[This piece was published in the Observer on 10 Feb 2019]
My pizza dough is stuck to the table. It couldn’t be more steadfastly attached if I’d superglued it. I forgot to put flour on the table before throwing it down to fold it, as per the teacher’s instructions. In my defence, I was looking out of the window.
I’m at a sourdough baking retreat in the Sierra Nevada. E5 Bakehouse’s Ben MacKinnon is running the course in Andalucía, out of the restaurant of Las Chimeneas hotel. Owned by Brits David and Emma Illsley, Las Chimeneas sits 1000m above sea level in Mairena, a village of 300 people, and we’re kneading and folding in full view of the Alpujarras mountains. The green cover on the red rock looks blue in the morning light, the sun is pouring into grooves and gorges, and the day is so clear that if you squint down the valley to the distant, sparkling ocean you can see Algeria. Who wouldn’t drift off?
Luckily I’m saved by a fellow student, who tactfully calls my dough “a big fuckin’ mess” and unhinges it from the table with one deft swipe of a dough scraper. Ages and experience vary among the 11 bakers; there are retirees, a doctor, a property developer, a newspaper editor, and even a bright spark with a part-time baking business – but we all have one thing in common: we like our bread “real”.
There was a time when all bread was “real”, or perhaps the modern word is “artisanal” – that is to say, made with human hands and few ingredients: flour, water, salt, yeast, time. When the food industry got involved we all got our time back, but bread transformed into a thing with around 30 to 40 ingredients. Today, as sales of white sliced bread fall dramatically (75% since 1974), artisan bakeries are on the rise. After decades of eating ingredients there to nourish profit margins rather than our bodies, people are increasingly seeking a better quality of bread.
During the week there are three days of bread-making classes, during which we tackle seeded rye, multi-grain, ciabatta, country loaf, bagels, fruit loaf, sprouted rye, porridge bread, focaccia and pizza. We are in excellent hands: Ben quit his job as a sustainability consultant for an engineering firm and opened E5 Bakehouse in 2009 under the railway arches of London Fields – now responsible for the street’s dubious decoration of queues, mostly for the Hackney Wild, of which he sells around 200 a day.
We start the week sitting by the fire having a sherry tasting as the sky turns pink. Ben presents a large here’s-one-I-made-earlier foccacia, dotted with locally-plucked olives and oily strips of red pepper laid out like spokes on a wheel. We rip into it as politely as possible while Ben holds up a whiteboard and presents the baffling percentages and calculations of baking. It’s taken 17 years, but I have finally found a use for algebra (I really think if they’d passed around focaccia we’d have made more of an effort in maths).
After a bracing morning walk in the mountains, class begins with painstaking measurements of ingredients and watch-one-do-one demonstrations of folding technique. The mornings go by in a collaborative effort of mixing, folding, shaping, and folding again, punctuated by questions and chat. When I’m having trouble shaping a loaf Ben coaches, and does not leave my side until I master it. We even do a spot of milling, tasting the freshly-ground flour as it tumbles from the chute. Ben says it should be “fine enough to stick to you like face powder”, so naturally we all throw flour on our faces without question. Before long the hotel cooks, Sole and Conchi, appear from the kitchen with sumptuous lunches - and treats, such as slices of startlingly juicy Andalucían oranges drizzled with dark chocolate.
After a morning of kneading and folding – and, in the case of bagels, boiling – the labelled loaves go into the ovens and we spend the afternoon scraping flour off tabletops, peeking into the ovens, pulling out trays and shouting, “Sally! Yours looks amazing!” David comes in and announces, “The entire village smells wonderful!”
Evenings at Las Chimeneas are spent discussing possible activities for our “days off” over delicious Alpujarran fare (punched up with ingredients that historically weren’t easy to get hold of in the mountains, such as ginger, cumin and of course, meat). We decide to visit Mairena’s olive oil mill at 10:30am – we can’t go any earlier because Adolfo, who runs the mill, is also the village taxi driver and has a fare. The olive oil is golden green and peppery, as well as hard-won: it’s incredibly dangerous to shake olives from the trees – two villagers are in wheelchairs because of olive collecting. For all this, this exquisite oil goes for just €3.50 a litre. We continue to a ham producer in nearby Yején, which is not for the squeamish. 50,000 hams hang from the ceilings in a macabre corridor – though afterwards we’re given a tasting, along with homemade red wine poured from a Fanta bottle. We all go in on a €60 ham, and spend the rest of the week taking slices whenever we fancy. Before a picnic lunch by a stream we stop off at a goats cheese producer, where Paul Newman’s Spanish doppleganger gives us a tour.
Some of the very best moments happen during the daily mountain walks: Las Chimeneas’s main business is walking holidays, and it’s not hard to see why. The city-dwellers amongst us take deliberately greedy breaths of impossibly clean air, and pluck plump oranges off trees. The valley is dotted with villages built by Berber settlers. They look like clusters of cartoon teeth: bright white to reflect the heat, and square (admittedly a design fault since we’re not in the desert – the roofs leak in the rain). We stop at the edge of a gorge in the neighbouring village of Laroles and see a crowd of goats on the distant side. A harmonious tinkle of bells rings out across the gorge. David says, “Each goat-bell is individually tuned for the listening pleasure of the goat herd.”
By the final day’s classes, we’re a well-oiled machine. Once my pizza dough is rescued from the table, we clean up and transport the dough to Júbar, Emma’s father’s home and the location of a pizza oven David built with his own ambitious hands. We take turns topping our pizzas and among the always-fierce “does pineapple belong?” debate, we marvel at the 60-second process of a wood-fired pizza bake. Can there be a better meal than freshly-made sourdough pizza, cooked with fire, washed down with rose from a vineyard you can see from the mountain? And yet another jaw-slackening, blue-green vista.