Thursday, 23 September 2010

Build and bake

After what seems like a fair old slog of double shifts, I’m granted a temporary pass out of the kitchen, with the offer of taking part in the Build and Bake course down at Park Farm.

We start the day in the yurt, with coffee and flap jack, still warm from the oven, as tutors Steve and Gideon explain the running order. We hear this is one of the more hands-on courses, and we can expect to get more than a little muddy. With a chilly breeze in the air, and the sky washed out with shades of grey, it’s time to warm our cockles before getting stuck in. “I know it’s early, but it’s become a tradition,” says Steve, as he pours us all a nip of West Country apple brandy.

And off we trot to the pond, where after a brief lesson in geology, we set about digging up the materials that will eventually become our oven. After having collected bucket loads of the region’s finest Blue Lias clay, it’s back to the farm to get started on the construction.

The clay needs to be mixed with sand in order to be set solid in the correct form. But there are no mixers or machinery here. We have a Tarpaulin and people power, and that’s all we need. Steve informs us that the best mixing method is to dance the twist and rub the sand and clay together with our feet.

In the cold light of day, with no music, we ditch our inhibitions, and hit the dance floor, twisting away with our fellow Build and Bakers. Who knew a plastic sheet full of mud and dirt could be so good for the soul?

Before long, we’ve made a sand former, and built our clay dome around it. After some gentle smoothing, we agree we’ve created something verging on perfection, and retire to the barn for a hot mug of tea.

And now it’s Gideon’s turn. It was Gideon who built the first clay oven at the River Cottage, but now he’s passed the reigns of tutorship over to Steve, allowing him to concentrate on his fortay - bread making. With clarity and simplicity, he explains the basics of of baking, as we collectively mix, kneed and shape our very own dough.

Our oven is not quite ready for use just yet, but thankfully, Gideon has already fired up the larger ‘Spanish oven’ outside, and as well as a large batch of light, airy pizza dough, there’s a spread in the yard with delicious toppings, including smoked pollock, pork rillet, golden beetroot, Dorset blue cheese, bacon, shallots, even wild parasol mushrooms, picked from the pasture where the Park Farm cows normally graze.

Despite being warned that “these pizzas are not our lunch”, we all concoct gourmet combinations, taking turns to man the oven, whilst gleefully tucking into one another’s creations, sipping River Cottage Elderflower champagne all the while. As far as non lunches go, it’s pretty hearty.

After lunch proper, it’s back down to business. We shape our dough into loaves, and leave them to prove once again before baking.

The moment of truth... Apparently, the oven can collapse as it’s hollowed out, but ours seems sturdy enough. Steve conducts the final part of the session, holding his baby girl at his side. It’s less like a lesson, more like a mate giving you DIY tips.

Just as it’s time to leave, Gideon calls over from the oven, where our bread is risen and baked to perfection. With smiles on our faces, and steaming loaves under our arms, we set off up the hill, dreaming of a future of sizzled scallops, rare-roast steaks, freshly baked bread, and slow cooked joints, all from our very own outdoor clay ovens... All we have to do is go home and build them.

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