I bake two of my smaller loaves at a time, on a baking stone, and with boiling water in a pan at the bottom of the oven to provide steam for the first half of the bake. In the past, I’ve noticed that sometimes one of the loaves has a fine ear while the other doesn’t. I’ve assumed that this is some quirk of shaping, which I am still not that good at, because other than that the two loaves are treated more or less identically. Then yesterday, as I took these two loaves out of the oven, a thought occurred to me.

Two loaves, the one on the right with undeveloped ear
The one that didn’t get an ear, the score was facing the oven wall. The one that did, the score was facing the middle of the oven.

The oven is gas fired, but still, most of the heat, I understand, is radiating from the walls. So, could being closer to the hot wall set the score before oven bloom could lift up that flap?

Next batch, I made sure that both scores were facing the centre. A little tricky, that, as I score after I place the loaf on the peel, so I had to do one left-handed. And lo, both loaves developed a fine ear.

Two loaves both with good ears, the one on the right badly scored because left-handed

This is just a single observation, of course, to be repeated in weeks to come, which will help with the left-handed blade use. Still, I can’t help but think I’m onto something.

Searching around, I found one discussion that early steaming gives better ears. I’ve always believed that to be true, because steaming helps keep the skin pliable longer. For that reason, I have always pre-steamed the oven for a minute or two before putting in the loaves, and I also give the loaves a quick spray of water just before they go in. Seems to me, though, that with this kind of improvised steam system, the position of the loaf in the oven also makes a difference. But is that the only factor?

Save the Date: 17 November 2019

four students with their bread

After offering courses in private homes, this summer saw the first one-day course here in Rome. Latteria Studio provides a beautiful space in which a maximum of six people can share in the joy of homemade sourdough bread. This is first and foremost a practical, hands-on day. However, we use the time while the starter is working its magic to explore the history of wheat and bread and the details of how to care for and use a starter culture.

Reserve your place now. Discount on tickets for two.

The day

hand resting on ball of doughThe first order of business is to make your dough. Step by step, I will guide you through the process, along the way explaining why we do what we do. If you have never made a loaf before you will be amazed at how a little effort transforms four simple ingredients into a living dough. And even if you are an experienced baker, there are bound to be new insights.

The secret of great bread

bread in a banneton There is no secret to great bread, apart from time.

We’ll talk about that, and while your bread quietly does its thing we’ll also talk about wheat, and flour and sourdough leavens. I’ll demonstrate some other techniques and make the bread we will eat for lunch.

About me

jeremy with "amusing" bread sign I’ve been baking bread on and off for the past 50 years. Some time before 1989 I made my first sourdough starter, and it has been with me ever since, travelling from Somerset in England to Italy. I’m also a biologist and so I have a good understanding of what is going on in the starter and in the bread.

In summer 2018 I made a series of 31 brief podcasts dealing with Our Daily Bread, from prehistoric breadcrumbs to tomorrow’s new wheats. I write about bread and baking on one of my websites.

Takeaway

You will leave with your own delicious loaf of handmade bread, plus:

  • a “Tuscan” sourdough starter that may or may not be more than 110 years old;
  • instructions on how to feed and care for your starter and how to use it to bake more bread;
  • an understanding of why I put “Tuscan” in scare quotes;
  • a few other recipes;
  • maybe some other treats.

And you will have a great day, with good food, in good company.

Small print

The day costs 120€, which includes lunch. All you need to do is turn up. Tickets are 60 € in advance, balance to be paid on the day. Cancel up to 72 hours before for a full refund. There will be gluten.

A couple of weekends ago I gave my first public sourdough class in Rome. We were in the beautiful space of Alice Adams’ Latteria Studio, just off the Viale Trastevere, on what turned out to be almost too beautiful a day. After a cool, damp and long spring, summer had arrived with a bit of a bang, and to be honest I hadn’t made allowances. As a result there were some last-minute adjustments to the timetable, and the bread we made didn’t turn out quite as I expected. But one of the students assured me that it tasted really good, and one can’t argue with that.

We made my standard 50% wholemeal loaf with a leaven, and while the dough did its bulk ferment (far too quickly) talked about the magic that turns flour, water, salt and leaven into bread. I demonstrated sourdough ciabatta, using the double-hydration method. They turned out pretty well, and made a good accompaniment to the super lunch that Alice laid on.

Four students enjoying lunch at Latteria Studio

Sitting down to the super lunch Alice provided; ciabatta, bottom left.

Stepping back from my disappointment that the dough over-proofed, I reckon the day was pretty much a success. Alice’s new oven worked out very well and everyone seemed to have a good time, as proof of which I offer an almost total lack of photographs.

Everyone took home their own copy of “my” starter, having dutifully recited The Pledge, and a copy of the booklet I’ve prepared. I haven’t yet had any complaints.

No firm date yet for the next Rome course; possibly some time in September. Drop me a line if you want to be informed when a date has been fixed. I’m also available to show you how to make sourdough breads in your own kitchen. And next spring, with luck, I’ll be offering a one-week course, complete with several excursions, at an astonishingly beautiful castle between Perugia and Gubbio.

Alas, Coleg Trefeca had to withdraw the course, but I am hopeful that this is a postponement, not a cancellation, so I am leaving this up here as a record. And if you’re interested in hosting something similar, please get in touch.

Want to learn more about bread? And how to bake with traditional leavens? And visit a working watermill?

I will be part of a two-day workshop at Coleg Trefeca in the gorgeous Brecon Beacons in Wales on 23–24 June.

two rustic loaves of bread

I’ll be working alongside Colin Tudge, one of the most thoughtful writers on farming and agriculture, and Ruth West, who organised the first Rise of Real Bread conference in Oxford and is a force in farmers markets and agroecology.

We’ll be talking about bread itself and as an example of how most food is produced today, with narrowly conceived financial profit as the goal and little regard for the health of people or the planet. Bread offers a chance to look at how we arrived at the wonder of a 36p supermarket loaf and what it would take to put that right.

During the course we will explore the history of bread and milling, modern bread production and who is leading the drive for change, and how a new localised bread culture could change the face of agriculture.

bread rising in a banneton

On the second day, at Talgarth Mill, we will see wheat turned into flour and together transform the flour into tasty sourdough loaves.

wholemeal sourdough starter in a jarYou will leave with a deeper understanding of the part bread plays in our culture and agriculture, a booklet of instructions and recipes, and your own sourdough starter.

Details of the course are on the Coleg Trefeca website, which has a handy-dandy link to book the course.