Artisan bread making with Alex Gooch at the Bodnant Welsh Food Centre

View through the kitchen window

On a bright sunny Sunday I headed off to the newly opened Bodnant Welsh Food Centre, for a day of bread making in their state of the art cookery school. Set in the beautiful Conwy Valley with views over the estuary and just a few miles from Llandudno and Llanrwst it is the perfect destination for a weekend retreat away from the cities of Liverpool and Manchester. In fact it is less than an hour and a half’s drive from both.

I live somewhat closer and set off with eager anticipation at the prospect of having a day of fun…plenty of cooking, without any responsibility for teaching others!

Now I love baking and make a lot of bread at home so I like to think of myself as a bit of an expert, but a day spent with award-winning artisan baker Alex Gooch. made me realise I’m but a mere novice.

The day began with a small hiccup; the course, which was advertised on the website as advanced, turned out to be a basic one. The confusion appeared to have arisen as a result of the recent change of staff and a break down in communication between the old and new. But what were essentially small teething problems were soon overcome. We were given the choice of rearranging but all participants were very laid back about the mix up and were keen to stay, so we did. Initially I wondered if it would be worth it as the course appeared to focus on stuff I already knew….and that is where I made my first mistake. Not that I stayed, but the presumption that I actually knew all there was to know about making focaccia!

Alex Gooch, our teacher for the day trained as a chef, working in lots of different restaurants and kitchens. Somewhere along the way he discovered and developed a love of bread making. His obsession grew until finally he moved into self-employment setting up his own organic bakery, leaving the world of restaurant kitchens behind. This was clearly a good move because the awards have come rolling in; The ‘Best Producer’ award at the Radio 4 Food and Farming Awards 2011, the Waitrose ‘Made in Britain’ Award to name but two.

Alex spent the morning teaching us some of the tricks that make his bread and bakery in Hay on Wye so successful. Who knew that perfect bread dough should be almost sloppy? It scared me at first looking at the sticky mass in the bottom of my bowl, my gut instinct was to add more flour as I would have done at home but no, he reassured us that all would be fine, and of course it was.

A very sticky dough…but apparantly perfect!

Bun dough ready to prove

More scarily sloppy dough…this time focaccia

Teaming up with Alex is a bit of a coup for Bodnant. He is a great teacher who in the space of a couple of hours talked us through the making of a bun dough,  focaccia dough, a basic spelt and a potato bread. Everything was incredibly easy to grasp, especially for the less experienced baker and he happily answered all the questions we threw at him, at times dispelling the bread making myths that hold people back. I always thought you had to dissolve fresh yeast in water with sugar, but no, we just crumbled it straight into the bowl. There was no lengthy kneading (another lesson learned…don’t knead the bread!) and no fuss. The class wasn’t rushed and everyone was able to work at their own pace.

A couple of people commented that they would have liked to measure their own ingredients. Alex explained it was to make the course run more efficiently and so he knew the measurements were all exact. I can see both points. I guess providing us with all the recipes meant we would be able to practise at home, but weighing would arguably have helped us remember the process more clearly. I suppose having a bit of faith in the classes abilities is necessary, although that is a bit of an unknown quantity early on.  A bit of extra time spent supervising us while we measured would have reduced the risk of baking failures due to inaccurate measurement and  we weren’t short of time, in fact we finished half an hour earlier than timetabled.

Alex certainly did encourage us to be bold and confident and brave with seasonings and extra ingredients. A good spoonful of salt, huge quantities of olive oil, plus tons of rosemary, pecorino, blue cheese, cinnamon or sugar. Once upon a time I would have been more cautious with my flavourings but these days I’m less nervous about it.

Focaccia dough liberally sprinkled with torn fresh rosemary and pecorino cheese

Bun dough with cinnamon and sugar; one half with raisins for buns, the other cut into twists

Buns and twists ready to prove

Spelt dough, divided into pieces and ready to be layered with rosemary and Perl Las, Welsh blue cheese

One plain spelt loaf and one blue cheese and rosemary

Well risen potato baps

Cookery courses are the next step for Alex and the hands on ones like this are always the best. PArticipants experience a childlike pleasure as they compare sticky hands, dough consistency and how much their dough has risen. The satisfaction gained from making, kneading and baking bread is almost primeval.  With very few ingredients we transform what begins as a sticky white mass into a puffy, heavenly scented, golden brown loaf. It’s a magical transformation and one that still gives me a tingle of excitement and brings a big smile to my face.

It struck me that bread making appeals particularly to men; us women were outnumbered five to two. I guess historically bakers were mostly men, while cooks were more often women. Before large industrial mixers took over the heavy arm work, all the mixing and kneading was by hand. Strength and muscle were pretty important and even the little kneading we did on this course made my poor arm ache. Back then I would have been useless…or just developed the arm muscles of a docker!

After a quick coffee break we added our extra ingredients and shaped our bread; rosemary for the focaccia and bread sticks, sugar and cinnamon for spiced buns and twists, blue cheese and rosemary to make spelt loaf and potato dough divided into four beautiful soft rounds. It was then left to rise on a covered trolley in the warm kitchen while we went off for lunch.

Top: foaccia bread sticks and focaccia flatbread

bread rising in the warm kitchen

The cost of the course includes a substantial buffet lunch. As we sat eating the heavenly smell of baking bread wafted from the kitchen (the first lot of focaccia had gone in the oven). I’m sure I ended up eating than I intended because of that smell!

As I sat back in my chair I felt a satiated tiredness creep over me. I could have done with a coffee to perk me up again but instead we headed back into the kitchen where the warm aromatic smell of garlic oil, rosemary and bread hung in the air. Now it was baking time.

We took the focaccia out of the oven and left it to cool, replacing it with spelt loaves and cinnamon buns. The buns cooked quickest and they were soon whipped out and replaced with our potato bread.

Focaccia straight from the oven and finished with a generous drizzle of rocket oil and Halen Mon sea salt

Spelt loaf

Cinnamon buns

Nice baps! Potato bread nice and brown

All in all I had a very enjoyable day. I met some lovely fellow bakers and Alex was a fab teacher. The best bit for me was the opportunity to work with a fellow chef and learn from his skills. I needed less in the way of hands on help but he was great at encouraging and assisting those who were less confident. I’m now looking forward to the rescheduled advanced course in January.

So what did I think about it over all? As usual I have my feet in two camps….I like really loved the course and gained a lot from it, as I think other participants would do. I also like the fact that Welsh produce and producers are becoming more widely known outside of Wales. Profile raising is very important but I wonder if the cost would be off-putting to locals.

At £145 its not a cheap course. Yes, the teaching quality is good (working with experts in the field is a real draw), we took home a lovely bag of swag, recipes and had a great lunch. I still think that perhaps the price might deter a lot of people and I think it is quite expensive compared to other classes of its kind. On the other hand I know participants will come from further afield, which is how it was on the day I visited and as I said in the beginning, what better way to spend a weekend than cooking and visiting beautiful Wales!

To check courses and dates go to the cookery school page on the Bodnant website, or email reception@bodnant-welshfood.co.uk for further information.

Moel Faban Suppers was a guest of Bodnant Welsh Food.

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Filed under baking, British food, cookery courses, local produce, Uncategorized

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