Crumbs cooks with Andy Tyrrell

by Melissa Stewart

04 June 2018

Things got a little bit messy when we cooked up a batch of brioche and buns with River Cottage’s recently appointed head chef, Andy Tyrrell…

I recently fessed up on the Crumbs website to not being much of a cider drinker. Shameful, I know – especially since I live in the South West, which is proper cider country. Now time for another confession: I’m not a big fan of baking, either. While everyone goes crazy for GBBO, I’m generally sitting in the corner doing an eye roll. You see, I’m just not that good at measuring stuff.

Baking is an art and a science. One extra spoonful of flour or teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda and you could turn your luscious loaf into a right sticky mess. It’s not that I don’t want to bake, as I love all things dough-based – cakes, pastries, breads, you name it. It’s just that I don’t have the confidence not to cock it up.

Step forward Andy Tyrrell, recently appointed head chef at River Cottage . Having started his chef’s career in a patisserie, and having worked and taught at River Cottage since 2012, he’s pretty much a master of all things baking. So, when he invited me to the fabled cookery school to try my hand at their new-ish Croissants, Brioche and Buns course, I couldn’t refuse. After all, if a master is teaching me, what could possibly go wrong? “Young, old, experienced, inexperienced, we have a wide range of people doing this course,” Andy says, reassuringly. “You may think it’s designed for more intermediate bakers, but a lot of people who have never really baked before – but love brioche and croissants – come along. It’s not aimed at anyone in particular, just people that have a passion for pastries!”

After a bumpy tractor ride to the cottage, a strong cup of tea, and possibly the poshest bacon sarnie I’ve ever eaten, my fellow bakers and I roll up our sleeves and get stuck in. We start by making croissant dough, and there’s something wonderfully therapeutic about working the dough over and over in your hands until you have the (almost) perfect consistency.

Next, we put a block – yes, a whole block – of creamy butter on top of the dough and begin to fold and roll it in, over and over again. It all starts to feel a little hypnotic – a bit like going for a massage but more satisfying, as you know you’re going to end up with a car-boot load of pastries at the end of it. We then wrap up our slab of buttery dough and stick it in the fridge to rest for a bit, while we get on with making the brioche dough.

What’s lovely about this course is that for all the work we’re doing, it’s pretty relaxed. At no point do I feel stressed. Andy is a great teacher, explaining everything slowly and in layman’s language, so we all know what’s going on. “At River Cottage, ingredients are everything," he says. "Always start with something that’s organically grown or produced. Find the best quality produce you can. When you do, from the point of view of a cook, you have the opportunity to make something that tastes fantastic and stands out from what you buy in the shops. When it comes to bread and pastries, supermarkets and bakeries want to cut corners because they have to focus on the price point, whereas when you’re baking at home you can use the best ingredients, so it will taste absolutely delicious.”

Just so you know, the flours we use for our baking are from Shipton Mill in Gloucestershire and Stoat & Sons from Dorset, while the butter is from Brue Valley Farms in Somerset. Brioche dough mixed, we set it aside to do its thang while we get started on making doughnuts. Handily, and in true Blue Peter style, all of our ingredients have been measured out for us, so it’s just a case of doing the handiwork. After another prod, roll and fold of our croissant dough, we take a well-earned break. This is where me and my fellow bakers proceed to get a bit overly excited as we’re led to the actual River Cottage dining room (as seen on TV) for a spot of lunch. A seasonal feast of rolled ewe with celeriac, anchovy broccoli and puréed carrot with garlic is enjoyed as we mingle with fellow guests, one of whom – we discover – has travelled all the way from America just for the chance to enjoy the River Cottage experience.

Stomachs satisfied, we head back in for our afternoon session, whereby we revisit our various doughs and lovingly craft them into finished products. As well as croissants, brioche buns and doughnuts, we make pain au chocolat, pain aux raisin and cinnamon buns. “The great thing about this course,” says Andy, “is taking the time to practise your skills. Baking with enriched doughs isn’t something that most people would find the time to do at home, so it’s great you can come along here, take your time and give it a go. Then, once you get home, you can practise and refine your technique. Once you’ve mastered the art of baking a few things well, you’ll realise how much better they taste than the stuff you buy in the shops.”

As the delicious waft of freshly baked goods starts to envelop the kitchen, it’s hard not to be excited by the sight of our efforts starting to rise and take shape in the ovens. Yes, admittedly, when it comes to cooling our breads down there are a few misshapen buns and soggy bottoms to be had, but overall everybody has created an impressive haul of treats. As the sun starts to set, we get back on the tractor, laden with the pastries we’ve made (and definitely a few pounds heavier after all the taste testing we’ve been doing), and the overall feeling is one of satisfaction. I get home, eat a few more, then fill the freezer with the rest. Catching myself a few days later, making a bread and butter pudding from the rest of the brioche, I realise – thanks to Andy – there might just be a baker inside me yet