Until just a few days ago I was one of the poor, unenlightened souls living in this world thinking bread was an impossible mystery. Today, I awake as one of the saved, having received my holy communion at the Cordon Bleu in Marylebone. It is hard for me to overstate my excitement about what I’ve learnt.
Making bread is such a hearty and comforting process it is surprising that we have come to be so far out of touch with it. English bread is an embarrassment and there is a strange sense of enigma surrounding its production that says only the extremely lucky, patient or magical can produce edible bread. We need supermarket pap filled with preservatives, with the crusts cut off, with omega 3, with added calcium, or, if we are adventurous enough to try it ourselves, we feel we need bread makers to help us. It is a nonsense.
I confess I have nearly torn my hair out at previous attempts, and was on the verge of giving up forever when I went to watch a demonstration at the London headquarters of the Cordon Bleu. The name is a prestigious one and I thought it might be a little haughty, but I found only a lively mix of international students and warm, professional staff, foremost a wonderful chef willing to impart all her bread-making secrets.
The demonstrations are open to the public and represent the full spectrum of the courses they offer, everything from chocolate to patisserie to French regional cooking; you actually get to join full-time students in their chequered trousers and chefs’ whites, with tastings at the end, and recipes to take away. During our morning we saw bread rolls, brown bread, soda bread and foccacia being made, in simple steps and with clear explanations as to why each stage was necessary, from yeast to proving to baking – no mystery, no special ingredients.
The results were simply some of the most delicious bread you could ever hope to taste. Some rather fancy touches in presentation (a delightful little bread snail with caraway seed eyes, for example) hinted at the serious depth of specialist knowledge in the school, but this was basic bread making and everything was kept as clear as could be.
It all made sense, I had seen it done. But in the back of my head a voice of doubt questioned whether I could replicate what I had seen. Yesterday I made brown bread with cheese and olives. It was crusty, rich and, though I say it myself, delicious. The secret? You’ll have to go and see for yourself. The cost of the demonstrations? £20 for a morning. Would I go to another? Absolutely – it may just have changed my life.
Le Cordon Bleu London
114 Marylebone Lane