E ALL, I think, want to make something extraordinary out of the ordinary. To effect a transformation, to elevate the everyday. And it doesn't, as the Lord's Prayer says, get anymore everyday than bread.
Well, we can't all be artists, but we can be artisans. And on one Sunday I was at the Red Dog Bakery in Black Torrington to learn how to do just that in the company of three other bread lovers, and at the feet of North Devon's own bread guru Roger Birt. Roger is a man who loves bread. So much so that he admits: "I bake even when I don't need to".
"Bread making," he says, "is part science and part myth."
To that I would add, "and 100 per cent magic". To take so few ingredients, and such plain ones (flour, salt, yeast, water; Red Dog don't even use sugar), and to weave these ingredients, through a remarkably simple process, into something so bewitching, so beguiling – well it's pure alchemy.
Red Dog Bakery was established only two years ago, but they have rapidly become known as artisan bread makers of North Devon. They produce 200 to 300 loaves for every market and food festival they attend (perhaps 800 loaves a week) and now offer bread making classes. Classes are small to ensure maximum individual attention and conducted at the Red Dog Bakery, which is also the home of Roger and his wife Sally.
When I arrive I am greeted by Sally, who co-founded the business with Roger, and is the front of house element of the team. I am soon joined by Nicola from Launceston, who was gifted the course as a birthday present from her mother-in-law, and by Dave and Pam, whose life story past and future is framed by bread. More of them later.
Sally makes the coffee, but Roger stipulates the exact quantity of grinds. So as we start on our bread, under Roger's watchful eye, we meticulously measure our flour, our salt and our fresh yeast. But when it comes to the water, the science merges into something else. This is done by eye. The amount of water required is determined by the type, age and temperature of the flour. It is also, Roger avers, affected by the weather. He tells us to keep a weather eye open when baking, insisting that the drop in air pressure that presages a thunderstorm has an impact. Have we now wandered out of the science and into the myth? If so, he maintains an admirably straight face.
In the next six hours we will produce plain white, herbed, granary and wholemeal loaves to take home. The conversation and bready anecdotes start to flow immediately. Roger is an attentive teacher, and he delicately drips support, advice, and a certain amount of ribaldry into the mix.
The kneading technique he introduces us to is called, he says, the Full French. So, part science, part myth, part magic; and now part Carry On. It is also possible, apparently, to "give it the Half French" (a slightly less aggressive technique delivered from below shoulder height). Flour and dough were flying everywhere, posing a serious threat to life and limb. Somehow Dave even managed to propel his on to the skylight. I can only assume that was the Full French.
I protest that my more recent approach to baking has been more passive. Roger asserts: "You need to beat it up a bit. Just be nice to it later."
After about ten minutes we apply the window test to assess the readiness of our dough. This means cutting off a ping-pong ball sized lump, then rolling and stretching it to just within breaking point. Hold it up to the window, and if you can see the light through it, it's ready.
Halfway through it's time to stop for a lunch prepared by Sally, which comprises a range of local cheeses, cold cuts, and three ("and here's one I made earlier") of Roger's own loaves. This includes an impressive northern French Pain au Siegle, made with 40 per cent rye flour and black onion seeds, and a sourdough.
Red Dog no longer make straight white bread, having switched entirely to sourdough for their white loaves. I learn that sourdough came to refer to the European prospectors who took it to America, and who would sleep with their bread cultures to keep them warm and alive. Red Dog have also recently been awarded the prestigious Loaf Mark by the Real Bread Campaign, which means they use no artificial additives or processing aids.
Over lunch I also get to know more about my fellow students. It turns out that Pam met Dave over a loaf of bread. Actually two and, more prosaically, a beetle. Pam bought a loaf one day and found a beetle cooked into it. She took it immediately to the local environmental health officer. Two days later the same environmental health officer appeared at her door with a fresh loaf tucked under his arm in a paper bag.
That officer was Dave, the loaf was his way of saying hello, and they were soon married.
"The loaf was his way of wooing me," says Pam, " though I'm not sure the bread was the actual attraction. If I remember correctly it was a very tiny loaf and almost inedible. Don't most chaps play safe trying their luck with flowers and chocs?"
Dave's unconventional approach clearly worked though, as they have now been married for 31 years and plan to retire to Portugal in the next few years, were they aim to establish an artisan bread business.
The rest of the day rushes past as we swing into a routine of kneading, proving, knocking back and baking, each loaf looking better than the last. And this definitely includes Dave's. "No more bricks," says Roger. Amen to that we all agree.
Nicola e-mailed me after the course, and speaks for us all I think when she says: "The course was the perfect way to wind down following a really busy week. I learnt loads and enjoyed the whole experience. It has left me feeling enthused and confident to experiment on my own."
If you would like to follow in our footsteps you can contact Roger and Sally at the Red Dog Bakery at www.reddog bakery.co.uk or on 01409 231735. The course cost £65.
Red Dog will be joining a host of other stalls for the traditional Hartland Christmas Farmers' Market on Sunday, December 16, 10am to 2pm, in Hartland Parish Hall. Our Christmas Café will also be open for our usual big breakfasts, coffee and mince pies. This market will also feature our popular German Quarter as well as a chance to win a Red Dog beginner's course. Phone me for more details on 01237 441786 or rod.land firstname.lastname@example.org