Use your loaf to relax

Bread-making is more than a means to an end - it's soothing and creative as well, says Jini Reddy
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Indy Lifestyle Online

When I told people I was writing about the joy of breadmaking, most sighed approvingly. A few were less enthusiastic. "Bread?" they yawned, eyes glazing over with (I'm guessing) visions of stodgy sliced white. Clearly, they're ripe for conversion - like the City folk who sign up for stressbusting classes at Divertimenti Cookery School in Marylebone. "Often they're making bread for the first time, and aren't really sure what the point of it is. But once they do, they love it," says director Camilla Schneideman.

When I told people I was writing about the joy of breadmaking, most sighed approvingly. A few were less enthusiastic. "Bread?" they yawned, eyes glazing over with (I'm guessing) visions of stodgy sliced white. Clearly, they're ripe for conversion - like the City folk who sign up for stressbusting classes at Divertimenti Cookery School in Marylebone. "Often they're making bread for the first time, and aren't really sure what the point of it is. But once they do, they love it," says director Camilla Schneideman.

So is it a case of bye-bye Atkins, hello home-made focaccia? Low-carb diets are no longer in vogue, and the rise in artisan bakeries, breadmaking workshops, and the availability of speciality grains suggest that our love affair with flour, water and yeast is growing. Occasional bakers, the "dabblers in dough" (myself included) love the simplicity of ingredients and the tactile pleasures of kneading. Baking bread is a soothing and creative pastime. ("Remember playdough?" said one cookery writer.) And lest we forget, bread is a source of energy, fibre, vitamins and minerals.

In The Handmade Loaf, artisan baker Dan Lepard writes about his travels across Europe and his encounters with fellow bakers. The book is full of photographs, anecdotes and tempting recipes - everything from a rye flatbread to a red wine loaf with pine nuts and figs.Dan has baked for some of London's top restaurants, including Locanda Locatelli and Zafferano. So when he gets spiritual about his craft, it's worth listening: "My baking is about quiet, methodical working and concentration. I still set out the ingredients and measure them carefully. When I knead the dough, I do this carefully and slowly. I keep my shoulders relaxed, my spine long and wide, and my feet evenly spaced. Good baking calms my head, and the concentration clears any outside worries from my thoughts."

If, like Dan, you want to recreate old-fashioned techniques, using a homemade yeast - called a "natural leaven" or "sourdough" - is the way go about it. (The basic mixture contains flour and water, takes about a week to bubble and ferment, and with constant refreshment can last indefinitely.)

It's a method the Slow Food Movement, which celebrates small-scale, artisanal food production, heartily approves of. "Time is one of the greatest contributors to quality," says Wendy Fogerty, a spokeswoman for the London chapter. "Time to grow, time to ferment and time to mature add complexity and depth of flavour and pleasure to the food we eat."

If time isn't on your side, you can always nip into your supermarket and pester someone in the bakery section to give you a lump of commercially-made fresh yeast - it looks like a compressed cake. (And there's always the dry-yeast standby. It's not "Slow" but, hey, it's better to bake with it, than not to bake at all...)

Kneading is a hotly debated topic among the bread gurus. Some, like Paul Merry, the Australian baker who runs the Panary School in Dorset, favour a good pummelling to develop the gluten (the substance that traps carbon dioxide released from yeast) and achieve volume in a loaf. Dan Lepard, on the other hand, says he kneads in short bursts, for only 10 seconds, every 10 minutes on an oiled surface, for about an hour. "I get great results this way," he says. Having tasted his mill loaf, which is delicious and chewy, I can vouch for that.

At The Cookery School on Little Portland Street, Rosalind Rathouse teaches students to make a different type of bread each week. "We start with bread rolls, then do rosemary focaccia, eastern flatbread, and pizza," she says.

On the night I joined in, it was all very relaxed. At the start we were offered a glass of wine and a snack of guacamole and crostini. Rosalind gave the word and a dozen pairs of hands reached for bowls of flour, fresh yeast, a little olive oil and salt. We worked at tables spread out along in the middle of the gleaming workshop, chatting and comparing efforts. IT contractor Vince Scuderi, 38, had never made bread before. "This is great - it's so relaxing," he beamed, his hands sticky with dough.

Former student Elizabeth De Jager says she's now a convert and bakes bread three times a week. "You use different spices and herbs in the different breads, so not only do you get the physical exercise from kneading, you actually get a bit of aromatherapy thrown in for free, too."

Still not sold on the merits of making your own? Imagine the scent of fresh bread wafting from your oven, and the praise heaped on you by family and friends. Dan Lepard sums the feeling up: "They'll be thrilled, and you'll be touched. From that moment on you will always enjoy making bread."

Slow Food Cambridge will be hosting a one-day introductory workshop on breadmaking using wild yeast/ sourdough starting next March. For more info contact Hilary Cacchio (07714 334 718) or Wendy Fogerty on wfogarty@compuserve.com

For more information on bread activities and cookery classes, visit: www.danlepard.com; www.cookeryschool.co.uk; www.panary.co.uk; www.divertimenti.co.uk

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