I am a happy baker but a very reluctant scientist. Certain that I could pump up one of my greatest passions with some technical muscle, I recently enrolled in the five-day Artisan III Advanced Bread course offered at the San Francisco Baking Institute.
I chose the course somewhat illogically. I wanted a challenge and knew that most of the scientific baking terms outlined in day one of the curriculum were an utter mystery to my blonde brain: whether it was interpretative flour terminology like ash content or falling number or fermenting fundamentals like knowing your acetic acid from your lactic, the truth was it would all come in handy if I ever wanted to get totally serious about bread and open a bakery – which I don’t.
But I like to dream that I might… and even our instructor, certified Master Baker Didier Rosada was prone to talking at length about romance and passion as any fine, French born and trained professional might when lapsing into a reverie about all things gastronomique.
Bread, despite its lowly origins and simple ingredients, had captivated 18 adult students enough to willingly sit behind cramped little desks in a fluorescent-lit-classroom for six long hours on that first day before we even came within a nose of inhaling the toasty, rich aromas of blistery crusts baking in the eight-deck, 200-loaf- capacity behemoth oven downstairs.
We came from all corners of the world, we students of flour, water, yeast and salt, with a dozen different accents among us. Every so often, the instructor would speak of “yeast going dormant” or “dough conditioners” and questions in all different accents would pop up like mushrooms making for a broken telephone of misunderstanding interpreted in South African, New Zealand, Italian, Japanese or Brazilan-accented English.
Two bakery owners came from the far reaches of Johannesburg and Auckland to assess the week’s training, considering whether it was worth the expense to ship their staff to San Francisco for a week or two of bread school. Another two students, both recent San Francisco city college baking program grads, came for post-grad detailing while I belonged to the ‘serious home bakers’ faction which included a mother of teens from Sao Paolo, Brazil and a French history professor from Oklahoma. An exclusive Utah grocery chain sent two employees to finesse their ciabatta and baguette skills while Urth Caffé of Los Angeles dispatched two of their executive chefs.
Big dollars were riding on many of the bread brains in the room and our leader, Didier often rolled his eyes upward in obeisance to the food gods as he rolled his r’s dramatically and proclaimed in his thick, French accent the defining hallmark of the course, “Production!” which is industry-speak for — well, baking.
Enter the contradiction. We were enrolled to learn artisanal techniques in an industrial, high tech environment. The institute is situated under the same roof as TMB Baking, a distributor of baking equipment from around the globe. Imagine an airport hangar divided into three separate bakeries (two used as bakery/classrooms, the other a commercial off-site bakery for SFBI’s two,
downtown retail stores) beside an equally vast area housing bakery equipment stock. I liked to linger outside our second floor classroom, perch on the balcony and take in an eagle eyes’ view of the high-energy production facilities below.
“Only 20 % of baking in the USA is artisanal, “declared Didier on our first day, explaining that the remaining 80 percent is of the more commercial variety, namely pan loaves and bun production. Think baguette versus Wonderbread, ciabatta versus Kaiser rolls. Artisanal is based on traditional, Old World techniques compared to high quantity, fast and industrial modern bread baking. Yet, enter the word “production” and we are talking about large-scale baking of old school recipes.
After five hours of classroom science on the first day of the program, I was chomping at the bit to get my artisanal hands into flour and start production. Didier pointed at me and four other students in the same row of desks and declared with his usual flourish: “You five are team Number 3!”
He then scribbled a haze of weights, team numbers and formulas on the white board and suddenly it was time to get out from under our school desks and into the production lab . I detected a certain hop and vigor in everyone’s descent down the stairs. In the next hour, we would prepare vats of rye and spelt polish, durum sponge and whole wheat levain that would ferment and bubble all night long until our return for Day Two.