Saturday, 9 July 2011

A day in Bertinet's kitchen

It all started last Saturday. Tallboy dropped me off in Bath at half nine, and I made my way to The Bertinet Kitchen, tucked away just above George Street. As it's on the side of a steep hill, the shop is on street level, and so is the kitchen. It's just that they're different streets. With unerring predictability, I chose the wrong street.

We started with toast and coffee and hello I'm so and so. The group gradually swelled until we were thirteen or fourteen, the boys outnumbering the girls and the vast majority present because they'd been bought the course as a gift.

The session proper started with a discussion about the contents of bread, contrasting those of home-baked bread and supermarket sliced bread. Then followed an exposition of the French method of dough working - the bare-armed baker at his trough, the frasage, the découpage, the passage en tête, the étirage, the soufflage, all magical, mysterious and evocative terms. The contrast with the hammering we're taught to give the dough in this country was astonishing.

Finally, it was time for action. Richard wielded his scraper with virtuosity and showed no hesitation in showing the dough who was boss. I'd seen his method on TV previously - that was what had excited my interest in learning more. It was fascinating to see it close up, but disheartening too, as there was no way I was going to be able to do that - at least not just yet.

The freshly mixed dough was removed from the mixing bowl with the encouragement of the scraper, tidied and tucked in around the edges again by means of the scraper, then scooped up double-handed, the top third being gripped and the rest hanging down towards the worktop. A little flick forwards of the still dangling trailing edge, then a swift slap onto the worktop, the sound of the impact startlingly loud. Now the pulling back of the part still gripped, bringing it over and away in an air-gathering arc, then laying it back down on the part still adhering to the worktop. All along, the same part stays on top - no flipping or turning, just the same movement repeated, with the same piece on top. A quick scrape, tuck and tidy every so often, but mostly just grab, slap, pull and over, the rhythm of the noise almost metronomic.

Within a few minutes, the dough was sufficiently worked and consigned back to its bowl for rising, and then it was our turn. We worked in pairs, which was a little frustrating as I itched to do it all myself and translate what I'd seen into actions, but it was also useful as you had the opportunity to stand back and observe. Getting the hang of the action was hard work, and our lump of dough looked nothing like Richard's. Gallingly, he would come past, see the state of it, work it for a moment and it would look perfect; back in our hands it reverted to a sticky, recalcitrant mess.

Our second (and much larger) batch was more successful, but worked between four of us, so the itching-to-be-doing-it factor was multiplied. The second batch was much easier to work and I finally felt like I had the hang of the grab slap pull and over. Using the scraper became much easier too, trying to take the lump of dough for a walk around the table while keeping the top, well, on top.

More scraper practice with the risen dough - fabrication of fougasses, breadsticks, loaves in tins - then Richard put together two huge trays of herb-laden focaccia. We got to practise oven technique too. The correct approach is one of respect and obeisance - on one knee, you open the door fully, the warm blast merely riffling your hair as it passes over you rather than catching you full in the face and huffing up your specs. Now you can introduce your peel and with a little flourish pull it away, your dough left perfectly on the baking stone, then close the door and leave it to do its stuff.

At last in the baking kitchen it was time for lunch - it had been a hard few hours' work and to sit down and appreciate what we'd made was very welcome. Our produce looked amazing arranged in baskets on the table, and we enjoyed a companionable lunch together.

The only thing left to do was to equip myself with some necessities for my baking at home. I had to get Dough and Crust, both of which Richard signed for me, and a couple of linen cloths, oh and two scrapers. And a pot of delicious sea salt. Sadly while I was queuing up to make my purchases, the communal produce was being shared out - when finally I came to fill my little brown paper bag, all the breadsticks had gone. Still it, was an excuse to make some more the next day - and let's face it, I clearly need the practice...

I left with my head full of new ideas and techniques, marvelling at Richard's effortless prowess, and astonished at the hard work behind the scenes which makes a kitchen work - Kieran seemed to be everywhere, all the time, anticipating Richard's next requirement like a theatre sister ready to slap the next instrument into the surgeon's outstretched hand. I was very impressed. So was Tallboy when he picked me up and saw the goodies I was bringing home with me, although his face fell rather when I told him that Richard said he wasn't allowed to buy any more supermarket sliced loaves.

At the beginning of the day, Richard had told us that we would all now become bread bores. We'd host dinner parties and wait for someone to ask us where we'd got our bread, whereupon our spouse would bury their face in their hands while we launched into bread mode. I rather think he was right...

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