Odd how some things make us reassess other things. A little notice on The Fresh Loaf informed me that Bernard Clayton Jr had died, and I realised I knew absolutely nothing about the person who wrote the book that first gave me a real idea of how interesting and varied bread and bread-making could be. My copy of The Complete Book of Breads is a US edition (I don’t think it was ever published in the UK) and may be a first. I cannot remember who gave it to me, but it definitely predates all my other bread books. I never did make all that many of the recipes -- even then they seemed fussy -- and even then the volume measurements made me mad enough to scribble 1 cup = 5 oz flour on the title page and weights next to the measurements of the recipes I did use.

So I went looking for an obituary, and discovered that Clayton was a newspaperman who came late to bread, having “experienced a bread-baking epiphany while bicycling across Europe with his wife in 1965”. His book offers more detail, saying it happened “in the small fishing village of Dungarvin ... after a miserably cold, wet day behind a horse pulling a rented gypsy wagon over miles of narrow, crooked Irish roads”. Either way, Clayton was about 50, and had retired a couple of years before. The bread bug got him bad, and he spent the rest of his life travelling, gathering recipes, perfecting them for home bakers, and publishing the results in a series of books.

The obituary notes:

With dough, Mr. Clayton favored a tough-love approach. “The best advice I can offer a novice bread baker is this,” he wrote. “Don’t ‘gentle’ the dough. Knead it with force, slam it down on the board. Beating it helps develop gluten.”

I’ve adapted quite a few of his recipes, and that’s one bit of advice I‘ve learned to ignore, as I have the “non-fat dried milk”1 that so many of the recipes call for. In doing so I’ve come across elements of what might best be called snobbishness towards Clayton among today’s gung-ho artisan bakers, not least at The Fresh Loaf. But I remain grateful to Bernard Clayton Jr and the work he put into inspiring my bread-baking, and to Paul McCool at The Fresh Loaf for not being one of the snobs.

  1. Who remembers Marvel these days? 

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