THE REASON WHY …
“I, Michael John Hartley, being of sound mind …..”
Yes, this is my final Will and Testament. But don’t worry, the plan is it never gets finished and I continue to add material for as long as there is material to be added, the purpose being to pass on everything I have learned about baking bread.
Most people who stumble across this will never have heard of me and will be asking, who is this guy and what the hell does he know about bread baking? Well the point about me is I ain’t Chad Robertson or any of those guys pushing the extremes but I have a huge amount of practical experience that might set you on the road to baking competence.
I started baking rather late in life in 1992 when I was 45 and quickly picked up references to sourdough, a bread made with natural yeast. But finding out how to make it in those days was very different from the information overload of today. Any time I came across a formula it contained commercial yeast. When I finally found pure sourdough recipes there was very little background information, the method was skimmed over and starter maintenance non-existent. It took literally years and a one or two of false starts before I began to get things right. I actually gave up for a couple of years convinced that it was impossible to make sourdough in the North Wales climate.
The good thing about the struggle was, once I had my method, rather than follow other bakers’ formulas, I started to adapt them to what I knew worked for me. And, of course, I began converting yeasted recipes to natural leavening. Bread books became a source of ideas to be plundered rather than sets of instructions to be followed to the letter. It also meant I started to develop my own baking style which, from my point of view, is what makes a baker.
Essentially I’m self-taught. This is not to say that I haven’t gained enormous amounts of information from other bakers, baking friends, online forums and other sources. I’ve also done short courses with Andrew Whitley, Dan Lepard and Paul Merry. But basically I’ve devised my own methods, practices and formulas through practical experience, experimentation, and some times, sheer panic! Knowing your customers are but a few hours away can be an effective spur to finding baking solutions.
I’d been casting around for years trying to find an outlet for an inner drive to take my baking to another stage. For various reasons I wasn’t in a position to take on borrowing to set up a high street bakery – probably just as well because I didn’t have the experience and no business nous whatever. I toyed with community groups and threw around ideas culminating in a disastrous two years setting up a bakery for ex-offenders in conjunction with the probation service and an allied voluntary organisation. I was royally stuffed for my efforts.
The simple solution was to start baking for sale from home, something I should have done years before.
When I set up my microbakery in 2007, I’d been baking bread for 15 years but I didn’t really start learning until then. The difference between baking in ones and twos and baking even comparatively small quantities for sale is enormous. Again, I had to devise my own methods and routines. There were no guides to setting up and running home-based bakeries. The word “microbakery” wasn’t even in use. I began using it in early 2008, worried it might sound pretentious.
I started off hand mixing and baking in our domestic oven four loaves at a time, using paper and pencil for customer orders, bread formulas and ingredient calculations. Within a few months we took our bake capacity up to 10 an hour with a second oven, had a mixer, website, spreadsheet calculators and were knocking out up to 150 loaves a week over two days. That’s a pretty steep learning curve.
In 2010 I self-published “Bethesdabasics – Sourdough Made Simple”, my sourdough primer, followed by “Microbakin’ – Baking Bread for Sale at Home”. I’ve had “Bethesdabasics” translated into Welsh, and in 2016 produced a completely revised version called “Sourdough – Your Guidebook to the world of Naturally Leavened Bread”.
Since 2011 I’ve been running courses both for people setting up their own small bakeries and for amateur bakers. A dozen or so participants have gone on to set up their own microbakeries.
And in the process of doing all this I’ve developed a repertoire of in excess of a hundred naturally leavened breads.
So that’s my answer to “who the he’ll is he?”. You may not be able to sample my bread direct but you can judge me by the dozens photos on the site.
THIS SECTION UNDER CONSTRUCTION
TAKING THE BOLLOCKS OUT OF BAKING (TBoB) – UNDER CONSTRUCTION
When I set up this blog in 2008 I subtitled it “Taking the Bollocks out of Baking”. I suppose I had better try to explain myself.
One man’s cojones is another man’s bollocks – just thought I’d throw that in, one of my better jokes. Doesn’t work in reverse though. Bollocks is a lovely, aggressive, resonant word that can be singular or plural. Plural refers to a man’s testicles which need not concern us here (or anywhere else for that matter). Singular “Bollocks” means more than just “Rubbish”, it implies a pretentious attempt to mislead, usually with a dose of self-glorification, and there’s a lot of it about.
Other meanings: “to be given a bollocking”, which means a telling off rather than a kick in the gonads; “to drop a bollock”, meaning to make a mistake or screw up, as in “to drop more bollocks than a second hand truss”, then, strangely enough, it can mean the opposite as in “the dog’s bollocks” meaning the best.
Anyway, that’s cleared that up.
Having spent literally years sorting out how to make sourdough and then realising that there’s really not much to it, I became determined to try to make it easy for others and developed a serious dislike of people who spread disinformation either intentionally or through their own ignorance.
Here’s the big secret. You make a starter by mixing a paste of flour and water and allowing it to start to ferment. In the course of about a week, and with the help of a few feeds of more flour and water, the starter will be strong enough to raise dough. Now, here’s a real bread formula as an example, my Pain de Campagne, my best selling bread. Make a dough with 520g strong bread flour, 305g water, 135g of your new bubbly starter, 8g salt. Just plonk everything in a bowl and mix with your hand. Scrape the mix out onto your work surface and knead it by stretching it with your hands, just for a minute or so. Rest it for a few minutes and knead it again – just for a minute. Repeat after another short rest. Shape into a rough ball and leave it to ferment for about four hours in a covered container. Shape the dough into a tight ball and pinch the seams to seal. Put a tea towel in a bowl or other round container, flour it well and place the dough ball, seam side up, in the bowl, cover and leave for three and a half hours. Preheat the oven to 200C. Tip the dough out, seam side down, onto a baking sheet. Slash with the artistic flourish of your choice and bake for 50 minutes. Cool on a wire rack.
As for your starter, take a little of what’s left (100-150g) and mix in the same weights of flour and of water. In about 8 hours time it’ll be ready for your next bake.
That’s it; that’s the big mystery I spent years trying to discover. Of course there’s a lot more to learn, experience to gain, expertise to develop, but, if you followed those instructions, the loaf you produced might not come out perfect but it would probably be the best bread you ever tasted.
The bollocks starts when bakers imply that naturally leavened bread is a complicated and unreliable affair. So they say you can’t get a starter going without a little commercial yeast, if not that, you need grapes with white mould or pineapple or yoghurt or (the latest I’ve heard) white cabbage. And, while some of the latter might do no harm, the avalanche of advice creates confusion and uncertainty when flour and water will start to ferment of its own accord.