Saturday, 17 February 2018

Sourdough workshop

A couple of months ago, Jane and I attended a pasta-making course, and it proved to be a huge success. In view of this, our expectations were high yesterday when we attended a Sourdough Workshop at Bread Ahead at Borough Market, London. Cutting a long story short, we were not disappointed!

Our attendance on this course confirmed our opinion that here is no substitute for real hands-on participation, facilitated by a good instructor with a depth of experience. Our instructor was Manuel - not, as you might think, Spanish, but French - a baker with 26 years of experience, a calm, relaxed and friendly manner, and a very evident passion for baking bread. Under his direction we all (10 students, ranging from complete novices to competent home bakers) produced four completely different breads, and a pizza for our lunch too.

Those free shower-caps you get in hotel rooms are useful bits of kit!

We "began at the beginning", as they say, with Manuel telling us a bit about the history, principles and basic concepts of sourdough bread, before going on to begin our own Starters. Making a sourdough Starter is incredibly easy (50g Rye flour and 50g water added every day for six days), but it is certainly the "magic ingredient". We of course used some Starter that had been prepared earlier - taken from the bakery downstairs in fact. At the appropriate moments we also learned about "Poolish", pre-ferments and "Hard Starters". Significantly, none of the starters were remotely like the ones I have been using, which probably explains why my results to-date have not been stellar! Perhaps the biggest eye-opener though was the method of kneading that Manuel taught us - really energetic and rough (plus very messy). We certainly learned very quickly what a useful tool a small flexible plastic scraper is!

Plastic scraper

From start to finish we were very impressed with how well organised our class was: Manuel had the assistance of one lady (Fran) who dished out the ingredients and equipment as required and coped with the washing-up, whilst he himself demonstrated, explained and helped the students where necessary. In his unhurried yet energetic style he inspected, adjusted, finished-off and occasionally rectified everyone's efforts, so that everyone ended up with competent, and in some cases outstanding bread.

Borodinsky Rye loaves proving

Baking with sourdough requires lots of pauses for dough to rise or rest or prove, so parts of one recipe were "interleaved" with parts of others to avoid long periods of inactivity. I have to say that except for during the official breaks the pace was fast. There was a lot to do, so never a dull moment. As an ex-instructor myself, I was very aware how nice it was to have a group of people who were all so keen to learn. In my work I often had students who really did NOT want to be there! Our group yesterday was good - everyone got on well together and helped each other to learn.

The breads we made were:
A classic White Levain
A French-style Baguette
A no-knead white loaf with raisins and Fennel seeds
A "Borodinsky" Russian-style Rye loaf flavoured with molasses, Coriander seed and Caraway seed
And of course, our lunchtime pizza. [NB: probably the best pizza I have ever eaten!]

White Levain in the centre foreground

No-knead white with raisins and Fennel


Naturally we got to bring home the bread we made, (paper bags and carriers provided) so between us Jane and I had 8 loaves. Some of it has had to go into the freezer, which will probably reduce its attractiveness a bit, but we just can't eat it all at once. I always want to eat bread like this as soon as possible. I'm usually standing over it as it cools, with my hand poised on the butter-knife, waiting for it to be the right temperature for us to start eating it.

In addition to the bread, we also brought home our Starters, which now have to be fed daily for the next five days before being ready to use. Bread Ahead thoughtfully provided each student with a bag containing just the amount of Rye flour they need to complete their Starter, so that they didn't have to rush out to the shops straight away to buy some. Little things like that make a big difference to people's perception of a course, and don't cost a huge amount of money. At this point I should perhaps mention that a place on this course normally costs £160, but we had ours for free since Jane won them as a prize in a competition. (I'm hoping she'll win a butchery course next!). Thankfully, we also received a booklet with all the details of what we had covered, and the recipes. Without this I think I would struggle to remember everything, because there was a lot to take in.

Jane and I both read this initially as "Instruction Manual"!

This course was great fun and massively inspirational. I would recommend it to anyone. I'm just dying to get stuck in and make another loaf now!


  1. Mark, what a nice post this is! I always enjoy your blog and appreciate the "conversational" tone in which you write - it's so easy to read. I feel like we're having a chat.
    This course sounds delightful, lucky Jane for winning! Would you consider sharing the recipe for the no knead white bread with raisins and fennel seed? It sounds delicious.

    1. Thanks for those kind words - it's nice to know that someone enjoys what I write. As for the recipe, I'm afraid it is the Intellectual Property of Bread Ahead, and I'm honour-bound not to pass it on. If you contact them via their website they might be prepared to let you have it.

  2. That sounds like a fun day. Looking forward to future bread posts.

    p.s. Did your tutor explain the significance of Borodinsky bread? It's the Russian bread credited with defeating the French, in Napoleonic times!

    1. Our tutor had a different explanation. He said the bread was first made for the wake of a Russian general killed at the battle of Borodino. The molasses represent his blood, and the seeds represent the cannon-shot (canister / grape-shot) that riddled his body! (Allegedly...)

    2. Over 70,000 dead and they are still can't agree who won!

  3. This is something I really would like to try.

  4. Jane’s competition prizes are amazing!

  5. This looks like a really good course.
    I inherited a sourdough starter after my parents both went on a bread making course nr Totnes before Christmas and then had to teach myself what to do with it.
    Sourddough pizza has to be one of the best pizzas I have ever made.

    1. I inherited some Starter from a friend, but it never performed like the stuff we used on the course, which was amazingly vigorous! I agree about the pizza - the one we had for lunch that day was superb.


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