On Sunday 19th January I had the privilege and pleasure of attending the Nova Bakehouse ‘Introduction to Sourdough’ workshop with Sarah Lemanski – my long time baking hero and dear friend.
As a coffee taster, my whole world revolves around flavour and I have spent 7 happy years devoting my working life to the pursuit of the very best – this interest has translated into virtually any other foodstuff so you can imagine my delight when Nova Bakehouse came into being with the sole goal of changing our perception of the perfect loaf, showcasing the depth and powerful character of British grown stone ground grain.
Having assisted with some of the early tastings of the bread from Nova, up until Sunday I had thought of myself purely as an avid Sourdough appreciator, nothing more. The thought that I could even hope to tease anything resembling a loaf out of just flour and water was almost laughable – particularly having witnessed the agonising process of those early weeks of the bakery opening grappling with complex formulas and constantly battling the elements which have such an impact on the finished product. This bread has genuinely changed my life but I certainly never thought I could actually manufacture it from start to finish.
I therefore arrived at Leeds Dock bright and early on Sunday morning feeling very relaxed and safe in the knowledge I was there for a day of learning more about something I love, nothing more. To my delight, there were four other people there for the course, all of whom were also fairly new to bread making.
We entered the sun kissed bakery to be greeted by Sarah and Hannah, founders of Nova. We were given a proper Yorkshire welcome albeit with some more continental bakes including some of their very best creations. Cinnamon Buns, Cardamom Knots and Maple and Pecan twists were all served alongside a single estate breakfast tea from Rare Tea Company.
Given all that needed to be covered off during the course of the day, we swiftly moved into mixing our first bread, the Country Sourdough, to prepare it for its first prove. The magic of mixing flour and water with your hands is almost childlike in its nature, we were in full play mode and marvelled at the transformation taking place within our bowls. Once sufficiently mixed, the dough was tucked away to prove over the next 45 minutes whilst we moved on to prepping our sourdough pizza dough that we would be sampling for lunch later that day.
Sarah wove in observations and teaching as we worked so that it was barely noticeable that we were there to learn. We did our learning through touching, smelling and seeing – a process we all got immense enjoyment out of.
Watching our precious dough transform from a shaggy mass into a smooth, dome-like structure following the first fold was just awesome – you really get a feel for the impact you are having on a product and therefore for the skill and experience it requires to get it right. I was filled with fresh admiration for these bakers particularly given the challenge of working with exclusively UK grown, organic, stoneground flour which is a living variable product in its own right.
From harvest to harvest the grains used at Nova will change in nature, requiring more or less hydration, time or temperature and it is totally dependent on the sensory skill of the baker to know what to do with it.
For the Country Sourdough we got the chance to work with a YQ population wheat, developed by Professor Martin Wolfe by crossing around 20 varieties of old and modern wheat to develop a variety best suited to yielding good harvests in this climate and that would also produce high quality wheat (hence the name YQ). The process of stone grinding to produce the flour results in more of the wholegrain remaining in the flour even when using high extraction flours, not just wholemeal flours. This maximises the nutritional benefits of the wheat and brings huge depth of flavour to the finished products.
The very uniqueness of these flours make them both a joy to work with and a challenge, you really never know the results you are going to get! This is just one of the many reasons that Nova Bakehouse is just so great! This approach to wheat and its place in UK organic agricultural practice is becoming increasingly important in supporting farmers through potentially chaotic climate changes. A more genetically diverse approach, suited to the UK’s environmental growing conditions is going to become even more crucial.
Nova aims to contribute to building demand for such grains, to ultimately encourage more farmers to grow them and for them to be processed and utilised here in the UK, creating markets for famers and millers. For something that tastes this good and has such benefits, we would be crazy not to!
Next came the sourdough pizza dough, which, again due to the flour (this one called Alicia), yielded totally different results. This level of influence that you can have on flavour by being selective with the flours you use was absolutely fascinating to me. The difference was immediately noticeable with this batch of dough behaving totally differently to the previous one. The action of digging your hands beneath this flubber-like structure and gently folding it back on itself was so satisfying as were the changes in aroma as the flour and water combined. We continued through this process of proving and folding and proving and folding before it was time for lunch to leave the country sourdough loaf for its final prove before we started to shape it for baking.
Having had the pleasure of being cooked lunch by Sarah and Hannah on numerous occasions before, I knew we were in for a treat. The care and attention to detail for this part of the day was evident – I have participated in similar workshops or cookery courses before at other venues where the catering can generally be disappointing and evidently scrimped together to maintain as much margin as possible. Not on a Nova Bakehouse course. Oh no… we started with creamy homemade ricotta spread on house sourdough crackers that had been topped with cracked black pepper. This was accompanied by a salad of fennel, blood orange and red cabbage and a herby green salad with olive oil and shavings of fresh and salty pecorino cheese. We happily sat around the communal table in the bakery and broke bread together swapping stories and talking about food! This delicious starter was followed by our very own sourdough pizzas which we topped with San Marzano tomato sauce, roasted peppers and creamy Burrata. The conversation dipped a little here as we all tucked in and lost ourselves in what we had created! Pizzas finished, it was time for tea and biscuits…as you can imagine, not just any tea and biscuits! We had Rare Tea Company single estate Malawian loose leaf breakfast tea with Baci di Dama, Italian biscuits, (the name translates to Lady’s Kisses) – little round, short, hazelnut biscuits sandwiched with chocolate. Utterly addictive and swiftly added onto my list of things I can now not live without!
Suitably fed and watered, it was right back to it. The last dough of the day was a sourdough pasta dough – this was the first time I had made fresh pasta so I was really excited by this and found it so interesting learning about the different uses for your discarded sourdough starter which is what is added into this recipe. The really exciting element was the Emmer grain (an ancient wheat) that we freshly milled using the small table top machine that was much like a coffee grinder. Watching the little golden seeds fall through the hopper and turning into fine flour was incredible and the aroma was so intense! As someone who has always had packs of flour sat in the kitchen cupboard it was eye opening to learn we should be treating it much in the same way we do coffee or spices and using it as fresh as possible. We pulled together the sourdough starter and Emmer flour with egg yolks, olive oil, salt and water to create a caramel coloured dough ready to roll out. Needless to say the roastery team have been pretty well fed this week with freshly cut pasta for their lunch, it has gone down a storm and will most certainly be added to my repertoire!
All in all, this was genuinely one of the most fulfilling and interesting days I have had in a long time. I truly felt the girls managed to take something that can be quite overwhelming and unapproachable and demystify it for the home baker. I certainly didn’t leave feeling I was a sourdough master, what I did leave with though was a batch of ‘mother’ to start my own sourdough at home, some left over pizza and pasta dough and a whole pack of information to help me get started. I am genuinely excited for this weekend to start putting my learning into practice with much more confidence than I would have ever had before. The content of the course was pretty amazing when you consider each step of the process could probably be a few hours of teaching – despite this, we managed to wrap our heads around the importance of fermentation, temperature, hydration levels and technique whilst having immense fun at the same time. Looking forward to the next one 🙂