Cookery school review: Paul, Covent Garden

The course: Daily Artisan Bread, £80 for a three-hour evening class (includes charcuterie/cheese boards, plus your bread to take home)

Where: Paul Covent Garden, 29 Bedford Street, London WC2


Cookery school review: Paul, Covent Garden

What’s it like?

If you’ve ever wanted to know what it’s like to bake bread in a professional bakery, this course will put you in the picture. Paul’s flagship Covent Garden branch was the first of the French bakery chain to open in the UK back in 2000 and bread is still baked here every day. The equipment used on the course is professional although the techniques are easily translated to a home kitchen.

What I learned

Our group of six (maximum of eight per course) met for tea in the restaurant before course tutor Richard Blades, Paul’s head baker, shepherded us downstairs to the pro kitchen. Richard talked us through a few food safety points before explaining a bit about the ingredients (flour, salt, water, yeast) and techniques of bread-making: mixing, kneading, shaping, proving and baking.

It soon became clear that Richard has knowledge verging on the encyclopaedic. Encouraging us to handle and smell various types of flour, he explained how different protein/gluten levels affect the flavour and texture, and how the amount of water added will affect the consistency of the finished loaf. “A well-hydrated loaf gives an open texture,” he said – and when it came time to mix our dough, we learned that the dough was indeed well hydrated – wet and extremely sticky.

He also dispelled the myth that kneading dough ought to be an act of aggression. His far gentler “zero-stress kneading” method relies on stretching, turning, folding and resting the dough, giving time for the gluten’s structure to develop. Another key factor, Richard explained, is to give the dough a long rising period (Paul’s bread dough ferments for four hours), resulting in a spongy mass full of bubbles, which will give the bread a light, airy, open texture.

There was a lot to get through in a fairly short time but Richard’s explanations were quickly followed up by letting us have a go ourselves. We soon developed a feel for when the dough was ready to be shaped and proved. I felt I’d earned my baker’s stripes as, with Richard’s guidance, I put my dough into the steamy heat of the oven. The loaves that emerged were impressive. We enjoyed them, along with charcuterie, cheese – and wine – back in the restaurant as Richard answered any final queries.

The verdict

It’s a rare opportunity to be taught by someone with as much experience as Richard, and he has the teaching skills to pass that knowledge on. There was a lot of information to take in but notes given out after the class were clear and detailed. Most people on my course had some knowledge of bread-making, which I’d recommend – although newbies would get plenty out of it too.

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