When we arrived at the mill the employees were so friendly, funny and enthusiastic about their work that I knew we were in for a great day. Our instructor was Clive Mellum, a lovely man who has been baking for 47 years and is keen to share his knowledge of and passion for artisan bread.
Clive explained dough development and the need to balance a recipe using five ingredients - flour, water, yeast, salt and time. Time is the ingredient that large scale supermarket baking has taken out of the equation and replaced with “improvers”. There was to be none of that today.
We started by making a white dough using the “pinch back” method and while that was proving, we mixed a quick 10 minute soda bread using buttermilk and bicarbonate of soda, adding feta cheese, pumpkin seeds and herbs.
The white dough made a cottage loaf, pitta breads and a plaited loaf. We were curious to know how the seamless pockets are made in pittas. Clive said that children are also fascinated by the pockets in pitta bread and once they’ve seen it done, they can be persuaded to eat all manner of healthy food if it’s popped inside a fresh pitta. He explained how dough is carefully wrapped around a bubble, then baked. We nodded sagely. Once we (finally) realised he was joking, we saw how they’re really made: the pinned dough puffs up after a couple of minutes in the oven.
No wonder children are so entranced by them, we were too. They tasted fantastic – light, soft and delicious, nothing like the heavy stodge sold in supermarkets. We made our cottage loaves and plaited our plaits – I’ve lost the knack for it since my hair got shorter, my plait looked like a snake that had recently had a bulky meal. While these baked, Neal gave us a tour of the spotlessly clean mill.
The mill used to house a cocoa factory that supplied Cadbury’s in Bournville. Today, Shipton Mill buys in organic grain from farmers in the UK, Europe and North America and produces a wide range of organic flours – white, wholemeal, rye, spelt, wheatfree and rare flours like chestnut and buckwheat, all of which you can buy online from Flour Direct. The mill bears the Prince of Wales’ crest, having worked with him for many years on producing organic flour.
I had no idea how much work goes into producing flour – from grain to bran to semolina (Petra and I exchanged a glance that said “so that’s where semolina comes from!”) to flour. It was like a fun school trip but without a cagoule or a squashed packed lunch.
Ah, lunch! When I’d heard about the classes at Shipton Mill, there had been mention of a lovely lunch, but I wasn’t prepared for the feast that was waiting for us back in the classroom. As well as the soda bread we’d just baked, Clive had that morning baked several other breads for us to try – salmon on rye bread; curried egg and watercress in pitta; rye bread with nuts and figs which was fantastic with blue cheese; ciabatta with olive oil and balsamic; white loaf, sourdough and a light rye that were great with brie, cheddar, tomatoes and chutneys.
After lunch came the treat I’d been most excited about: Chelsea buns using a flying sponge dough enriched with butter and sugar, just my thing. The dough was pinned out, enriched further with currants and spice, rolled and sliced into 12 pieces.
|Petra and her Chelsea buns. Clive is a blur of activity.|
While these proved and baked, Clive showed us a way of making shortcrust pastry that is tasty, robust and breaks all the “rules”, particularly that annoying one about having cold hands, great news for my hot little monkey paws.
Lastly we were each given a small plastic bag of 'mother', the fermentation that Clive has been feeding like a much-loved pet for the last 18 years. I was worried about getting this through security at Bristol airport and insisted on only taking 100ml in my hand luggage. It turned out I shouldn’t have worried: security were too distracted by my buns (there’s a first for everything) to worry about the odd-looking but entirely innocent package nestling alongside my toothpaste and mascara.
I’m astonished that we managed to fit so much into a day and it was clear how thrilled everyone in the class was with their box of baking. I should add that Shipton Mill does not charge for its classes; instead, the aim is to share their passion for good quality flour and artisan bread, which they did in bucketloads. Huge thanks to Lesley for all her help and to Clive for sharing his passion and expertise. Now to practise…