Zen and the art of bread
Thursday morning, 3 am. I’m stamping my feet to try to generate warmth. There’s an edge to the darkness that hints at the beginnings of autumn after a long, hot summer. And it’s Thursday morning, 3 am. Bakers keep unsociable hours.
At the Hoghouse brewery and bakery on the historic Spier estate near Stellenbosch, I’m on the final stage of this journey from seed to table. Unlike farming and milling, baking looks fairly uncomplicated: mix, knead, prove, bake. A simple series of chemical reactions, you’d think.
And most of us grew up on regular commercial bread. So why the big hoohah about artisan-baked bread and the use of wild yeast – the sourdough process? Does this truly fit into the narrative of sustainable farming or is it just another hipsterish yearning?
To some, the inherently more measured process of artisan bread baking is in itself a guarantee of certain things: slower descent into staleness, yes; more intense aromas and flavours, most definitely. Plus, there’s something almost magical about the process of creating bread in time-honoured, traditional ways, instead of on a production line. There’s also that kneading thing as stress-release.
Not that it’s a process entirely without science. As a sometime baker myself, I have wrestled with lactobacillus and sweated over hydration and fermentation schedules. I have debated technique vs quality of ingredients. Consistent flour from big-name industrials vs variable stoneground from little-known independents.
And yes, if things went well with my loaves I have felt no small pride when asked to identify the baker. (To be quite honest, I have also dumped unreasonably large quantities of less-than-acceptable breads. This is not an exact science.)
Now: try doing that for a living. 3.03 From out of the gloom, baker David Hobbs melts into view, with a colleague in tow. He slows only to exchange pleasantries, grab a broom and start sweeping his work area. 3.25 A fine cloud of ash envelops us like a miniature snowstorm as Hobbs rakes the interior of the wood-fired oven, the exterior of which is a mighty 2,5 metres wide by 4 long by 2 high.
The ash is all that’s left of coals that were levelled off the previous afternoon at 4 just before he left. “You want to avoid hot spots,” he explains.
Gauges on the outside of the oven, connected to sensors embedded in its wall, show internal temperature. Today, surface temperature is 350 degrees, down from yesterday afternoon’s 400 (he will do spot measurements using an IR gun). He’ll need to load the water-filled cooling pans to get the reading down to the 240 degrees needed for baking. It’s a big brick oven, so it will retain the heat for hours.
The mouth of the oven is about 20 degrees cooler than the rest. The chimney gets up to 600. Me, I still feel the need to wear my down hoodie. The bustling Hobbs rocks his T-shirt and jeans. He is having to move around a lot more than usual because his assistant Francois is off sick. 4.15 Hobbs is shaping dough. His beard and dark hair, tied back in a bun, are still flecked with ash. He’s part of the new wave of artisan bakers who generally trace their lineage back to a common source: Markus Farbinger of Ile de Pain on Knysna’s Thesen Island. Hobbs was born in the Free State, grew up on a farm and studied to be a chef. A move to the southern Cape set him on course for Ile de Pain, where he served his apprenticeship under the Austrian pastry chef maestro. That sounds very Zen. As we chat, Hobbs preshapes four dozen baguettes, two at a time, seemingly without conscious effort. Again, very Zen. That done, he calls urgently to colleagues in the Hoghouse kitchen: “Let’s move this inside guys, it’s getting chilly out here.” 4.43 Ciabatta mixing is in progress. The dough is a blend of poolish (a 50/50 flour-water mix with baker’s yeast, pre-fermented in the fridge overnight) and a levain, a sourdough culture. “The poolish provides the big
holes and the levain an acidic environment. The addition of the levain is effectively using natural methods for the same reason you add ascorbic acid to breads: to tighten up the proteins so that they have more structure.” Today he’s doing just 12 kg of ciabatta dough in a 120 kg machine and, as a result has to continually scrape dough down the side of the mixing bowl millimetres from where the massive hook is menacingly churning. Tip: if you are working with very wet doughs like ciabatta, don’t wash your hands with water after; dip them in flour and rub them together to clean. 5.15 The Vinschgauer bread (a nod to Farbinger’s Austrian origins) needs to have its flour sifted because its dough is mixed by hand. The bread contains a coriander/salt mix with honey to balance the bitterness of the 85/15 rye/wheat mix. While Hobbs is busy I get a chance to sample some of his rye sourdough culture. It’s fizzy like champagne and tastes of green apples and grapes. “You can tell if a sourdough culture is right: it floats,” he says. “If it sinks, it would be non-fermented.” 5.23 Assistant Veronica Mthembu arrives from Kayamandi, on the other side of Stellenbosch. She used to be a pizza lady before she started with David, she says. At home, she bakes mostly muffins and scones. Here, she does a bit of everything. 6.03 The baguettes have been shaped, deftly slashed four times, slightly off the diagonal. The slashes help with oven spring and just plain look good. Meanwhile, the first Joburgbound flight of the morning from Cape Town Airport passes overhead. Sunrise is still threequarters of an hour away. 6.30 Mthembu is hard at work shaping bread sticks. 6.40 Sporting fresh blue tape over a finger that blistered during the raking, Hobbs is slapping the slack ciabatta dough into its classic slipper shape. Though his left hand seems permanently clean, he suggests that, when working with a sticky dough, it’s good to have some water close by to act as lubricant. 6.57 “LOADING!”
7.18 I bend down and lower my head to hear the crust of the freshly baked bread crackle. Bakers say, the bread is singing. Hobbs’s big sourdough loaf is a 50/50 mix: “Rye to amplify the flavour, wheat for loftiness. It’s a good balance.” Today, Hobbs will do 120 loaves of various types, about a third of the oven’s capacity.
What does it mean to bake artisanal bread compared with any other kind?
Involvement, mostly. “You have to teach your customer about bread.” Of course, things change. “You have labs that test flours, gauge temperatures. This enables us to work a lot more effectively.”
But the thing that he really likes about bread is that it’s a social food. Bread, above all, brings us together. 8.50 Baguettes go in. Made with commercial yeast, these will have fermented at least 18 hours under refrigeration to optimise the flavour. Time is an important element of the whole process. Hobbs says: “You can’t rush breadbaking.”
But it starts with the wheat and the milling. The millers he uses, among them Gideon, try to retain as much of the value of the wheat kernel as possible, he says. “So the loaf is a lot more nutritious.” Also, milling at higher temperature using steel grinders, like the big-scale producers do, changes the flour’s protein structure, he adds. “With these breads you have a natural, lower GI product.”
The fact that it tastes amazing is a bonus. 9.30 With my free arm, I wave goodbye to Hobbs, busy preparing the next day’s production. I expect he’s also contemplating lugging a trolleyload of firewood from the store. Under my other arm, I’ve wedged a brown paper package containing a couple of fresh baguettes from the Hoghouse shop. As I cross the carpark, I break off the tip of one baguette, briefly sniff the aroma and finally… crunch. Heaven. – A NTHONY DOMAN PM