Baking artisan bread in Devon
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HANNAH STUART-LEACH visits the Common Loaf community bakery and discovers that bread lies at the very heart of good food
Perched amidst the rolling Blackdown Hills in Devon you’ll find Stentwood Farm, looking out on a landscape of patchwork fields. Once a dairy, with thick flint walls, it is now home to the Common Loaf Bakery.
“Being here happened by accident rather than design,” says partner Michael Champion, explaining that the community used to live in a semi-detached house in Kent. “It was a bold adventure into the unknown.” As it turns out, when it comes to making artisan breads, this location has some unexpected but welcome benefits especially the fact that the bakers can use the spring water that emerges already well-filtered from the clay ground. Artisan bread – hand-crafted and chemical free - has become uber fashionable in recent years and the Common Loaf community has bread at its very heart: “Bread is the basic building block of food,” explains Michael. “For thousands of years people grew grain, milled it by simple means and added salt, water and some kind of fat or oil, then either left it unleavened or added a culture to ferment it, and baked it to feed themselves and their family. “Common Loaf bread comes from a shared life - the true meaning of the communion bread - and is about helping each other to be healthy and happy.” Customers enjoy the “firm chewiness and slight sourdough tang” of the sourdough spelt and rye breads in particular, says Michael. However, due to unfavourable weather conditions, a world shortage of spelt means the community bakery is now concentrating on making a broader range of breads with different grains. The white spelt bloomer is proving a big a hit, as well as the spicy Mexican focaccia. “A staple favourite at the Devon County Show is always the fruit bread, naturally sweet yeasted cake filled with fruit and nuts.” Common Loaf bakers use special vintage Artofex mixers that mimic the movement of two arms to mix dough. This is then turned out onto the table to be shaped and formed entirely by hand. “Spelt needs a gentle touch as the gluten is weaker than modern wheat,” says Michael. That, along with the long fermentation and overnight sponging techniques they use, he believes, more than qualifies their products as being truly artisan. The making of bread is a therapeutic, as well as spiritual experience, adds Michael. “Like a potter shaping clay, the softer spelt dough we handle responds well to the mood of the bakers.” Maintaining quality is paramount, and most important for satisfying the increasingly discerning local bread enthusiasts. “Quality relates to health and wellbeing, which everyone is rightly concerned about. As the saying goes: ‘You are what you eat!’”
Artisan Bread in Devon
Why not try making an artisan loaf yourself? Here are some Devon bakers who also teach bread-making:
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Red Dog Bakery
Small class sizes mean you’ll get excellent tuition from enthusiatic baker Roger Birt whose wonderful artisan loaves are sold at farm shops and markets in North Devon and at Plymouth’s Royal William Yard
Common Loaf Bakery
Stentwood Farm in Dunkeswell has a cosy onsite café where you can refuel midway through a hike in the hills. They also sell their produce at markets across the South West and in various shops too (see website for details).
The Artisan Bakery School
Why not try making a loaf yourself? Pioneering bakers Dragan and Penny, who were among the first in the country teaching micro bakery business courses, run tutorials from beginners artisan bread making day courses to all-inclusive weekends. Held at their beautiful cottage in the South Devon village of Sparkmoor on the edge of Dartmoor National Park.
German baker Birgit relocated to the UK for love, and now runs Continental Crumbs with her partner Oliver, specialising in European styles of bread from Greek olive bread to Spanish tomato bread. You can catch them in Totnes Market Square, and also buy their loaves and rolls in various Devon farm shops (see website for details).
A great family day out, especially if you time your visit for one of the twice-monthly water millings. This mill uses 1000-year-old techniques and natural ingredients to bake a signature range of stoneground flour breads that you can try and buy at the café.
Focusing on top quality ingredients, this Plymouth-based bakery makes everything from simple organic Farm White and Malthouse loaves to rustic French Pain de Campagne and Borodinsky Rye, a sour dough made from 100 per cent dark rye flour with malt, molasses and coriander seeds.