Having touched on some global stuff, it occurred to me to bring the topic back home, by making good on my promise to write more about the bread-making course I went on a month or so ago.

The course was definitely firmly rooted in an artisanal tradition. But it was unlike the artisanal bread sites I've been hanging around and learning from. What is an artisanal bread? Hard to say, really, though like some other commodities, you know it when you see it. There's a focus on handwork, rather than machinery, and an avoidance of the "improvers" that are essential to industrial bread. Other improvers, though, such as vital wheat gluten, are sprinkled about with abandon. Artisan bread generally looks good, and tastes better. There's an emphasis on it being a slow process, although not exclusively.

Artisanal bread is all the rage in some quarters these days, but the practitioners are not the horny-handed yeopeople you might expect. They've studied the science, and know how time, temperature and pH will affect the final loaf. They measure precisely; a balance that weighs to the nearest gram isn't essential, but it sure helps. They have complex spreadsheets that tell you when to start work in order to have fresh bread for lunchtime next Sunday. Some measure the internal temperature of the dough during mixing. Their approach to a problem is very scientific: adjust one variable at a time until you've nailed it. And yet, in the midst of all this science, there is also humanity and culture. "Watch the dough, not the clock," is a favourite aphorism. Artisan bakers know and care about what they're doing. That's why I like them.

Giada and Lucilla from the Casa del Cibo aren't old-fashioned artisans either. They've got higher degrees, and a history of urban activism. But they are tapping into a love of tradition that is never far away in Italy, and attempting to reintroduce urban dwellers into the old ways of the country. Hence the stress on the sourdough starter, or pasta madre, being from Tuscany and more than 100 years old. Not for them per cent hydration. They were very keen on kneading and kneading and kneading and urged us to use "as much water as possible", with only the roughest guidance of where to start. In the past I have found that this approach gives me a much dryer dough then I really want as I add far too much flour early on to overcome the initial stickiness of too much water. They didn't seem to care in the least bit about temperatures, and were very relaxed about feeding the pasta madre, rising times and temperatures, hydration, salt, and all the other things the other artisans obsess about. They were also quite keen on bread machines, mostly, I think, because they were said to be greener than an oven because they used less energy to bake a loaf.

All in all, a very different kind of approach to the self-same goal: good bread. Neo-artisans? Pseudo-artisans? Does it even matter?

To the matter at hand, the bread. We were divided into three groups, one made a wholewheat bread with bits in, one a pure white bread, and one a kind of sweetened ur-loaf using Kamut flour. Four cups of flour, a couple of water and a big handful of biga went into a large, shallow mixing bowl. We were told to knead quickly with one hand until it was no longer sticky, then tip out onto the table and continue kneading, adding salt, if desired, after about five minutes of kneading. One shaping, into a long loaf, then onto trays, no bulk fermentation. While the bread rose we ate, watched a wonderful film, talked and listened to more information. Then it was back outside, where our bread, fresh out of the oven, was presented to us for tasting and taking home, along with the small ball of pasta madre, in an expanded polystyrene espresso cup, that gave us membership in the Confraternity of Urban Bakers.

I think that initially I was a little disappointed that there was no attempt to identify individual loaves with their makers. Where was "my" bread. Thinking on it, though, and although nothing was said about this, maybe this was a deliberate attempt to boost the community rather than the individual. I'm probably thinking too hard about the whole thing.

Here, for the record, is the recipe.

The night before baking, add 100 gm of flour and 150 gm of water to the starter, which should weigh about 35 gm. Leave at room temperature to ferment for 8-12 hours, then add another 100 gm of flour, mix well, and leave for another 8-12 hours. this is the biga, which can be kept in the fridge for "about three days" and used just like that. For the dough, all the biga is mixed with 225 gm water and 400 gm of flour. I used 300 gm of industrial strong white flour and 100 gm of stoneground, organic wholewheat. That lot is kneaded for 5-15 minutes, until it is done, with 2 teaspoons salt added during the kneading. Add any bits you fancy, shape into a loaf and allow to rise until about doubled. Then into a hot oven for about 45 minutes. That's the basic theme; we were encouraged to think of any and all variations to play upon it.

We were reminded, often, to be sure to remove 35 grams of pasta madre before adding the salt, and to store it loosely covered in the fridge for up to 10 days, unfed. But we were also reassured that if, for some reason, we lost our madre, we could always come back for a new one.

A month on, I have baked three separate batches, and they have all been good. What I'd really like to do, as a good neo-artisan, is to use my two different starters in identical recipes, just to see. Life may be too short.

I'm submitting this to YeastSpotting; if anyone really wants my centenarian Tuscan mother, I could try and dry some out and mail it.

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