Knead to know ba­sis

A day-long bak­ing class in Eng­land’s pic­turesque Bath gives rise to many sur­prises

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - The Food Issue -

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. the­bertinetk­ ship­ sal­ly­ casa­ vis­it­

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