The Lighthouse Bakery school
Arrival Tue 22/7/08
After a fairly uneventful journey, I arrived in Robertsbridge, East Sussex, at about quarter past six. I found my B&B, a pleasant Victorian house not far from the station. It’s a very quiet village and modern houses mix with Tudor half timbered buildings with sagging roofs and windows. After a brief shower, I got ready and headed to the George pub to meet Rachel and Elizabeth.
Rachel is dark haired with freckled arms and a forthright manner. Elizabeth has wavy light red hair, wears tortoiseshell glasses, and is the slightly quirkier of the two. She’s not lost her American accent, though certain words she enunciates more clearly in an English way.
We talk of art, Liverpool, America, and other things I can’t recall. We are very well looked after, one of the owners of the pub makes sure we lack for nothing. They’re interested in taking on some Lighthouse bread, as they seem to have become a gastro pub in the not too recent past. The atmosphere is lovely, sensitive to period detail, but with modern lighting and comforts. There’s also Stanley, the resident basset hound, of whom Elizabeth is very fond. It turns out they have four cats at their house, which is sizable, perhaps an old farmhouse? Elizabeth would like a basset hound as well, but I think Rachel feels they have enough animals at the moment.
Our food is very good, though there are perhaps a few kinks to work out with the menu. Elizabeth’s salad was an overwhelming combination of flavours; Rachel’s lamb was slightly overcooked. My own food was fine, though my main course, which was a tart of tomatoes, onions and goat’s cheese, was covered in a profusion of salad leaves. The chocolate dessert was a chocolate and mint cake, with fresh mint leaves in the chocolate sauce. Rachel was very pleased to have celery served with her cheese board, but found the portions of cheese absolutely massive.
They were both very welcoming and we asked each other many questions about baking and the bakery and life in general. They wouldn’t hear of my offers to pay, even for my own food and drink. Rachel said she would pick me up in the morning after she made a delivery to a local farm shop. I couldn’t ask for a more lovely start to my visit and I’m looking forward to tomorrow.
Wednesday, 23/7/08, “Jewish Baking”
Biscuit of the day: hamantaschen
Rachel picks me up around 9.45 and explains she hasn’t yet made her delivery, because Elizabeth found out this morning that the live yeast had gone off so none of the breads were rising properly or otherwise acting how they were supposed to. Elizabeth is the chief baker, and Rachel oversees the admin side and does some baking and other kitchen prep as needed. Elizabeth had made new loaves of some of the breads by the time we arrive, but others will be finished later.
It turns out I’m the first and so far only person to take the Jewish Baking course, as this is the first time they’ve offered it. So for today I can be an honorary member of ‘The Tribe’ as Jews are colloquially known to each other. Elizabeth is from Boston originally and of Eastern European Jewish heritage, so she’s been making bagels and bialys in the bakery for years. Interwoven with the recipe directions and demonstrations is a history of each product and an explanation of how the ingredients interact with each other and the science of the breadmaking process. It’s a lot to take in, but never feels overwhelming. The flow of her delivery makes it one continuous story.
I had never tried a bialy, though had seen them in New York on many occasions. They’re kind of like large rolls or very small loaves and have a filling of onions mixed with breadcrumbs, so they’re more savory than bagels. Some of my onion filling fell out when getting them in the oven; the dough was a bit sticky and didn’t slide off the peel as easily as it should have. But I ate a successful one later, and thought it was pretty good.
We also made New York deli rye with caraway seeds, which brought back childhood memories of the sliced rye we used to have at home. Caraway *is* the smell of rye bread to me. Both of those loaves went into their freezer to be stored until I left, but I can’t wait to taste it.
I honestly haven’t had so much fun in ages. I don’t think I even stopped to go to the toilet because I never thought about it. We had a fantastic salad for lunch, which Rachel had made out of the veg from their organic garden. It had several kinds of lettuce, courgette, cherry tomatoes (bought, because local tomatoes haven’t ripened yet), and cubes of a delicious sheep’s milk cheese.
I was very much looking forward to making challah, having fond memories of eating it at summer camp. Going to a camp where it turns out 98% of the campers are Jewish kids from the metro New York area, you discover some foods that aren’t quite as common in suburban Pittsburgh. I managed to successfully plait my loaf, though it was narrower than the ones I remembered, possibly because there were fewer strands (this recipe made a 4 strand loaf). Bagels were the other thing I was looking forward to, proper American bagels being so difficult to come by in Britain. Liz had already made some bagel dough and shaped it, so we could boil and bake them straight away. We made some new dough and rolled it out into snake-like shapes. You then wrap the dough around your hand to join the two ends together. Mine were a bit lopsided, it’s a fine art to make a perfectly symmetrical bagel.
Hamantaschen are delicious little triangular biscuits filled with prune puree, or dried plums as we euphemistically call them. They resemble tricorner hats, or um, feminine imagery if you’re so inclined to view them that way. A. is already referring to them as minge biscuits after I described them to him. When we arrived there was a plate of fresh ones waiting on the long farmhouse-style table we eat around. I’ve got to say, I enjoy the intimacy of one-on-one classes, and I’m thrilled to be the only student for the first two classes. The involvement in every step of the process is the reason I’m there, but still so much fun. Weighing, mixing, kneading, putting things in and taking them out of the oven. Soon I’m programming the oven timers. I envy their four deck oven (meaning simply that there are four industrial ovens stacked on top of each other). They are high crown ovens, perhaps 5 feet long by 1 foot high. This means there is plenty of room for loaves to rise, but means biscuits and such are further away from the heat and may need to be raised up a bit to bake properly.
The other equipment new to me is the prover and the retarder. The prover has temperature controls which can provide dry heat or moist heat as required (or no heat at all if it’s off). This helps in the ‘proving’ stage, when the dough is undergoing a final rise (in a tin or baking tray depending on the shape of the product). The retarder is basically a fridge with a framework for sliding racks in. It helps cool things and slow down the fermentation process, if necessary, before baking. For example, the oatmeal raisin cookies we made on Thursday are best if you put them in the retarder for an hour or more before baking. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Rachel drops me off at the b&b, my bag now holding a loaf of challah and some bagels. I changed my clothes, read for a bit, then headed for the Ostrich, which was a few yards away from the B&B. It advertised a tropical garden and pub food, so I thought I’d have dinner there. After I got my pint and sat out in the garden, which was quite large and had several picnic tables, the barman came by and asked if I was all right. When I enquired about food, he said they only had filled rolls, so I had to find my tea elsewhere. This meant a trip to the other village pub, the Seven Stars.
When I got there, there were several members of the pub’s coopers (?) team wearing matching shirts, having just finished some sort of competition with the George. I’m guessing they won, as everyone seemed to be in good spirits. It was very much a locals’ sort of pub, the menu was more your typical pub fare, although the fish and chips featured a batter of local ale for the fish, so I chose that. It was also the only non-red meat-based main course. The beer mats were ones I recognized from my previous trips to Sussex, five and eight years ago respectively. They were postcard sized and featured a vintage illustration of Harveys of Lewes brewery, which was the source of the batter for the cod I was about to eat. I wrote out a postcard to MC, knowing that she would appreciate one that featured a brewery and talked about baking.
The fish was pretty good, the chips were fine, albeit from a freezer. Couldn’t tell about the peas, though they were a nice shade of green and not shriveled.
Pretty sure I slept like a log that night.
Thursday, 24/7/08 “American Baking”
Biscuit of the day: Madeleines
I’d never had a Madeleine before today, though I know well their place in literature. I really should read Proust one of these days. Funnily enough, I did get memories of people and things I hadn’t in a long time, like the camp counselor (also Jewish) I had a massive crush on when I was sixteen, though he was more than twice my age. A fact that I was thankfully spared from knowing until just before I left camp. He was a violinist who played with such beauty, I fell as much for his music as for him. I wonder if he’s still with the Toronto Symphony.
Today’s recipes had a familiar ring to them: cornbread, oatmeal raisin cookies, the bagels we had started yesterday. Also anadama bread, which is something I had at college, but not before or since. The cinnamon raisin loaf was a treat, as we got to mix cinnamon and sugar together to dust on the loaves before baking, which was a familiar childhood combination, having eaten it on toast many times.
I got to practice my kneading and loaf-forming skills today. Getting the loaf into a tight shape by rolling and pushing ever so slightly, but without squeezing the dough, is a tricky business, and having small hands doesn’t seem to help. I got better with practice though. Making rolls was a tricky business at first too, but visualizing the shape it’s meant to have and getting used to the feel of the dough helped.
Today’s lunch was a pissaldière, for which we rolled out the already-made dough and then covered it with the tomato and onion mixture Rachel had made up. Studding it with olives, we slid it into the oven alongside the other loaves. I love how fresh everything is and how well we eat. I love the shared values of good bread and good food, simply prepared, using good quality, ideally local, ingredients. And I most especially love how I have connected with these two women in ways I haven’t with anyone else in a long time. I can be myself, or let down more of my guard than I usually do. And sometimes it is nice to talk to another sympathetic American and be able to speak in cultural shorthand about tv programs and breakfast cereals we had as kids.
The buttermilk biscuits were truly a taste of home, fluffy and warm, though with a touch too much salt because the butter we used is salted. The butter was still slightly chunkier than it should have been after I mixed it with the flour, but it made the biscuits melt in my mouth that much more.
The Sussex landscape is made up of gently rolling fields, and a surprising number of tree-covered hills. The roads between the bakery school and Robertsbridge are dotted with oast houses, which are relics of a bygone era when much of the land was owned by Guinness and covered in hop fields. The hops were dried and stored in the oast houses, I think a certain amount of processing went on as well, from what Rachel tells me of them.
I walk to the next village, Salehurst, in search of the pub recommended in the information provided by the b&b. It’s about a mile and a half away, which is a lovely walk at this time of evening. The pub doesn’t disappoint; it’s old, and feels old inside, has a massive garden out back, and a nice, albeit small menu of freshly prepared food made with local ingredients. I ordered falafel in pita from the blond, ponytailed barman, who looks like a surfer…perhaps he is, or was. I feel like something light and veggie is in order after last night’s fish and chips. I have a nice pint of Hylfer Blonde from the Dark Star brewery, also Sussex-based. The people-watching is excellent, from country posh to East End of London. There are hippies, rat race escapees, the landed, the upwardly mobile, the families with kids. An American woman’s voice cuts through the various English accents, as she tries to explain the differences in American and English higher education to a nodding young man. She’s not loud, but the accent will always stand out above the others.
The mint in the yogurt sauce that comes with my falafel tastes fresh, but strangely, packets of condiments are delivered when I ask for mayonnaise for my chips. A small detail, but when they clearly take care with the rest of the food, it’s slightly disconcerting.
The countryside lent itself to some picture-taking on the way back. The light in the sky had broad strokes of gold and peach and orange splashed across it. I felt the happiest I have in a long time.
Friday, 25/7/08 “Advanced Baking”
Biscuit of the day: tuiles (I think)
Today another woman joined us. Her husband had spoken with Rachel extensively about bread and bakeries, he’s apparently opening a development in Waterloo which will feature a butcher, a greengrocers and a bakery. She often bakes bread at home and he gave her this course as a Christmas present. I’m very glad I had the previous two days to build up my knowledge, because I think I would have felt a bit lost if I’d come in to this course cold. Things like baker’s percentages, which I’d felt intimidated by previously, made much more sense now.
We made bread using four different types of starters, also known as pre-ferments. Sourdough is the most well-known type of bread that requires a starter, and our sourdough was made with rye and spelt and shaped into a couronne or crown before baking. We also made batons (mini baguettes), ficelles (very thin mini baguettes) and epis, which is when the baguette shape is cut and positioned to look like grains of wheat.
Our white loaves were made with a sponge starter, which is just flour, water and yeast, left to ferment for a day before baking. We shaped them into cottage loaves, which are a traditional British shape. They’re round with a smaller round on top. We dusted ours with poppy seeds.
Lunch was bulgar wheat, flavoured with cinnamon and some other herbs and mixed into a fresh salad like what we had on Wednesday. Rachel had added some of the sheep’s milk cheese again since I’d liked it so much. We had to interrupt our meal to take things in and out of the oven, since some loaves were rising quickly due to the warmth in the kitchen.
We finished a bit ahead of schedule, as Elizabeth was watching the clock to ensure we didn’t miss our trains. In fact we had time to look at some of their cookbooks and for me to copy down the quantities for their chocolate bread recipe that’s in the Green and Black’s cookbook (I have the American version, but it’s easier to cook in metric here and sometimes my equivalents aren’t always the published ones).
My co-baker was the first to leave, as she’d pre-booked her taxi. She must have made the earlier train, as there was no sign of her when I arrived. Rachel helped me pack up all the bread they’d been storing in the freezer for me. Three grocery bags and a jute re-usable shopper later, I was fully loaded and ready to go. Elizabeth gave me a hug, careful not to get any flour on me after I’d taken off my apron. Rachel drove me to the station and insisted I keep in touch. I said I would definitely be back and hopefully have my mother with me next time.
Luckily the train was fairly empty up to London, so all the bread bags could sit with me on the seats. Not so much the case going to Liverpool, and the grandmother and granddaughter sitting opposite me were giving me evils as I put my carrier bags (tied shut mind you) on top of what turned out to be their suitcases in the luggage hold. *eyeroll* So I had to move them onto the lower storage area, but everything made it intact.
So yes, an amazing few days of creativity, productivity and time out in the countryside. Well worth every penny and I’d go back in a heartbeat.