For the Love of Sourdough -Hart's Bakery Workshop, Bristol.

Tucked underneath the arches of Temple Meads Station, in what used to be a dominatrix's dungeon; it is hard to believe that Hart's Bakery has only been around for just over a year. Now a busy bakery with café and a well established part of Bristol's food scene, the sourdough here is some of the best in town. At the weekend, queues snake out of the doors for cinnamon scented custard tarts and Saturday Bread -a sweet yeasted dough, dimpled and rippled with a dark, buttery caramel which is only made on a Saturday.

Such is the delight of Hart's Bakery, many people, myself included, factor in extra time to their train journey in order to visit and carry off a stash of sausage rolls, pasties or cakes, in case hunger should strike. In fact, there is a well recognised condition specific to Bristol, clusters of which have developed during the last year: an anguish and heartache experienced upon realising too late, that Hart's Bakery is closed on a Monday and your journey is doomed to flaccid pastry and generic coffee.


As well as running a successful bakery, Laura Hart and her team run a workshop, covering all you need to know about making sourdough and pastry.

Moro is where I had my first taste of sourdough, some years ago now. I'd never tasted bread like that before; the crust a little charred and chewy, open textured and springy with a sour tang that went so well with the fruity extra virgin olive oil. Back then, sourdough was not as popular as it is now, so, harder to come by. Most proponents of sourdough baked it themselves and made it seem like an onerous task, creating, feeding and nurturing the starter mix or levain.

A mixture of Lactobacillus (lactic acid bacteria) and yeasts -strains of both Candida and Saccharomyces; the starter is a culture of flour and water that occurs as a result of natural fermentation. A little of this is used to make a loaf, and a little of which remains behind to make more of the starter.

Every time I thought about making some for myself, I would read about more and more complicated ways of stabilising the starter: using unchlorinated water; unbromated flour which was not as easy to get hold of as it is now; adding a certain proportion of bran or whole rye and even unwashed organic grapes. All that effort, and if you left it unattended or decided to go on holiday -it would moulder and die off and you would be back to square one.

One of the main reasons I wanted to attend the workshop was to learn more about sourdough and see if it really was as complicated as it is sometimes made out to be. From the off, Laura debunked much of the myth surrounding it, outlining her methods and reassuring us just how simple it can be to make and how much more robust and forgiving the starter mix is. Using some of Hart's sourdough starter, which has been going for a few years now, we then got stuck in to making our own loaf.

Starting out as a sloppy sticky mess, a few rounds of kneading and proving under Laura's watchful eye, turned the mixture into the characteristic taut and shiny dough. A fine balance between overworking and being timid, I learnt how to work the dough and the point at which I needed to let it rest. Tipped upside down into a linen lined proving basket dusted with flour and semolina, it was left to prove over night, ready to bake the next day. 
Next, we learnt how to laminate pastry for use in croissants, pain au chocolat, pain aux raisin and Danish pastries. This, again, is something that I've always wanted to learn, and although I've read about how to do this in cookbooks, for some things experiential learning is invaluable. The first step, was to soften and flatten a pat of butter into a rectangle about the thickness of a pound coin. Using a rolling pin, it was a noisy but therapeutic way to get rid of the week's frustrations, bashing the butter into submission.

We were then given a portion of sweet yeasted base dough that had been prepared for us the previous day, and left overnight to prove. Rolling it out into a rectangle, the flattened butter was placed at the centre and a series of folds and rolls were carried out -envelope, book and letter. In between each set, as the dough became stubborn and tightened, we allowed it to rest on a cling film covered tray and worked on other things.
Chocolate short crust pastry came next; the base for a chocolate and marmalade tart that we took home that very evening. This reminded me just how easy it is to make pastry, well, short crust at least and, how I really ought to make the effort more often. Rolled out to make a thin, buttery short case, we added spoonfuls of Hart's own marmalade to spread along the bottom. A glossy filling of dark chocolate, butter, eggs and sugar was then poured over the top and popped into the oven until set to a wobble. 
For supper, we made our own pizzas. After being shown how to stretch out or roll the ball of semi-sourdough that we were given to make the base, we then had the difficult task of deciding on the topping. An array of ingredients were laid out on a wooden board including a simple tomato sauce, or oil and ricotta for a bianca. To make us feel like serious bakers, we even got the chance to place our pizzas in the oven using a semolina and flour dusted peel.

Having had our fill of wine and pizza, our final task of the evening was to shape our breakfast pastries, ready for the morning. Rectangles were cut and rolled around semi-sweet chocolate batons to make pain au chocolat. Lengths of pastry spread with crème patisserie were wound into a round and pressed with sultanas, destined for pain au raisin. Isosceles triangles, cut with the help of a template, some filled with frangipane, others left plain were rolled into croissants. Whilst squares were made into pin-wheels, or corners folded inwards for Danish pastries. Misshapen off cuts were turned into cinnamon rolls; one of my favourite treats, borne out of the necessity to reduce waste. 
The following day started leisurely with coffee and toast and a chance for questions. We were allowed to bring someone with us, to help tuck into the mountain of pastries we were about to create. Although M, who mainly eats to live, decided to do other things on the first bright, crisp Bristol day since the continuous rains. Imagine.

We set to work egg washing pastries, dolloping crème patisserie and rhubarb compote, pressing sultanas and scattering flaked almonds. Working as a team, it did not take long for us to do this and they were soon in the oven, baking and creating a warm buttery fug. Dusting the almond croissants with icing sugar and dredging the cinnamon rolls with more cinnamon sugar, we divided up the spoils, having already eaten a decent amount of pastries with more coffee.

Laura then demonstrated how to make the sweet yeasted dough and, started the three day process required to have pastries ready for the bakery's re-opening on the Tuesday morning. 

As for the sourdough; we turned out our loaves onto a dusted peel, slashed at them Zorro-like to leave our mark and, fed them into the steam oven to bake.
And what do you know? My first sourdough... 

The crust, bronzed and chewy; the crumb, open and springy with a slightly sour tang -just like a real Hart's Bakery loaf. I proudly ate my first slice toasted with plenty of butter and some Marmite Gold.

Laura and her team made this workshop thoroughly enjoyable. Not only was it well organised, you learn a lot, and there is plenty of hands on experience and advice on how to bake in a home kitchen. Alongside the pastries, we were given a pamphlet of recipes which included crème patisserie, frangipane and, tips on making and caring for a starter dough. Finally, we were entrusted with a pot of Hart's sourdough starter and sent on our way.

Sitting in the fridge now, is the latest member of our household. Tamagotchi style, I check on it and feed it and make sure it is happy. It's pretty lively stuff, bubbling away, seemingly contented and even endured our recent holiday with little fuss. I think we get on. Thanks Laura.

Workshops happen once a month -checkout the Hart's website for the next available session:

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