While many of us are doing squats in the rain down the local park this January, KIRSTIE YOUNG goes on a different kind of bootcamp…
If the BBC ever looks to remake 70’s hit show The Good Life with a culinary twist, they could do worse than knock on the door of Bod and Annie Griffiths, owners and hosts of the Vale House Kitchen near Bath. I had heard a lot of good things about this rural foodie retreat, so when I was invited to go along on its breadmaking course, I was determined to rise to the challenge (ahem).
A near-fatal car accident during a trip to New York was the wake-up call Bod needed to throw in the towel on his city job and create the cookery school that he and Annie dreamed of. After a year of wrangling an old barn into a state-of-the-art kitchen, fighting with planners, dealing with the sleep deprivation (there was a new-born to tend to as well), and gathering together a group of award-winning tutors, Vale House Kitchen was finally up and running in the Summer of 2013.
I was expecting to watch a couple of demos, pick up some recipes and maybe tap a couple of loaves on the bottom to check if they were cooked. Little did I know, this was bread bootcamp.
The morning saw the students make five different types of bread; that’s a lot of measuring, kneading and folding to do before lunch. I was stationed next to a young clergyman (yes, before you ask, I managed to avoid any bad ‘breaking bread’ puns), who was there because his young son still believed that his dad could do literally anything, until a homemade pizza disaster struck and the superhero mask began to slip. So here he was, to learn breadmaking from the pros.
We were quickly established as the chatty corner by the course tutor (let’s hope they don’t send school reports home), as we yakked about food banks, food miles, food magazines and four-year-olds over our ciabatta.
Next up was English wholemeal, pain paysan, and bloomer. Kneading techniques, pre-dough and poolish were explained. Doughs were made, thrown away, and made again. Finally, it was time to sit down and eat some of the morning’s work.
Ever the genial host, Bod poured wine into the willingly extended glasses of the students while we ate our pizza, and the conversation turned to new favourite restaurants, guilty food pleasures and most-loved celebrity chefs (Sticks ‘n’ Broth in Bristol, Jelly Babies and Nigel Slater, since you ask). It was very hard to return to what you could call ‘work’, but after the flurry of the morning, the afternoon was an altogether more relaxed affair.
We cooked some of the now-risen dough, compared bakes and sniggered over soggy bottoms. Never the kind of girl who played hairdressers in her youth, I struggled with plaiting the sweet pain Viennoise dough before giving in and making a chocolate loaf instead, with delicious chocolate drops folded into the mix (one for the dough, one for me, one for the dough, one for me…). We finished up with Irish soda bread, which, after the technical bakes of the day, felt like child’s play.
Before we were sent on our merry way, Bod offered to show me his new pigs and chickens (or ‘the girls’ as he called them), so we went on a quick tour of the grounds while I tried to keep my envy under wraps. This is, indeed, the Good Life.
Photos by KIRSTIE YOUNG