Big name chefs have not been shy to dabble in the baker’s craft. Recent months have seen Jamie Oliver’s name emblazoned across breadmaking gift sets in department stores. Chef Paul Rankin has his own branded bread range. Meanwhile, the likes of Antonio Carluccio continue to preach that good bread should be the essential starter on every dinner table.
But bakers and chefs have not always been easy bedfellows, and many bakers understandably find the sight of a non-specialist celebrity chef profiting on their turf a mite galling.
Straddling this divide is French baker and chef Richard Bertinet. He says that breaking down the barrier between good food and good bread, by encouraging home baking and better quality breads in Britain’s restaurant and hotel kitchens, would give rise to a more demanding consumer and better breads in the shops.
Creating a crossover
“I’m sure everyone could name five chefs, but bread has been left behind,” he tells me. “The only way that people will respect bread again is to bring bread and food together – to have good bread in the restaurant, the supermarket and everywhere else.”
The bread classes at The Bertinet Kitchen in Bath, which opened in September last year, are certainly aiming to foster this crossover. What is more, they are a real leveller. I attend a class that fields a diverse mix of students. There are wide-eyed amateurs, who talk with a feverish air of nurturing sourdoughs and fresh-faced trainee hotel chefs from as far afield as New Zealand, who are keen to learn how to bake bread the way a proper baker does. There’s even a been-there-done-that Michelin-starred restaurateur, who is reduced to childlike uncertainty when faced with a sticky, stubborn dough.
But one thing they all hold in common, amateurs and professionals alike, is a passion for baking. I myself roll up the sleeves of an ill-advised black shirt to try my hands at three doughs. These comprise: a brown dough, made with wholemeal and a bit of white flour, to mould ‘poppy stars’ and sesame plaits; a rye-based dough for making olive bread, using white and rye flour; and a sweet dough for doughnuts and ‘pain Viennois’ – a sweet bread ideal for breakfasts.
Richard’s mantra is that one dough should be versatile for creating a multitude of products, breads and shapes. Classes are split into three teams of four. “Just have fun,” he tells the class. “You’ve got to get dirty and really get your hands into it. The only way you can learn about bread is with your hands,” he proclaims.
So, leaving the spiral mixers to one side, he shows us a dough stretching method and steers students away from kneading. The dough is stretched out and slammed onto the table, creating a pocket, which traps the air for a much softer bread than by kneading, he says.
“If you used a lot of water and made a very tight dough, some people would knead it to get some elasticity into it,” he says. “But when the dough goes to prove it’s got to have strength or it will collapse. This way we just let the natural gluten in the flour do all the work.”
This is the method Richard has adapted for baking at home, from traditional techniques he learned in France. “In the old days it was the same technique in the bakery – it had to be. A baker working with 8kg of flour, with five mixes a day times a day – his back would probably get broken doing it any other way. And they had no Nurofen in those days.”
After baking the breads, an informal question-and-answer session follows, where attendees can put right their baking wrongs. Then a lunch is laid on, for those not already gorged on fantastic breads and the most succulent, deceptively light, pan-fried doughnuts you are likely to sample.
It is at lunch that Richard sets out the philosophy behind his project. “Michelin-starred chefs will come in here and they’re like babies – everybody will make the same mistakes,” he tells me with a grin. “That is what is so fantastic about what we did here today.”
He continues: “Only a few restaurants make very good bread, but every one of them should. If you’ve got the capacity to do it, then it doesn’t take long. Many chefs can cook but not many can bake. Chefs need confidence in baking. Fresh bread on a table is so inviting – it will get people talking and put them in a good mood.”
Richard has been based in the UK since 1988, when he arrived on these shores “basically for girls”. He says: “I came for two weeks – I had a girlfriend at the time in England – and I never left. I love it!”
He spent five years as a consultant for French Croissant Co – an English firm based in London that has been supplying supermarkets across the UK for over 40 years. “They are so passionate and they are the best,” he says.
Last year saw the release of his first bakery book, Dough – Simple Contemporary Bread, which attracted a glut of press coverage, from local newspapers, lifestyle magazines and even an eight-page spread in a national Sunday supplement.
“I’ve always had the book in the back of my head but I wanted to find the right approach,” he explains. “I wanted to catch the imagination, to make it simple, approachable, easy to understand. I didn’t want to mix basic white dough with sourdough, because people think they are clever and go straight for the sourdough. My next book will be about taking people to the next step.”
The coverage has fuelled interest in his classes – around two thirds of which are devoted to bread. He also puts the kitchen to wider use, including 45-minute demos, such as how to make a fish pie, that people can fit into a lunch break. Guest chefs, such as Giorgio Locatelli, are also invited along to hold demostration evenings. Many of the classes over the coming months are already full.
Has the level of interest taken him by surprise, I ask? “I’m not surprised by the interest in cooking in general,” he replies. “I am amazed by the numbers of people who are fed up with bad food and bad bread. It’s like they’re all trying to come out of their shells. People are fed up of being lied to.”
Richard is now very much naturalised and talks passionately about the British baking industry, although his fondness for the country does not dampen his misgivings or spare it from criticism.
“The industry is like a dinosaur,” he says. “It is slow to change and it needs a big kick to really wake it up. We are so ahead on so many things here. In this country you can have good fresh milk delivered to your door – you don’t get that in France.”
He urges retailers to concentrate on fresh, simple breads, if they are to recapture the public’s imagination. “I once had a brief from a supermarket for a French stick baked at at midnight that would still be fresh at six the next evening,” he recalls. “Sorry, I can’t do that. I’m not Jesus Christ and I can’t do miracles.”
And in craft baking he holds little store by improvers, which he believes reduce the element of risk in baking, but at the cost of the baker’s essential skills and simple, wholesome breads. “The word ‘improver’ says it all,” he says. “If you’ve got nothing that needs improving, what do you need to use it for?” If needed, ‘natural’ improvers can be found. For example, if your flour is a bit weak, add some malt flour, he suggests.
It is clear that he is passionate about the need to improve skills in the industry. “I would love to see a supermarket open an academy where it could train bakers and get guest bakers along to bring some passion to the in-store bakery,” he says. “Supermarkets need to encourage their bakers to be a bit more free-spirited and inspired. The supermarkets will be there forever so we might as well work with them to get better food.”
Companies like La Fornaia and Bakehouse, which supply the supermarkets, are making great products because they are passionate about what they are doing, he adds.
Another solution could be independent bakeries operating inside the supermarkets’ space, as happens in some French supermarkets. With the lack of government support for craft bakers in the UK, the responsibility falls to the supermarkets to instigate a sea change.
“Wouldn’t it be great to see every in-store bakery run by an independent baker?” he asks. “The supermarkets just need to have the guts to say, ‘Let’s make a stand and change it’.”
Richard is doing his part to spread the baking gospel through his classes. But it is clear that until bakery finds its own figureheads, the chefs will continue to make the most of bread. Who knows? Maybe in five years’ time we could see Richard Bertinet breadmaking kits in the shops.
The Bertinet Kitchen baking courses
Two basic bread courses provide an opportunity to learn Richard’s unique method of working the dough. Bread 1 focuses on white and olive doughs, while Bread 2 introduces dark doughs (brown and rye) and sweet dough.
For those who have mastered Richard’s technique, The Bertinet Kitchen also runs advanced courses on Regional & Speciality Breads. Also available are masterclasses on Croissant and Viennoiserie, Patisserie, Petits Fours and Pastry.
Baking courses start at £90 for a day of breadmaking and include a light lunch. Four-day courses (Bread 1 & 2, Regional and Speciality) are also available for £350.
Bread 1: White and olive breads; one day; £90
Bread 2: Dark and sweet breads; one day; £90
Bread 1 & 2: Book both days together for £160
Regional Breads: One day; £105
Speciality Breads: One day; £105
Regional & speciality: Book both days together for £190
Pastry masterclass: One day; £90
Croissant and Viennoiserie Masterclass: One day; £150
Patisserie and Petits Fours Masterclass: One day; £150
Details: Visit www.thebertinetkitchen.com or call 01225 445531