Italian Breadmaking in the Scottish Borders : Latest blogs from @SoilAssociation

Italian Breadmaking in the Scottish Borders

Soil Association Scotland - 30 September 2011

Helen Jukes writes about her experience of the Italian Breadmaking course at Bread Matters...

On a crisp morning in late September smoke curls from the chimney of a wood-fired bread oven, drifting mistily down into Macbiehill Farmhouse courtyard as visitors arrive for a weekend of Italian bread-making with Andrew Whitley and his wife Veronica Burke at their home in the Pentland hills.

Drawn from as far as Ireland and as near as a few miles away, the course participants are diverse. From a student hoping to cut food costs by baking her own bread and a couple experimenting with domestic bread-baking as part of a change in lifestyle, to an owner of an established bakery in Dorset, an entrepreneur with an eye for a new business venture, and a Steiner educator running workshops for adults with learning disabilities. As a commodity, a luxury item, a bare essential, even a therapeutic tool, it is clear from the outset that our daily bread fulfils a whole host of functions, associations and aspirations. Andrew Whitley, artisan baker for over 30 years and co-founder of the Real Bread Campaign, is well aware of this, and has some strong opinions about it. Since setting up the Village Bakery in 1976 he has been committed to sourcing organically-grown wheat, promoting the value of traditional methods of fermentation, and supplying nutritious alternatives to today’s mass-produced supermarket loaves. So it is no surprise that the course at Macbiehill Farmhouse is also something of a re-education in what bread is, or could be.

Our hands are soon sticky with dough, and the huffs and puffs of eager kneaders fill the room. Under the guidance of Andrew’s prodigious knowledge and expertise, we are taken from one technique to another and, as the small pots of fermenting yeast mixtures gradually accumulate and the loaves pile up, I realise that my focus of attention is undergoing a shift. Moving from a concentration on the finished product, I am gaining an awareness of the raw materials and processes involved. Experiencing, literally first hand, through touch and sensation, its stages of transformation.

Attempting ham-fistedly to bring the dough under my control, wishing in vain for it to become more recognisably bread-like, I struggled at first to feel the changes that Andrew described as the yeast fermentation and kneading took effect. It was hard work, and the mixing machine standing in the corner looked rather inviting. But as the course progressed and my fingers warmed to the activity, I grew more sensitive to the slight changes in consistency that occurred; and started to develop an appreciation and respect for the processes at work within the dough itself.

Alongside his quietly considered and gentle manner, Andrew has all the deftness and speed of a true baker. While making full use of extended fermentation and proving times (he is a firm believer in the benefits to health and bread quality that come from taking things slowly), human intervention is performed swiftly and kept to a minimum. Through kneading we supply the dough with the energy needed to activate the yeasts, but beyond that we let natural processes do the work. And this seems to reflect something about Andrew’s whole approach to bread-making. Less is more. A keen and informed engagement with the materials and processes to hand is rooted in a philosophy that values quality and simplicity over superficial kicks.

Over the weekend we try our hands at an array of different breads. There is much conversation and laughter along the way, and we sit together for wonderful meals prepared by Veronica using organic produce, most of it fresh from the Macbiehill smallholding. During these breaks there are opportunities to learn more about projects happening in the local area, and it is here that we are given a window into what an approach to food production based in an ethic of sustainability might look like. Andrew and Veronica moved to the Pentland hills to get involved, not to get away. Working together with local people, producers and businesses such as the award-winning Whitmuir Farm, this is ‘local’ in its most resourceful and expansive sense. Veronica is co-director of a community-supported bakery project bringing together diverse skills from the area to make good organic bread a reality for more people. Addressing complex issues such as affordability and access to truly sustainable, organic food full in the face, this is work that develops producers as well as consumers and connects them with each other. By sharing ideas and seeking an alternative, it is making a clear response to global issues affecting us all.

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