Now I know this column likes to keep up with the seasons and, to a lesser extent, with food trends, but I had no idea it was blessed with the gift of prophecy. Readers of Tom Cooks! will be aware that for the past two Fridays we have been giving you joyous things to put on your toast. It had always been the plan to devote a few columns to the making of the self same toast. Here goes.
2 slices of bread; 1 toaster....
We have featured bread before, and planned to do so again, starting on Friday. Synchronicity struck. Just a few days ago there popped into my inbox an email, proclaiming that 18 - 26 February is Real Bread Week. And there's more. 2023 will see the first ever Scottish Real Bread Festival, taking place on Saturday 25 February at Bowhouse, near St Monans in Fife. The Thursday of that week will see the (private) judging of the Scottish Bread Championship, with the results to be announced at the Festival.
Until now the Championship has been hosted at the Royal Highland Show, this being its first year at Bowhouse. For the first time, it is open to amateurs and professionals alike, under a wide range of categories. If you fancy your chances, entries must be submitted by 15 February. You can find the rules and entry form here.
It is fitting that it has moved to Bowhouse, since that is the base of Andrew Whitley, co founder of the award along with Wendy Barrie. Both have featured in this column before, and will no doubt do so again, but I thought it would be appropriate to begin Tom's Food!'s own bread season with a bit more about Andrew and his fabulous little book-
Do/Sourdough/Slow Bread for Busy Lives
The Do Book Company pp157 £9.99
You don't get too many Andrew Whitleys to the pound. After studying in the old Soviet Union, Andrew worked for the BBC World Service as a producer on the Russian desk. A keen amateur baker, he acquired a taste for rye bread while in Moscow. Before long he was almost unique in the UK in producing sourdough rye bread, a hobby which he converted to a business in 1976 when he set up The Village Bakery in Cumbria. In 2008 he founded the Real Bread Campaign. The following year he won the André Simon prize for Bread Matters, an important tome of almost encyclopaedic proportions with recipes, techniques and a scorching critique of modern industrially produced bread.
Today's book was produced some time later. While Andrew will never lose his zeal, this is calmer and more approachable in style. It recognises that many people with busy lives feel they can't fit in the time to make real bread (ie free from chemical additives, including mass produced yeast). Gently, it exposes that as the myth it is. While a sourdough loaf may take 20 hours to produce, only one hour of the baker's time is required. He even suggest three different timetables according to the baker's schedule and habits.
Perhaps more importantly, it is readable, providing help and encouragement in equal measures. You will read it in a couple of hours and come away inspired. One note of caution. Do make sure you read it properly. When a friend pressed on me a starter, I misunderstood the difference between starter, ie the mix you keep in the fridge, and production sourdough (the bubbling combo ready to be mixed with the flour and water to produce your loaf). That led me to a fairly catastrophic error, one which would have been avoided had I taken a little more time.
Rereading the draft of this made me realise I was underselling Andrew's little masterpiece. He drills down into terms thoughtlessly bandied about in bread recipes - ideal proving temperatures; doubled in size; makes a hollow sound when tapped. He provides numerous recipes. He even talks you through the ideal life of a single loaf to ensure that not a crumb is wasted. I learned so much. If I have seen further it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants.
This book distils the very essence of bread baking. Follow Andrew's wise words; let his zeal inspire you; then get baking. You may not be ready for the Scottish Bread Championship this year, but in 2024.....?
If you're new to bread making, the journey will start on Friday. If the idea of sourdough puts you off, don't worry. We'll begin at the beginning, at a very basic level.