Friends often do each other favours and a simple “thank you” is sufficient. Occasionally the favour is a little bigger and warrants a bunch of flowers or a bottle of wine. My friends, Joy and Mark, think bigger than that – much bigger! As a thank you gift for a small favour they booked me onto a one-day bread making course – how fantastic is that? Everyone should have friends like Joy and Mark.
This is how, on a sunny Saturday morning, I found myself crossing the river Fal and heading over to the Roseland Peninsula and the Philleigh Way Cookery School. One of the reasons that I live in Cornwall is the relaxed pace of life but, as you sit and wait for the King Harry Ferry and then clunk across the river watching herons wading at the water’s edge, life seems to slow even further.
After a short drive up the hill I pulled into Court Farm and was delighted by what I saw. I love farms, I always have, and this farm looked really special to me; the perfect blend of picturesque stone buildings and a colourful farmhouse garden alongside evidence that this is a real, working farm, not a romantic pretence.
The cookery school itself is all brand new and housed in a beautifully converted stable. It feels comfortable and homey (albeit a very chic home) rather than “cheffy” and I felt relaxed and welcomed from the start. The school is run by brothers-in-law George and James. George, the chef, is a Pascoe and his family have farmed at Court Farm for five generations. Between them, they could not be more welcoming – although anyone who greets me with the offer of fresh coffee and homemade croissants is on to a winner.
There were seven of us on the course; a really friendly group of all ages and we were soon engaged in comfortable chat about our bread making joys and disasters and life in general.
The format for the day was established, George would demonstrate how to make a particular bread, then we would take the recipe and go to our own workstations and make it. James, meanwhile, was indispensable; running around, supplying us with water and bread to taste (always with the addition of a little homemade jam or chutney), doing prep work for James and washing up for the students. Best of all, mid-morning, he brought us champagne to sip whilst we were kneading our dough. I certainly don’t get that at home.
We started the day with a classic white round loaf. I have made simple white loaves before using a variety of recipes; some more successful than others, but this one was as simple as it gets: Flour, water, salt and yeast – the basis of all risen breads. In recent years I have mostly used dried yeast but, on the course, we were using fresh and I suspect it really makes a difference. George’s top tip was to ask for it at the bakery counter in your local supermarket – apparently Tesco don’t charge you for it – maybe the others don’t either…
The most important thing I learned was to trust the recipe. When a dough seems too sticky I have a tendency to add more flour but we were encouraged to persevere and, of course, George was right – the dough will all come together beautifully in the end. A scraper helps with this process allowing you to retrieve your dough when it sticks to the surface. I also learned to take more care when shaping the dough. We were making round loaves and I would normally just shape the dough into a rough round and assume all imperfections would disappear in the final rise but apparently it really helps to smooth the top taught with your hands whilst turning the dough repeatedly on the work surface. This surface tension helps to form a better crust.
The final tip I will share relates to the bake. I already knew to tap the bottom of the loaf (a hollow sound indicates a good bake) but sometimes I am not quite sure if it sounds hollow enough. George recommends cooking it a little longer if you have any doubts at all. More cooking will only ever result in a slightly thicker crust which is infinitely preferable to a soggy, undercooked crumb. Obviously there is a limit to how much longer you can cook your bread before it becomes burnt but a dark crust tastes great.
While the white bread was proving we made focaccia flavouring it with olive oil and Rosemary picked from the herb beds outside the school. This was a first for me but it certainly won’t be the last time so I’ll give you the details in a future post.
After all the kneading it was time for a break and we all wandered out into the gardens to enjoy the sunshine and a bit of a chat before returning to knock back and shape the white bread dough and turn the focaccia – by which time we were ready for lunch. To be honest, if I had learned nothing about bread making it would have been worth attending for the lunch alone: Cheese stuffed focaccia, ham hock terrine, a variety of dips and the best red onion jam I have ever tasted, all washed down with wine. It’s a good job I was driving and capable of restraint or the afternoon’s baking might have been messy.
After lunch George talked about making sourdough bread – we didn’t make it on the day but we did each make a sour dough starter to take home and make friends with. When mine is ready I will post the method and a sour dough recipe – watch this space.
The last loaf we made was soda bread. Now, I was raised on soda bread and I have posted on this before so I didn’t expect to learn much here. I also admit to raising a slight sceptical eyebrow when I saw the recipe which used baking powder instead of bicarbonate of soda and which used milk without any additional acid in the form of yoghurt or buttermilk. I needn’t have worried, apparently the baking powder creates the reaction needed as the cream of tartar provides the acid which, when combined with the alkaline bicarbonate of soda, gives off carbon dioxide to make the dough rise. Apparently you can teach old dogs new tricks and, I have to say, the soda bread was as good as any I have made before.
We were obviously quite a capable group and we got through the content of the day quite quickly so George added in a few extras demonstrating how to make flat breads (which is when I learned the phrase, “it’s not burnt, it’s golden black”) and sharing his knowledge of other bread making techniques. As a major bonus he whipped up a Cornish version of Moules Marinieres using oysters which had been hand dived from the Fal the day before, Cornish Rattler cider and cream from the farms own dairy. We ate that with sour dough bread – just because we could. I have to say the mussels were huge and incredibly tasty – they can be bought on the King Harry Ferry if ever you are out that way.
We ended the day with a bag full of wonderful bread to take home, a tub full of sourdough starter, full stomachs and huge, beaming smiles. I thought the day might involve hard work (with all the kneading) but I left feeling relaxed and happy, as if I had just had a lovely day out – which of course I had.
Huge thanks to Joy and Mark for their generous gift and to George and James for the great day. All I have to do now is decide which course to do next; I quite fancy learning more about fish preparation but butchery would be good too or there is always foraging…