That’s it. It’s all over. Thirty-nine weeks, hundreds of kilos of flour and many thousands of pounds have passed since I started at the School of Artisan Food. It has been quite a journey and not at all what I expected before I got here. Some aspects of the course weren’t quite up to the high standards I’d been promised from their glossy website and prospectus. But many other unexpected plusses to being at the school presented themselves along the way. I do feel that I made the most of my time there and thoroughly enjoyed my stay. I’m not sure I could recommend the full time diploma to anyone – not without some very careful consideration about what they want to get from the course and an understanding of what the course will deliver. I do not know what changes will be made to the course next year, but some things definitely need a review. And it was with these kinds of reflective thoughts that I entered my final week at the school. A week in which there was only one thing left to do – the final bakery assessment.
The final assessment was purely practical. Each baker was to produce eight different types of bread in the space of eight hours. Baguettes, Ciabatta, Pain de Campagne, White, Malthouse and a freestyle bread were all on the list. For my freestyle piece I foolishly decided to bake the chocolate marshmallow balls I’d created earlier in the year. As the assessment was based on flour weight, and there isn’t much flour in each ball, I ended up baking over 150 of the little things. We were given an extra hour on the day before our assessment to prepare anything we needed for the bake off. I actually ended up doing this step twice as I fell ill and had to postpone my exam. Thanks to the other students whose exam I ended up crashing – having an extra student in the bakery was a bit of a squeeze.
The day itself went relatively smoothly, all things considered. I had put two of my doughs in the fridge, ready to be shaped and baked on the day, which saved me a lot of time. Everything else slowly drifted from the timetable and by the time I finished hand rolling 150 chocolate buns I was well and truly behind. In the end I finished almost an hour overtime, and was penalised for it, but I didn’t mind. Everything came out of the oven looking just how I wanted. Even my baguettes were straight, of a roughly equal size and slashed nicely. I was really pleased to have been able to bake that range of bread having not touched any dough for the previous three weeks.
The final task was to create a display of our products. I’d bought some baskets and table cloths in to put the bread in. Not terribly creative, but it seems to bring out the best in bread. Seeing the entire spread laid out on the table gave me a huge sense of relief. After travelling so far away from home and spending a year at a funny little school in the middle of nowhere I really can bake bread.
I know this is a bit of a cop out, but I’ve left myself no option but to sum up pretty much the whole of the final term in dot points. I think this proves how busy things get at the School of Artisan Food and just how hard I have been working. While completing my studies I have also been working on an exciting new project which has consumed a lot of my spare time. I’ll introduce that a bit later. For now enjoy the final flurry that was the last term at school.
- Our market stall at Nottingham had mixed results. We were given a stall near the fish section, whose stench deterred many customers. We learnt a lot from the exercise but it was ultimately cut short. Playing with the wood fired oven was fun, but definitely seems like an insane way to run a bakery. It’s hard enough as it is without having to worry about lighting a massive fire three hours before baking!
- We paid a visit to Monmouth Coffee and Neal’s Yard Dairy in London.
- Ben Peverelli, founder of Leon, came to talk to us.
- I gave a presentation on how and why I photograph food.
- We had to prepare and present a business plan.
- We wrote many essays discussing what an artisan is.
- We took another trip to Harper Adams to conduct tests on croissants. I made some shockingly bad croissants in my kitchen at home and compared them against Tesco’s finest. My croissants were beaten in all areas except taste.
- Those of us taking the patisserie minor had to perform a practical assessment. I made rhubarb and custard choux balls, almond choux, dark toffees, earl grey soufflés, chocolate-covered marshmallow on biscuit and black rice pudding with apricot jam.
- I made some strawberry jam.
- I invited everyone over to my house for a pancake breakfast one last time.
- I travelled home to Australia to do my last work placement, where I worked for a week at La Galette de France.
Many other things happened during this time and I’m a bit disappointed I haven’t managed to keep the blog up to date. It would have been nice to have a complete record of the weeks, but I think I did pretty well to keep writing for as long as I did. I have saved one last post for the final week, where we had our baking assessment. Stay tuned for that!
The school had a special surprise for us bakers this week. Rumours began on Twitter late last week but no one quite guessed correctly. When we were all back at school, fresh from work placement, Wayne broke the news to us that we would be running a pop up bakery in Nottingham. As if this wasn’t enough of a challenge, we were also told that we would be working downstairs in the Welbeck Bakehouse. All bread was to be baked in the wood fired oven, packed on to a van, then displayed and sold in a stall we had been given at the Victoria Centre Market. In order to accomplish this, the group of ten bakers was split into teams of two – each with a particular responsibility. Over the coming weeks we will rotate between managing, mixing, baking, sweets and selling. We will prepare on Wednesdays, bake and sell on Thursdays then spend Fridays as per usual in the classroom. It all sounds good in theory but we’ll see how it goes in practice. We used this week to acclimatise ourselves to the fiery oven environment.
In other news this week I managed to sit on my camera and break it. So don’t expect much activity on my Flickr site until that situation is resolved.
My second week in London has been a great experience. At E5 I was able to help out on three bake shifts – undoubtedly the most satisfying shift. It’s a brilliant feeling unloading freshly baked bread in front of customers and loading it straight on to the shelves for them to buy. Things got quite busy on Friday when we had a few special orders, bakery experiments and even some lasagne to bake off in the oven. I felt like I’d made lots of progress when I managed to balance the ovens and get all the bread out in reasonably good time and fashion. I really enjoyed my two weeks at E5 Bakehouse and found it to be more rewarding than my previous placement – mostly because E5 is much closer to the ideal bakery I have in my head than The Artisan Bakery was.
One of the nice things about working at E5 has been the range of bakers and chefs I have met during my short stay. It seems like everyone is clambering to get experience making bread at the bakehouse and as a result, every day there is a different pastry chef, baker or volunteer in the bakery. One of the guys I worked with is the pastry chef at Workshop Coffee, a really swish coffee roaster/cafe/restaurant. He invited me to check out the kitchen there and I’m very glad I did. They have done an amazing job at fitting out the cafe and restaurant area, really making the most of putting their little coffee roaster on display. The kitchens were also an eye-opener, as they are split over three floors. The poor pastry chef told me a few stories of dropping trays of cakes down the stairs. What a nightmare!
Tuesday was the highlight of my week by a mile. After my shift at E5 I made my way to Harrods, via Bea’s of Bloomsbury for a quick cake stop, for Rachel Khoo‘s book signing. I’d never been to Harrods before and I’m not sure if I’ll go back without a very good reason. The place is a maze of very expensive products surrounded by hoards of tourists. I got there a little early and ended up having to sit in the garden seating section for about thirty minutes, feeling a bit like a mannequin. I’m very surprised I didn’t get asked to move on. After a bit more waiting Rachel appeared in front a crowd of about 150 people. She was scheduled to give a demo, making some savoury choux pastry blobs, but when that started going a bit pear-shaped she decided to give it a miss and head straight into signing books. I have a feeling it may have been Rachel’s first public cooking appearance and think that she handled the pastry issue very well. Most people were there to get a book signed, so I don’t think anyone really minded that the demo was cut short. After an hour-long wait in a very lengthy line I finally managed to meet Rachel and have my book signed. She seemed like a very vibrant and lovely woman and I’m amazed at how far she has come from the very simple beginnings of running a restaurant from her home in Paris.
This week I made my way down to London for my second lot of work placement. This time around I’m spending two weeks at E5 Bakehouse, a bakery that is radically different to The Artisan Bakery where I had my last placement. E5 is a combined bakery and cafe housed in a railway arch in South Hackney. My first impression was that this residential area is significantly more pleasant than the industrial side of London I experienced last time. There is plenty of life around the railway, London Fields and main roads of Hackney. Notable local institutions that I visited during my stay included The Hackney Picture House, Hackney Bureau, The Cat and Mutton and Broadway Market.
As far as London bakeries go, E5 Bakehouse is rather unique. They are one of the few bread bakeries that produce on the same site that they sell. I guess that rent prices in London coupled with limited space means that it almost always makes more sense to bake offsite then transport to shops within the city. Working from a railway arch means that E5 has plenty of space and a lower rental cost. E5 has kept the space relatively open, meaning that the customers can see the bakers working away, while the bakers can see the customers enjoying their hard work. I also discovered during my stay that there are a few downsides to working in an arch, but I won’t list them here.
E5 produces a focussed range of quality bread. Everyone working there is a real bread-head and they take no shortcuts in the bread making process. Their most popular bread, named the Hackney Wild, is slowly and cooly fermented over a couple of days and the result is quite spectacular. This week I helped out with mixing and shaping. They have a neat old twin arm mixer, but it doesn’t do much work. Most of the dough is divided into small bowls then worked by hand. It makes an impressive sight on Fridays (one of the busier days) when the bakery is full of bowls of dough, each slowly rising.
I’ve had a bit of time to explore more of London and have managed to get to a few places I missed out on last time around. The highlight so far has been Look Mum No Hands – a cafe and bike shop combined. All bike-themed cafes I have been into previously have been light-on in the cafe department or too intensely bikey. Look Mum seems to strike the balance perfectly, with a small but select bike section set amongst a rather large eating area – which includes a screen for showing races and films. I spent Sunday afternoon watching Liège–Bastogne–Liège and it seemed to work perfectly as a space. I’ll definitely be paying a few more visits before my time in London is up!
It may have been the first week back after the Easter break, but we weren’t going to ease ourselves back into the routine. Nope. We were going to pack our bags, hop in the school mini-bus for eight hours and drive ourselves to France!
The purpose of the trip was to visit the headquarters of Lesaffre, the world’s largest yeast manufacturer, in Lille. After some creative navigating around the outskirts of Lille we finally made it to our accommodation in a somewhat industrial area of the city, right near a Paul Bakery factory. The view of the huge nondescript facility nestled amongst a rather ugly business park was a precursor to the kind of world we would be immersed in for the next few days.
The Lesaffre facility is, by an artisan baker’s standards, massive. It is used by Lesaffre’s medium and large clients to product develop and troubleshoot baked goods. The building is separated into four or so independent bakeries – each decked out with a plethora of ovens, mixers, dividers, shapers, fridges, proofers and other bits of kit many of us had never seen before. There was enough equipment to pump out thousands of breads a day but here it sat dormant most of the time, waiting for some test bakers or students to come along and whip up a few small batches of baguettes or pain de campagne. So that’s exactly what we did.
Over Wednesday and Thursday we baked about ten different types of breads along with a couple of croissant and danish pastries. Naturally we used Lesaffre’s products in each of them. Apart from their yeast the ingredients also included pre-made sourdough cultures (LV1, LV2 and LV3) and a kind of sourdough flavouring called creme de levain. It was interesting to see how these ingredients worked but, ultimately, I don’t think that they are the kinds of things most of us will be adding to our breads. It was great to see the facilities that Lesaffre have available to their clients and it’s nice that I can now say that I have baked bread in France, but I don’t think these are things that most of us in the class will have the need to revisit anytime soon.
We enjoyed a lovely French meal together on our final night in Lille, then got up early the next day to explore the city centre and seek out some bakeries. While we came across too many Paul chain outlets we did manage to find a couple of really high-end boulangeries and patisseries selling very refined products in some fancy looking outlets at rather high prices. It was amazing to see bakers mixing it with high-end fashion shops but at the same time it’s a bit sad that something that should be simple and accessible to all can be pushed to a premium level. It’s not the way I would want to run a bakery, but it certainly was an eye-opener.
Here we are already. The end of term two. This week was a busy one, with a few written assignments due alongside a practical patisserie assessment. While I feel like I didn’t do particularly well in any of the written items I think I put about as much time as I possibly could into them given the spread of work I have on at the moment.
First up was a presentation in business on the results of our latest farmer’s market exercise. I made a few more videos for this, but none quite good enough to be put up on YouTube like last time. The presentation went well and I think the feedback we got from our customers at the market was beneficial to all of us. There was also a rather nasty essay due for business on the role of entrepreneurship and business growth in artisan food businesses.
Tuesday saw the patisserie students engaged in a challenging practical assessment. We had to produce two items – on traditional patisserie item with a twist and one item of our own creation. Just to make things difficult for myself, I chose to make three different types of tarts for my own creation. Two were creme-brulee tarts with herb infusions (one was saffron and the other coriander) and one was a basil custard and strawberry tart. My piece was a twist were mini-galettes with slices of pear inside them. Unfortunately my creme-brulee tarts didn’t have enough time to set and my galettes exploded a little. Even so, they tasted pretty good and I’m sure I did enough to at least pass.
On Wednesday Sara Autton from Fermex, a distributor of flour additives, improvers and conditioners visited us to discuss the roles these ingredients play in baking and how they could improve our products. As artisan bakers we aren’t supposed to be interested in these kinds of additives and I think Sara did very well at explaining how they work to such a tough audience. Her technical understanding of how baking works is incredible, which is why she is the coach of the British World Cup Baking Team. We’ll be catching up with Sara in a few weeks when we visit Lesaffre in Lille, France.
The last two days in the bakery were very laid back. Wayne showed us the types of doughs used in producing bread art – the kind of decorative pieces you see on display in more traditional bakeries around Europe. While this dough is technically edible you probably wouldn’t want to eat it. It’s very stiff and dead, allowing it to be shaped easily and not change its shape too much when baked. We each made a wheat sheaf on Thursday then produced our own designs on Friday. I made a little Rollapaluza piece to commemorate my upcoming trip to London to compete in the finals then packed up early – I had to get to the train station at midday to meet Jess for the start of her exciting holiday in the East Midlands!
This week we concentrated on something very foreign to me – British breads. Before moving here I had no idea that Britain really had any iconic breads. This naivety was shared by the German people I visited over Christmas, with them getting very upset that I’d choose to learn baking in a country that seemingly has no baked claims to fame. I’m happy to report after this week that this is not the case. Britain does have some breads to call their own, but they seem to keep them to themselves.
I’ve come to the conclusion that England is just like Australia but smaller and busier – or maybe it’s that Australia is just like England but bigger and quieter. In either case it should come as no surprise that, just like in Australia, the most popular breads here are basic and white. Therefore the first bread we created was a simple white bread. We formed these into a few different sizes and shapes and topped them with seeds. Nothing too exciting but they’re easy to make, low on ingredient costs and sell well (apparently).
From that point on things got progressively sweeter, fattier and more interesting. The climax was probably the malt loaf. A sticky, goopy mess of a loaf that’s made with treacle. Yummy.
On Friday we were given the chance to experiment with British products and make our own creations. To be honest, my attempts were a complete disaster. I tried making scones and two types of crumpets/pikelets. The scones were passable maybe but the crumpets were a write-off. I’m not sure why mine were so bad, but Lindsay managed to create some fine-looking examples. I’ll have to copy her more closely next time.
The bakery must have gone through a record amount of butter and lard this week. Everything we made contained copious amounts of fat and was coated in yet more fat and sugar. It all kicked off on Tuesday, when we made puff pastry in patisserie. We compared our own pastry to some store-bought pastry and the difference was remarkable. The store-pastry looked grey and lifeless and lacked puff. I attempted to make some gallette just like I had in Paris from my puff pastry. It was all going well until I tried to bake a glaze on to them and they became a little over-caramelised.
Then on Wednesday and Thursday we cracked open more cases of fat to make lots of enriched doughs. This included things like lardy cake, which had lard mixed through the dough and croissant and danish doughs, which had butter laminated into them in layers. Yum.
The highlight was Friday, when Emmanuel baked off the many trays of danishes that we had prepared the day before, while we fired up the deep friers and made piles of doughnuts. It was amazing!
This week was, in one word, extreme. It culminated in the bakers attending a farmers market at Harper-Adams university with a van full of our own bread. Students from the other disciplines were also there but, due to timing issues, they weren’t selling their own products. Wednesday, Thursday and Friday were spent planning, preparing, test baking and baking before the big day on Sunday. We ended up with 25 different products to sell at the market and I’m very happy to report that everything sold evenly and we only had a small amount left over. Our customers were very keen to buy real bread and were genuinely disappointed when they learnt that we were students from a school three hours drive away from the market and that our bread stall was a once-off.
We split the rather large baking group into two, to best manage our resources. Matt, Lindsay, Sally and I manned the stall on Sunday while everyone else baked the bread the previous evening. There was a bit of overlap, with Matt also helping in the bake shift and me coming in for a few hours to bake my chocolate hot cross buns. I really enjoyed working on the stall, telling people about our bread and listening to their feedback. It was a much more rewarding experience than selling pancakes at the previous market.
Earlier in the week we were visited by Paolo Feroleto who led us through some brainstorming exercises and helped us develop business name and branding ideas. I found it extremely helpful to be prompted to think about these things and, while it was only for an hour or so, it was good to get some of my ideas down on paper. Paolo has written a bit of a report on the day, which you can read for yourself right here.