New Zealand baker Dean Brettschneider was one of the people that I encountered at the recent Savour New Zealand in Christchurch. Together with Lauraine Jacobs, a Cuisine food editor, he has recently published Taste, the third in a series of quality books on baking. At Savour New Zealand, when not signing stacks of Taste and his other books, he gave an eagerly anticipated class called Kneading the Dough in which he made a loaf of my favourite sourdough bread.
With sourdough, you don’t use yeast from a packet or jar. Instead you just use the natural yeasts from the air, making a starter that ferments over time to raise the dough. I was particularly interested in this bread as the Boyfriend had tried a series of sourdough experiments in Dublin with not a huge amount of success. Getting one useable loaf of bread out of about ten can’t be seen as a good statistic in anyone’s books!
Dean emphasised the simplicity of sourdough during his class and, when I talked to him afterwards, I asked him if he saw his role as taking the mystique out of breadmaking. “There’s people that do create that mystique. All the hidden secrets. What is it? Just flour, water and salt,” he says. “The books are about giving people the confidence, giving them photographs, giving them explanations. Some good information that works. I try to unlock the secrets. Nothing is complicated. It is simple. It’s about the little things.”
In the notes that accompanied the class, he stated that his baking philosophy was “back to the future”, a statement that he enlarged on later. “It’s going back to the past for the style of product,” said Dean, “but we’re using futuristic knowledge and modern ingredients to bring it forward.”
So why sourdough? As I’ve discovered myself, it’s not the easiest bread to make. “Sourdough is what everyone is interested in,” according to Dean. “That’s what everybody wants to know. People either get scared about it, they get enthusiastic and passionate about it or it’s too hard. It’s one of those things that I’m going to focus on for a while because it’s not so hard. But what I like about it is that flavour and that natural feel.”Despite the fabulous bakeries that you can find scattered around New Zealand and the success of his own baking books, Dean doesn’t believe that there’s any major new interest in baking. “There’s a resurgence within a particular group, within the group that is passionate and excited about good food. But it’s not going to take the world by storm. The majority of people don’t really care. They want white bread.”In his class he encouraged people to bring a loaf of their own sourdough around to a dinner party instead of a bottle of wine. He sees that as “throwing a few seeds out and they’re springing up here and there.” Dean is firmly convinced of the importance of introducing people to truly good bread and then “they’re going to have an appreciation for good bread, good baking. So they’re going to go and search for that good loaf of bread. That’s what the books are about, creating a demand. They discover where a good bakery is and they go there and they get a good experience. That’s the secret. Lauraine and myself educate these people, passionate food people, but I also have a task on my hands of educating the bakers about delivering the experience to these type of people. You get mediocrity all the time. Take the time, learn, learn, learn. Most bakers are not wanting to learn really. It’s a long, long mission.”This can occasionally be discouraging, but it doesn’t seem to have taken its toll on Dean whose youthful looks belie the fact that he has spent the last twenty years baking. I asked him if they ever feel like dog years: “It has its toll,” he says ruefully, “but if you have the enthusiasm it’s kind of magic. It just lifts you. So if I want to get a bit enthusiastic I just bake. You can be in the worst mood but it just lifts you.”This enthusiasm comes across in his demonstration as, while demystifying the whole sourdough process, Dean shows how baking can be fun. But, as he also noted during the class, “the simple things in life are not always easy” and, while I may have had good intentions while the glorious sour nutty taste of the sourdough bread was still on my lips, I still haven’t got round to making it. Maybe, with my newfound knowledge, it’s time for further experiments…