Way, way back in the earliest days of my shift from a career of paid employment to a life of total freedom (and meager self-support), one of my long list of ‘new skills to develop’ was the baking of really good sourdough bread. I like to think of myself as someone who tends to rise to whatever challenge that may confront me, and regardless of the difficulty, and stays with that challenge until I’ve mastered it – but actually, in real life I’m quite a different animal – I now recognize that I’m quite an immediate person, and I tire quickly of failure – not exactly the definition of one who rises to the challenge of learning new skills in one’s old age.
And so it is a bit surprising that I should have actually kept at the challenge of sourdough – for it is one of those disciplines which confound and intimidate otherwise good cooks. Why then should I have continued to hack away at this mysterious and ancient craft for the last ten years? I’m tempted to answer that perhaps it’s the very mysterious nature of sourdough that has kept me interested – but then, I’m also not a very curious person either. I really have no other answer here, except to say that I’m driven very much by tastes and food, and that sourdough provided me with one of my taste epiphanies one day in 1998 – and amazingly, it happened in my own kitchen, and as a result of my own hand.
That day is hard branded into my psyche, for that was the day when I first successfully baked a real sourdough loaf, using my own starter made from only flour and water – and to this day, I still remember that loaf of bread as being simply the very best tasting sourdough bread I’ve ever had in my mouth! I often wonder if this is true because our brains can so easily fool us when it comes to something as subjective as ‘taste’ – after all, the environment was perfectly set for me to think of this loaf in such a positive way, it’s not unreasonable to believe that there’s every reason why I’d have trouble in thinking negatively about this loaf.
And yet, what I most remember about that loaf is how hard it was to stop eating it! It was simply so delicious that each time I’d finish with a slice, I had to go back and get another, so that taste experience could continue going on, and on, and on. Isn’t it possible that this actually was the most delicious bread I’ve ever had the pleasure of tasting?
Well, regardless of the truth of my quandary, I don’t think there’s much doubt that this was the single-most significant experience in strengthening my motivation to keep moving forward in my development as a sourdough bread maker. But I also remember that in those days (early 2000s), the interest in sourdough was not as strong as it is today, and sources of good info were quite scattered on the internet.
Eventually I discovered The Fresh Loaf, which remains today a good place to go to communicate with fellow novice bread bakers regarding their successes and failures. But I soon learned that for pure sourdough advice, there was no better source than Danlepard.com – Dan Lepard is a British baker, turned teacher and instructor, who has over the years become perhaps the U.K.’s most respected authority on sourdough baking. But what was unique was that Lepard had a daily presence on the site at a time when few in his position were doing so. So, when one asked a sourdough question, it was likely that Lepard would inject his two cents into it as well, thereby lending a ‘professional’ edge to the popular forums. The education that a novice baker received here was like no other, and I still think this site is unique in the level of Lepard’s accessibility, a trait unmatched by any other baking celeb that I’m aware of.
I still count as fellow blogging buddies many of those who -like me- used to hang out at Lepard’s forum, and we regularly keep in contact. One of those ‘bakers’ carried his passion for baking to a higher level than most of the rest of us, and began baking out of his own kitchen and selling his breads to his neighbors – This, we all recognized, was the embodiment of the emotion that we all felt to one extent or another, but few of us had the courage to put our dreams into action. We knew this brave baker by his cyber moniker, bethesdabakers, and we also all knew him as the guy who brought the really good questions to Lepard’s forum – and it soon became apparent to all of us that Dan enjoyed getting those pure baker questions from bethesdabakers, since they raised the level of all questions and answers on the site – and rest of us knew we were profiting from it too.
We soon learned that bethesdabakers was a guy by the name of Mick Hartley, from Bethesda, Wales. And not only was Mick a real baker, but he was a sourdough purist – all of the breads he baked and sold were sourdough – no commercial yeast for Mick, simply sourdough. And we also learned that his bread passion went beyond just baking – he dreamed of authoring a bread book too. Wow.
I’ve thought about this – … a lot. And I ask myself, ‘Would I like to write a bread book?’ Well, without even thinking I know that I’d love to – but then, I’m not sure I could – most of what I bake is, for better or worse, ‘a work in progress’. I even have stacks of notes, each one labeled ‘Trial 1, or Trial 16, etc.’ How the hell could anyone write a book when they hadn’t really perfected their work? Thoughts of this nature eventually led me to conclude that someone who had enough faith in their craft to bake and sell it to their neighbors, and then the passion to put that experience into a book of instruction deserves to be read – not only have they achieved a level of accomplishment that should be rewarded, but I, as a fellow baker, would profit from such a book.
Well, Mick’s dream is a reality – his book, “Bethesdabasics” is now available from his website – I recently got my copy and immediately set out to bake a loaf from it. I choose the most basic loaf in the book, the first, which Mick calls, Pain de Campagne (the simple country bread of France). Since I wanted to do justice to Mick’s formulas and process, I determined not to change a single thing in his instruction – that’s really the only fair way to assess a recipe.
Out of respect to Mick and his book, I’m not going to give you his recipe, except to tell you that it is a simple combination of flour, water, salt, and starter @ 59% hydration – for a baker, that’s really all you need to know to have the ingredient list and proportions – however, as all good bakers know, the essence of a bread lies in the process, not the ingredients – and I’ll leave the secrets of the process to Mick and his book. He did introduce a few new concepts to me with his process, and I’ll be incorporating those in my own breads.
As you can see, Mick’s Pain de Campagne baked up gorgeously, and I can attest, it was equally delicious as well. It even provoked an unsolicited note of approval from my beloved, who is generally stingy with her praise of my baking. I’m sure we’ll be adding it to our short list of favorites. And I’d encourage any novice bakers who desire to raise their bread baking game to get a hold of Bethesdabasics and put it to use in your kitchen – both your bread, and everyone who tastes it will thank you.