Knead to know basis
A day-long baking class in England’s picturesque Bath gives rise to many surprises
AT his cookery school in Bath, the author of the award-winning Dough is showing us how it’s done.
We’re in good hands, then, as we roll up our sleeves and don aprons on Richard Bertinet’s day-long breadmaking course.
For a city more readily associated with crescents than croissants, there’s been a real baking buzz about Bath since The Bertinet Kitchen opened in 2005. This cookery school’s varied program of baking, pastry-making and other culinary courses regularly sells out months ahead, with participants from as far afield as the US and Japan making the pilgrimage to the mews premises of this baker and pastry chef par excellence.
More recently, the Frenchman has opened two bakeries in the city — think sourdough loaves, scrumptious almond croissants and abricotines, and excellent coffee in cafe- cumpatisserie settings long on blackboards, baskets and dark-timbered loaf racks.
The day begins with a critique of what too often passes for bread, with memorable insights into the stresses that are placed on our stomachs every time we ingest the chemically stewed sliced stuff.
‘‘Good bread should make you salivate,’’ says Bertinet, which definitely does not happen when he scrunches a slice of processed white into an unappetising doughy lump.
‘‘Current levels of bread intolerance don’t surprise me in the least.’’
Our very hands-on instructor then reveals that kneading is a no-no; the alternative technique that we learn to master — ‘‘working’’ the dough by a series of slapping and folding movements — not only makes for a lighter, more aerated consistency, but largely gets around the dough’s tendency to stick to fingers.
Bertinet, a baker since childhood, delivers an impassioned, often funny and wide-ranging commentary on the joys of bread-making, explaining not only technique but also ingredients; he uses quality yeasts, proper sea salts and flours mainly sourced from traditional mills such as Shipton Mill in the nearby Cotswolds.
Not that all this is entirely new; the eponymous Bath Bun and the Bath Oliver biscuit are proof the city has been keen on baking, as well as spa bathing, for centuries.
Nor is Bertinet the first French baker to have made a name here; he follows in the footsteps of Protestant refugee Solange Luyon — or the anglicised Sally Lunn — who arrived in the 17th century with her recipe for a brioche-style bun that would become a prized delicacy of Georgian England.
At Sally Lunn’s House, the best known of Bath’s many agreeably period-style tea rooms, there’s a basement museum (free to patrons) where the baker’s original oven can be seen.
It was here that the so-called Sally Lunn bun was baked to a recipe discovered only when the Lunn house was restored in the 1930s; it is said to now be under lock and key alongside the deeds to the property.
The museum shop sells Sally Lunns in take-away boxes, though they’re best enjoyed on site. In one of the old tea rooms within this atmospheric 17th-century townhouse, I discover the Sally Lunn to be a formidable proposition; a half bun, wide as a dinner plate, counts as a full serving. It comes toasted or not, with a range of savoury toppings, such as roast beef or smoked salmon, as well as sweet ones including clotted cream or lemon curd.
The recipe may remain a closely guarded secret, but after my visit — I choose sweet, opting for a cinnamon butter topping — I’ve worked out why the Sally Lunn has flourished throughout the centuries; here’s a bun to suit every taste, multi-tasking as it does as bap, roll or open sandwich, tea cake or scone.
A wander round Bath’s wealth of Regency squares, crescents and alleys soon reveals a pronounced French accent. It’s no coincidence that Queen Square, the city’s elegant centrepiece, has been recast in recent years as a boules (petanque) terrain, complete with dedicated gravel pistes; fans of France’s national game will not find a more impressive setting anywhere in Britain than this elegant space.
The square also puts on an annual French food market and the city has more than its fair share of bistros, not least the Provencal-themed Casanis.
By the day’s end at The Bertinet Kitchen, we’ve turned our hands to a wide range of breads and before we part company we sit down to a magnificent late lunch. Our tin loaves, baguettes, decoratively shaped flat fougasses, olive- flavoured bread sticks, leek flamiches and rosemary focaccias are still warm as we tuck into them, along with pates and rillettes, salads and plenty of good French wine. And the good news is we’re salivating. thebertinetkitchen.com shipton-mill.com sallylunns.co.uk casanis.co.uk visitbath.co.uk