The last time I made bread was with a packet mix sometime in the late 90s, so it was with some trepidation that I signed up for a bread-making course at Exeter Cookery School. Would my dough rise, or be flat as a pancake?

Based in an atmospheric 1830s warehouse on Exeter Quay that has been thoughtfully refurbished to retain its original character, the school is a large, light space with state-of-the-art kitchen equipment, including some very sharp knives (more of which, later). Devon’s newest cookery school is the brainchild of Jim and Lucy Fisher, who previously ran Cook in France in the Dordogne. Chef Jim teaches the courses, while Lucy is the powerhouse behind the scenes, tidying up our mess and preparing refreshments.

Our task was to bake three types of bread: focaccia for lunch, plus brioche and an ambitious twisted bread. And we couldn’t have asked for a better teacher. With an amiable personality and just a touch of cheekiness, Jim pitched the day perfectly for four bakers with varying levels of experience and confidence.

We started by making a basic bread dough, and Jim imparted useful tips, such as keeping the yeast separate from the salt until the last moment before mixing. While we weighed some ingredients, other amounts were left to guesswork – an intuitive style of baking we all enjoyed. Once we had kneaded and shaped the dough to Jim’s satisfaction, we were able to get creative with various toppings (note to self: exposed sundried tomatoes do burn in a hot oven!).

Making the brioche dough was quite different, using butter and eggs and an impressive near-industrial-sized mixer. Jim had already prepared some, as this dough needs plenty of time to rise, and we used his to make a batch of Chelsea buns. Forming a large rectangle from the dough and covering it with a spiced fruit mix we’d made earlier, was the easy part. Rolling the whole thing up into a Swiss roll was the challenge of the day for everyone. There was added pressure because the buns were to be sold at a charity event, so we had to get them right. When the buns came out of the oven later there was an audible sigh of relief: they looked saleable, at least.  

As the course progressed, my phobia of knives was revealed and Jim patiently taught me a better way of cutting, getting me to practice on an onion. Despite his best efforts I was the only student to sustain an injury (albeit a tiny pinprick cut from the end of a knife). I wielded my chef’s blue plaster with misplaced pride.

The pièce de résistance came at the end of the day when we made a Couronne aux Fines Herbes (twisted herb bread to you and me). I filled my dough with pesto, feta, olives and fresh basil, and then there was more rolling up to be done – much easier with this more pliable dough. Cutting the roll in half lengthwise and plaiting the two parts into a circle resulted in a mouth-watering tear-and-share bread, much of which my daughter wolfed down when I arrived home.

Finishing up with a bagful of very tasty bread to take with us was a real confidence booster. We were also given our uncooked brioche dough, and our prowess became apparent the next morning as we all tweeted photos of our breakfast brioche rolls and loaves.

I’d encourage anyone to try a course here. Exeter Cookery School offers full, half-day and evening courses on a variety of subjects, including pasta-making, fish cookery, meat, spun sugar, ice cream and sorbet, vegetarian cooking, plus seasonal and ‘guested’ courses.

www.exetercookeryschool.co.uk

“While we weighed some ingredients, other amounts were left to guesswork”

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