A couple of weeks ago, I rolled out of bed at the very crack of dawn, showered, dressed and drove myself to Sheffield train station from where I took the first train of the day to London. I’d packed one of my favourite baking books of all time and made sure my phone was fully charged, ready to capture the magic to come on it’s camera and I tried desperately to not burst with excitement before my train shunted into the bewitching mix of gothic and modern architecture, if somewhat sooty King’s Cross, St Pancras station.
As the carriage screeched to a halt and the brakes hissed and exhaled loudly, I was stood waiting at the first door, pumped to race off through the ticket barriers, jog briskly to the tube then perch myself on a dirty seat with frosty strangers avoiding eye contact with the bubbling over with joy and beaming Scouser clutching her tatty copy of Short & Sweet, wishing every agonisingly minute quickened so she could get started on a day she’s been dreaming of for years.
As the tube doors opened at Oxford Circus at a little before 9:30 am, I could barely contain myself any longer and I broke into a run, following the blue arrow on my phone’s Google maps to Little Portland Street. There, a tiny shop front with stairs leading down to a cookery school hidden from view and barely a stone’s throw from high street shopping tourist trap hell hosted a baking class by one of my all time food idols. Yes, that’s right, I was about to embark upon a Sourdough Masterclass with none other than Dan Lepard himself!
As I trotted down the stairs with a couple of my fellow classmates for the day, I had to focus on calming down and get ahold of the nerves you feel when you are about to meet someone you respect greatly for fear of coming off like a babbling idiot. I’m afraid the coat hanger grin you see plastered on my face was a permanent feature of the day. As I hung my coat up I turned to see the man himself and he made his way over to us, welcoming us with a warm smile and an unnecessary introduction of himself.
Once warm hellos were exchanged, Dan immediately launched into a conversation about food. And that conversation did not stop the whole day. The kitchen staff shimmied through the growing crowd of bread students, took orders for tea and coffee, encouraging us to eat our fill of homemade luxury granola with thick and creamy yogurt and freshly made rhubarb compote whilst they made cheese and herb scones for us to eat hot from the oven. They too could not have been more attentive or more passionate about their food.
Dan spoke about how his career began not as a baker, but as a photographer and how back when he began earning his living through this, food photography didn’t really exist. Certainly not in the market-saturated fashion it does today. We talked about the providence of ingredients, the importance of moderation in the foods we eat, the environmental reasons for looking critically at the source of produce we chose and the impact it has on the planet those choices have. We touched upon alternative diets like paleo and vegan lifestyles and of course, we talked at length about bread.
It’s structure, it’s flavour, it’s appearance in photos on social media! It’s not a loaf until you have a cut surface, crumb shot said Dan with a cheeky little ginger bearded grin! Dan spoke about food writing with a wealth of experience and professionalism I was quite genuinely in awe of and am still reflecting upon now. The perils of social media such as in trolling and how things can be misconstrued and spun in unfavourable light came up but we mostly focussed on the positive side of the food industry and in particular, the rise of home baking and desire to eat better at home using the best, most ecologically sound ingredients you could.
Can you imagine how my noodle nearly imploded from the awesomeness of spending so many hours chatting about nothing but food, with a room full of people that shared the same loves as me? I do not say this lightly but oh my, it was one of the very best days of my life.
Of course, it wasn’t just general foodie chit chat that we indulged in, although Dan’s delightful husband who is very much the voice of reason and practicality to Dan’s creative genius did have to keep on reminding Dan we had a full schedule of sourdough baking to get through! Dan showed us how to make a simple sourdough loaf, a naturally leavened rosemary and sea salt focaccia and an olive and dill rye sourdough loaf with nigella and sesame seed coating.
He talked us through the principles and techniques of baking with sourdough, passing on tips by the dozen alongside the 5000 words of course notes each student was sent home with. The overriding message I took from Dan’s lamentations was that there are plenty of ways to make naturally leavened doughs and you just need to practice and experiment. I liked his direction and suggestion based teaching style, he definitely wasn’t dictatorial as a teacher.
We had a late lunch in order to get through everything we needed to in order to be able to finish our bakes. The kitchen staff turned the room around like for the evening do of a wedding, dressing the tables with clean white linens and serving artisan cheeses, homemade chutneys, plenty of wine and focaccia and rye sourdough that Dan made himself for the class to sample. It was utterly delicious and I had to pinch myself that I was having my lunch sat next to my bread, if not baking in general, hero!
After lunch, we chatted about how to make a starter and keep it alive (again there were lots of tips on how to do this). I’m putting all of this new found wealth of knowledge into practice and when I feel I’ve cracked it, you bet your life I’ll be sharing it with you too. As with all good things, they must come to an end eventually. After one final exceedingly good coffee and handmade truffles (freshly made that day whilst we were baking!), it was time to collect our loaves and goodie bags and say our thanks and goodbyes.
Being such a stand-up guy, Dan didn’t flinch at me asking him to sign my copy of his magnum opus, Short & Sweet. Our goodie bags contained a bench scraper, a pot of starter and directions on how to use it, a kilo of organic white bread flour by Shipton Mill and a sachet of organic yeast to sample. Yup, we used a bit of yeast in one recipe as there’s nothing wrong with using a little starter for flavour and some yeast to ensure making bread fits in with your busy lives, not takes over it!
All in all, this was truly a magical day. I mean, you know how much I love food (hence this blog!) but baking will always hold an extra special place in my heart, especially bread (although pastry making comes very close). And if you’ve read me wax rhapsodic about Dan Lepard’s Orange, Pistachio & Carrot Cake with his perfect lemon cream cheese frosting – the Platinum Blonde Scheherazade – you’ll know how much I think of Dan.
I respect his work greatly and to meet the guy and see how genuinely lovely he was, full of passion, brimming over wanting to share his knowledge and love of real good bread was the stuff once in a lifetime opportunities are made of. I was one very happy JoJo as I toddled back to the station, to wend my weary but very, very happy way home.
I would recommend this Sourdough Masterclass to anyone intrigued by naturally leavened doughs. It is worth every single penny. My one minor criticism was how vicious the air conditioning was – bring a layer you don’t mind being dusted in flour to work and that is rectified!
I’ll be back to blogging recipes in a couple more days so hold on, if you are impatient to get in the kitchen!