Italian breadmaking at Manna From Devon
“It’s ok, you’re meant to have a much wetter dough than most people think.”
Fine reassuring words from David Jones as I looked down at what was meant to at some point become a focaccia loaf. As he spoke with the assured clipped bark of the former Naval man he is, I couldn’t help but worry a little. Mainly because my ‘dough’ currently had the consistency of runny porridge.
I was at Manna from Devon HQ in Kingswear, just across the River Dart from Dartmouth, to learn about making bread – specifically Italian bread. As soon as I stumbled in late thanks to rural Devonian roads, I was at a disadvantage. Two other people are on the one-day course. One was Miranda Gardiner, a local writer and cook who at the time was about to published a cookbook (very good flapjacks). The other is Moira, a lady from Somerset who was on the second day of a two day cookery boot camp, a 40th birthday present from her husband. Given that the closest I had come as a 30-year-old man to making bread previously was pouring flour and other ingredients into an automatic bread machine, I had the feeling I may not shine here.
When David spoke his reassuring words to me, I was looking at a mixture of dough both old and new. Mixed with my flour, water, yeast and salt was biga, a dough used in Italian bread-making. Traditionally made using the day before’s leftover dough, it is half and half flour and water and was prepared the day before I arrived before being allowed to ferment overnight. This will result, David calmly told us, in bread with a greater depth of flavour than would otherwise be the case.
The biga is used in all four of the breads we made in the kitchen in the cookery school-cum-bed and breakfast. On the menu alongside my focaccia were ciabatta, a rustic wholemeal loaf, and a sweet and fruity bread, a type of Italian brioche whose name I cannot remember.
These were the long-process breads, the ones needing hours of regular TLC to make sure they arose looking their best.
With all of them needing long periods (45 minutes to 1 hour) between kneadings, we also learned how to make quick and easy bread related products, which would also be our lunch! So there were grissini breadsticks, mini pizzas and quick focaccia with a range of toppings.
We started off being shown how to make a basic dough and how to knead it properly. David whirled the moist and sticky dough ball around with a fair amount of aplomb as I looked at my two fellow students. Neither seemed as appalled as I did by the dexterity it seems we must show. I was in trouble.
Luckily, despite my cackhandedness, David was very patient. He didn’t seem to mind showing me how to stretch and flip the dough to increase its elasticity what seemed like a million times.
This was a basic dough we were flipping. It wasn’t possible to flip and slap my focaccia dough – as mentioned above it was a bit on the loose side. No, we were flipping our lunch. Kneading, slapping, stretching the dough to break down the starch or something, meaning the dough would expand without splitting and ripping.
Frankly, even without the end product, standing there around an enormous oak table in the middle of a huge warm kitchen in South Devon, with a coffee at my elbow (but not too close to it, obviously), pummelling the crap out of dough.
We started on our sloppy mixtures off in large plastic containers that allowed them to perform a controlled gloop. Slowly but surely, during the course of the day, it came together, forming a more solid mass, but only slightly. After several kneadings and shapings it has enough elasticity to be transferred to a baking tray and placed in the oven. A few short minutes later and the gelatinous masses were transformed into light and fluffy Italian style breads, light and fluffy thanks to their barely set dough and a little olive oil. Even my focaccia was identifiable as focaccia. Result!
But as mentioned previously, these set-piece loaves were not the sum of what we produced. There is a lot of spare time involved in making bread and during that we made our lunch. Simple pizzas thrown by our own hands, grissini breadsticks, thin flatbreads filled with meat and cheese and some simple quick-process focaccia, decorated as we wished – garlic, rosemary, sea salt, black pepper, peppers, olives etc.
What was great was that after just a few hours we already had something to show for it, which we could enjoy on the veranda with a glass of vino.
And then, at the end of the day, we each had a box, a bloomin’ box, of assorted breads to take home with us. We were hot, tired and slightly flour-crusted, but we all had a sense of achievement and of course enough Italian breads to last us for a week. Except, at least in my case, they lasted about two days because my girlfriend and I gobbled them. And who can blame us when you see them.
Manna From Devon is based at Fir Mount House, Higher Contour Road, Kingswear, Devon. The Italian bread course is £89 per person and is limited to eight people per session. Visit the Manna from Devon website for more details.