Fine FoodsFiner ElementsRaymond Blanc Cookery School

If you're seeking inspiration or looking to up your game in your own kitchen, then look no further than Raymond Blanc Cookery School.

If you’re seeking inspiration or looking to up your game in your own kitchen, then look no further than Raymond Blanc Cookery School. There are a range of courses available — so why not accept the challenge. CHARLES FORD did just that and attended the bread-baking course with course tutor and master baker, DAN DEGUSTIBUS.


A winter’s day and the scent of freshly baked bread wafts across the land on the early morning air. Yes, over several years, the bread baking revolution has been happening, with artisan bakeries starting up, and more and more of us baking bread regularly in our own kitchens, as we turn away from supermarket sliced white… there had to be a better option. There is—bake your own bread!

After a few years of baking bread, with a long line of flat disasters and just a few modest successes; a mix of perseverance and expert advice was what I needed. So when the chance came to attend the Raymond Blanc Cookery School, with none other than master baker Dan Degustibus heading up the course, I jumped at the opportunity.

Le Manoir has a magnificent Cookery School inspired by Raymond Blanc’s values, with a kitchen you could only dream of—superbly fitted out by Smallbone of Devizes, Britains leading bespoke cabinet maker. But I feel daunted when I arrive, and perhaps the seven other ‘student bakers’ do too, for we sit sipping coffee and talking in lowered tones. Then our course tutor arrives, T- shirt and jeans, catching us up immediately in the warmth of his enthusiasm, and we’re off! Off to deconstruct bread, forget everything we think we know, and get back to basics.

The ingredients that can make a great loaf of bread are almost elemental in their simplicity: flour, water and salt! But aren’t we missing something? What about yeast!

It’s true that yeast, both quick-action dried yeast and fresh yeast are both used extensively, of course, but there’s also an ancient way of ‘growing your own yeast’ when flour mixed with water will gradually, over six or seven days, start to ferment. This is due to tiny amounts of yeast already present in the flour and also due to airborne yeast particles. After feeding the mixture with small amount of flour and water (50/50) the starter comes alive with bubbles. And it is this active starter that’s used to produce sourdough bread with that distinctively pleasant sour aftertaste, known by names such as pain au levain.

But it’s a slow process — it needs time, as we learn from the baker’s three T’s: time, temperature and texture. A bread dough made with the wild yeast starter has a great flavour (“De gustibus non est disputandum” – there’s no disputing flavour), and it’s not always practicable to wait for the twenty-four hours (or longer) for the sourdough to rise or prove. So, the recommendation is to add a small amount of dried yeast but, with caution, as we don’t want the dough to prove too quickly because the full flavour won’t develop. And here the temperature governs the proving process — not always in that cosy warm airing cupboard you’ve read about, sometimes dough even goes into the fridge! This slows the process down and, by slowing down, improves the flavour.

The third T, texture, comes down to the critical measurement of all the ingredients. Measuring the ingredients is essential for consistently good results—no room here for a handful of this and a pinch of that (well, perhaps if you ever achieve a master baker’s level of expertise, you can). As our tutor points out, knowing how the dough should ‘feel’ is something only experience will teach you. And so we begin to knead our dough our mixing bowls to cover the dough while it works its alchemy. “Why do we do this, cover it? Why?”—“Er, to stop the dough from drying out?” says the one professional chef in our party. “Correct! Why? Because if a skin forms on the dough this will inhibit its capacity to expand.” I had long forgotten about classroom competitiveness and pretty soon we’re all vying to be first with the right answers.

A portion of our dough has been put to one side and we are now deftly shown how to make a pizza base. Soon there’s a range of assorted pizza base shapes, smoothed with fresh tomato puree, mozzarella cheese and wonderfully fragrant basil leaves from Le Manoir’s kitchen garden. “The classic margherita pizza!” enthuses Dan. And, indeed, this is our lunch. Into the oven they go, onto Gaggenau’s hot, hot baking stones—and these baking stones give bread and pizzas a terrific boost of heat. The results are delicious, and we’re pizza heroes!

Now comes the time when our round bread loaves have their glass mixing bowls removed and the moment of truth is near—baking the bread! We’re told that “Dough is pretty forgiving,” — although I have to admit that’s not always been my experience—and now we’re manoeuvring the dough onto ‘peels’ which is a sort of wooden paddle, sprinkled with semolina grains, enabling the shaped loaf to slide onto the hot stone. Just before eight loaves go into the ovens, we’re shown how to make the cuts in the top of the loaf – those incisions that give the loaf that professional finish. He makes it look easy. Soon the ovens are loaded and we watch our precious loaf in the lit interior of the oven. Things are happening. The loaves continue to rise and the cuts in the top expand.

Of the three T’s mentioned earlier, we’re now back to our third T – temperature. Dan pantomimes how the yeast is reacting in the loaf as the oven door closes. Yeast on the outside of the loaf can’t take the intense heat and gives up, forming a crust. “But,” says Dan gleefully, “the yeast guys in the middle of the loaf haven’t got the message of the full heat yet, as it gets warmer they think it’s lovely and they expand quickly. This causes our loaf to break out along the cuts we’ve made in an attractive way. The heat goes on increasing: 30°, 40°, 50°, and the yeast is finally finished, it’s done it’s job, and we leave the loaves to bake for the full time of maybe an hour depending on the size of the loaf.”

Under this inspirational guidance, each one of us has produced a loaf of a good colour and texture—yes, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and it even tastes good. As the day ends, we all feel we have taken an invaluable journey, and each of us feels that with practise and experience perhaps we can achieve consistently good results.

As I leave Le Manoir and the Raymond Blanc Cookery School I not only carry proudly my ‘Certificate of Achievement’, I also take with me a deeper understanding of baking bread, along with a strong desire to put all this into practise and to keep baking better bread.