Best thing since sliced bread

There’s a quiet revolution going on. People are baking their own bread again, not in the bread machines that were all the rage a while back, but by hand, mixing the ingredients in a bowl and slapping the dough about on the kitchen table. I went on a bread-making course last week at Hen Corner in Brentford and found myself in the company of an intelligence analyst, the first officer on a cruise ship, a cyber security specialist, a neuroscience researcher and a nurse, all ages, who wanted to learn how to make bread at home, themselves. It was thoroughly enjoyable and we came away with armfuls of  bread – all these different types pictured here – and much more of an understanding than you can get from just reading a recipe.

I was there because Hen Corner are members of our Club Card scheme. Sara Ward offers our subscribers 15% off all her courses, which also include sausage-making, cheese-making, jam, chutney and preserves, bee-keeping and how to look after chickens, and special courses for Christmas baking. The others were there because they really wanted to learn how to make tasty, nutritious bread themselves.

Carolyn, the nurse, had been given the experience as a Christmas present. She’s an experienced baker, but was never quite satisfied with how her bread turned out – till now. Poppy, the intelligence analyst, had set up a microbakery in Cambridgeshire and was interested in how Sara taught bread-making. The rest of use were more or less novices. Sara gets chefs coming to learn bread-making from her. Apparently baking bread isn’t a big part of a chef’s training (but essential if you’re a chef on a ship which is out at sea for days on end, for example). What she teaches is technique, which you can’t learn from a book.

First of all she makes everyone feel very welcome. Hen Corner is an ordinary terraced house, Sara’s family home, with a large garden where she keeps bees and chickens and grows fruit and vegetables. An important part of the ethos is that she is welcoming you into her home. “Initially I thought that people might not want to come to a home” she says, “but it’s turned out quite the opposite. You don’t need an industrial kitchen to make good food. If you can make bread at my kitchen table, you can do it on your own”.

Long experience has taught her that someone will be late, so she factors in a half hour get to know you chat over tea and coffee, round the large kitchen table, so there’s no stress as people arrive, giving their excuses apologetically; they quickly chill and we’re old mates by the time we get down to business. From there on in it’s all business. We made three batches of dough, a white dough, a wholemeal and a sweet dough, measuring out the ingredients on small kitchen scales, mixing them in a bowl, using a bread scraper, then slapping the dough about on the table to stretch the gluten, till it changes texture and it ready to be left to prove.

Along the way she tells us about Hen Corner. She and her husband wanted to try and live sustainably. They quickly realised they couldn’t achieve that totally, and settled for one meal where everything came from the garden. What to do about protein? Keep pigs? Chickens, they decided, were more practical in the garden of a terraced house, so they keep a small flock, 24 currently, which provide them with a constant supply of fresh eggs throughout most of the year. When we made our sweet dough, the eggs were were breaking into the bowl were fresh that morning, still warm, with very yellow yolks.

Photographs above: Poppy; Hicham and Marwa; Sara and Marwa

She also told us a bit about the history of bread-making. Why ‘the best thing since sliced bread’ is not a phrase you will hear in her house. How post war, when the emphasis was on mass production, the Chorleywood process was invented, industrialising bread-making to produce the white sliced loaf, but in the process using such fine white flour that all the goodness and taste were lost and they had to add vitamins back in to make it legal to sell.

Sara’s been doing this for ten years so, while the atmosphere is laid back, chatty and friendly, she’s on a relentless timetable to get all three batches of dough done, so one is proving while you’re making the next, and the first is ready to shape into loaves once you’ve made the last. Having plied us with tea and coffee and fresh buns at the start, it was no hardship to work through till a late lunch of freshly made pizza and salad from the garden, with homemade wines or elderflower cordial (made last season, having scoured the neighbourhood for Brentford’s best flowers). We made a white loaf, a focaccia bread (rosemary from the bush outside, naturally), wholemeal seeded buns, a chilli and cheese loaf, cinnamon buns and chocolate Viennoise.

We came away with exactly the learning points she wanted us to. Basic bread is just four ingredients: flour, salt, yeast and water. For wholemeal bread, use wholemeal flour. For sweet bread use milk instead of water and add some sugar, eggs and butter. That’s it. She got us to brainstorm the types of bread you could make with those three basic doughs and the list is surprisingly long: a white loaf or rolls, focaccia, pizza, pitta bread, baguettes (use more water), nan (yoghurt in the dough), ciabatta (olive oil) all from the same basic white dough.

Wholemeal dough can become loaves or rolls, seeded, with dried fruit and nuts – cranberry and sunflower seeds, fig and hazelnut, pesto and pinenuts, cheese and bacon – the possibilities are endless. Sweet dough can be chocolate or cinnamon buns, doughnuts, saffron bread (with milk and currants) … Once you understand the percentages – how much liquid to how much flour, and the technique, you can play about and experiment, or stick to the many recipes which are widely available.

Poppy, who runs the microbakery in Cambridgeshire took away the efficiency of the course – “I feel we’ve been shown how to do three things which are the key to lots of different breads. Very clever.”

Jesse, the cruise ship officer said “I wasn’t sure how it was going to work – the structure of the course – but it was pretty much spot on how it was described online”.

Carolyn, the nurse said: “Because it’s in a home, I do feel that I could do it in my own home. My mum’s bread was perfect and I now see what I’ve been doing wrong. A bread scraper might make all the difference and I now know I don’t need to add sugar”.

Marwa and Hicham (neuroscientist and cyber security specialist, a couple) were just delighted which how much they’d learned: “Now we know how to do it we can just play around and try out making so many different things”.

All were very pleased with the course, the knowledge imparted and the quality and quantity of the bread they got to take home.

Sara’s next courses are a cheese making course on 30 October and Christmas baking and hamper courses in late November and early December. The next bread-making course like this one will be in March 2020 (the October one is already sold out), but there are quite a variety of bread making courses available. Sara also sells bread from her home in Brentford every Friday.

Photograph above, left to right: Poppy, Hicham, Marwa, Jesse, Carolyn, Bridget and Sara