Zen and the art of bread

Popular Mechanics (South Africa) - - Sommerset College -

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

Top: David Hobbs sam­ples the fruity aroma of his lev­ain. Above: Dough proves at a leisurely rate overnight in the fridge; mix­ing takes place in a mon­ster ma­chine ca­pa­ble of 120 kg at a time.

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