paris come to mind…) and I have seen one or two relatively similar recipes stretched out over several hours and the gaps padded with chat. And then there is Bertinet, the most expensive class I have ever attended (yes, more than the Ritz), and easily the best.
The ten-strong class was a mixture of the truly knowledgeable (small-holders Fiona and Andrew who have been making their own sourdough for several years), Bertinet groupies (most of us had his book Dough) and those just along for the ride. The age-range was 30s-50s, apart from Matt, and many had been given the class as a gift (I think there were three 50th birthday pressies in the room). But, astonishingly, by the end of the afternoon, we had all made incredibly consistent doughs and breads. And we had learnt a lot more than I, for one, expected.
We started with a lesson on what has happened to the British bread industry, which impressed Matt so much that he has already told my sister that he will never eat sliced bread again (no pressure to make a family of four’s bread every week then Matt…!), made white and olive oil dough, baked fougasse, olive and pecorino breadsticks and a white tin loaf and learnt how to make focaccia and flamiche (which is very like this Alsacian onion tart, made with dough not pastry). I particularly loved the neat symmetry of starting the day discussing the lack of merits in a loaf of tasteless Chorleywooded sliced white, the sort of bread better suited to making cement not sandwiches, and finishing it with making our own white bread, a crusty, scented, textured loaf, with shape, taste and colour.
In amongst all that I also discovered a wonderful way to combine rum and prunes, learnt that a £12 granite chopping board makes a great baking stone and that taking your dough ‘for a walk’ can stop it from sticking. Finally, exhausted and covered in flour (well I was), we sat down to a gorgeous lunch eating said delicious bread with cheese, charcuterie, rillettes and salad whilst drinking more wine than was perhaps good for an empty stomach in a hot kitchen.
I also learnt that although I may think I know a lot, about food, about cooking and about baking, I actually know very very little. My dough and bread usually work, but not consistently and I couldn’t tell you why that was because a) I don’t do it often enough and b) I don’t know enough. And when I saw Richard turning our amorphous sticky dough into something magical and cushiony, in the time it takes a Frenchman to say ‘bon, bref, je sais pas moi’, I suddenly knew the difference between an enthusiast and a craftsperson.
Thirty years of working with dough have given Mr Bertinet the sort of instincts that I will never have, not unless I can go back in time to my teenage years, change nationality and start again. The more the day went on, in fact, the more I realised that unless I am willing to commit the next three decades to what is a very physical craft and graduate as a pensioner baker/dough-maker I will always be an enthusiastic amateur.
At first, this depressed me: WTF is/was the point of all this fervent blogging activity and engagement if I am always going to be stumbling about with bits of dough in my hair and who cares what I think when there are people like him to learn from? But, after a few seconds, another glass of wine and a few mouthfuls of the sort of white bread that makes your mouth water not wince, I was actually glad to know nothing. Because there is so much more to learn and so much pleasure to be had in learning it. And sharing that, on here or in person, is brilliant fun. Matt and I, we’ve already made a pact for the Pastry class. I’ve got the book so now I just need lots and lots of practice. Tasting volunteers welcome…