‘Stop doing that with your hands, Helen!’ Jeff, the instructor was calling at me across the other eight apprentices, from the far end of the table. I paused, Lady Macbeth-like, in the endless rubbing of my sticky mitts. ‘Will these poor hands ne’er be clean?’ I nearly said; but Jeff was speaking again: ‘Look at my hands.’ Jeff has lovely hands – big and strong and gentle. I’m not really digressing, honestly. They were covered in a thin pale crustiness. His hands are perfectly suited to the job. ‘These are seasoned hands,’ he told me. ‘Enjoy getting sticky.’
So, yesterday I spent at a sourdough bread-making workshop at Breadshare in Portobello, Edinburgh, run by Deborah and Jeff, a pair of cheery Australians who have brought back meaning to the ancient guild title of ‘Baxter’ – the baker. I’d read about them in the Press as they have really cooked up a storm. Grace Dent, no less, visited them in her recent tour of all things foodie in Edinburgh, and raved about their bagels. (I would like to be Grace Dent when I grow up – well-informed, great sense of humour, cheeky, has a great job. And, oh well, thin.)
There are many things I have learned by reading books (e.g. childrearing – ask the Wunderkind). Results may vary but still, you do your best. Instinct and common sense obviously play their part, but I’m not all that well endowed with the latter. Anyway, yesterday was a great wake-up call to the fact that some skills are better learned hands-on. Sticky.
I tried just letting the goo adhere, and do you know, it actually worked? Once I rid myself of my unthinking prejudice towards clean hands, I was fine. It was liberating. And more: says Jeff, ‘the table is your friend.’ You don’t need to peel your dough off cleanly each time you shove it around – the table is holding it in place for you so that you can stretch it more easily. And you should have seen the way Jeff coaxed his little pile of raggy dough into a smooth Botticelli-round pillow – it nearly brought tears to my eyes. But, he showed us, if you keep the edges of your hands on the table, and lightly-quickly whizz it around, we could do it too! Nearly. Sometimes. With practice.
In the picture above you can see our pizza doughs resting under clear plastic bowls. We let them rise a bit, slapped them down and around, loaded them up with goodies, and baked them for lunch. There’s a tricky point where you have to get them off the tray via a long paddle, or peel, and into the oven. I’m sorry to say mine didn’t survive that process too well, and the toppings sort of fell through the dough onto the oven floor – you could hear the sizzle. It tasted okay but it was definitely at the bottom of the class, looks-wise.
Everything else though was a triumph. Here’s what I brought home at the end of the day:
a Borodinsky Rye, with 40-year-old Russian sourdough (oh the delight of copious coriander seed!); a seeded sourdough cob; a lovely little square batch; a cob with walnuts and another with walnuts and big fat sticky dates. What a haul. Everything organic. Nothing added. Flour, water, yeast and a few well-chosen goodies. And a tub of rye sourdough and a slightly bigger one of wheat leaven starter, with all the info we need to repeat, at home. Breakfast will never be the same again.