Educator Profile – appearing in the monthly newsletter of Slow Food UK, September, 2009
Master artisan baker and Slow Food member Paul Merry met with Catherine and Henry on their trip to visit the Dorset convivium. Paul has been involved with craft baking and masonry ovens for over thirty years, and has been teaching courses for fifteen years. He kindly took the SFUK team on a tour around the watermill, Cann Mills near Shaftesbury in Dorset, where a range of flours are made using its traditional stones and sieves. Next door, Paul holds a wide range of bread making courses. Here, Paul took some time away from his classes to answer a few questions…
So Paul, how did your interest in bread making begin?
Primarily I had a deep interest in crafts and their survival in our modern, industrialised world. As a young traveller, once when I had a job on a coastal boat in Queensland, the skipper ordered me to make the bread on one of the voyages. Years later, when I chose bread as the craft that I wanted to pursue, I am sure that the fascination with it was soundly boosted by those occasions when I made bread on the boat and cooked it on the beach in a “dutch oven” – a lidded cast-iron pot.
What’s your earliest food memory?
Being excited by the bakery delivery man who jumped off his cart with the huge basket of fresh loaves in the crook of his arm, yelling “baker!” as he strode purposely to our back door.
What does Slow Food mean to you?
The charm of the name attracted me immediately, seeing as I was a person who had already formed a disdain for fast food. Beyond the charm of the name, as I started to find out more about the ethos of Slow Food I realised that my main empathy for it is in the area of its promotion and support for the smaller, distinct, regional producer who does not compromise quality for the all the other competing pressures of modern life and profitability.
What do you hope people take away from one of your bread making classes?
Knowledge that clearly helps them to make better bread, plus a respect for the ancient craft.
Do you have any upcoming projects?
I shall be guest teaching some courses away from Panary, and I have some interesting consultancy projects about to start where I nurture bakers who are just starting out.
What would your food wish be?
That Slow Food UK grows quickly and pushes forward to promote healthy and honest food in Britain’s sadly inadequate food culture.
Here is Paul’s letter to the Editor of British Baker Magazine (fortnightly trade magazine) from which an edited version appeared in the edition of Feb 26, 2010.
Wednesday, 10 February 2010
Inspired by Peter Cook’s letter in your last edition, I wish to carry on a vigorous discussion about craftsmanship, hoping bakers will think more about what exactly they are doing.
In both the advertising world and industrial baking the need for catch phrases is a powerful force for debasing language and broadening the appeal of certain phrases to a point where they tip over into meaninglessness.
One of the first casualties I noticed was “home made”. Seen on the side of lorries delivering industrially made foodstuffs, heard endlessly on television advertisements, soon any comparison between factory food and what could be made at home seemed merely humorous. Did the owners of those factories believe members of the buying public would consider the baked goods were as good as “home made”?
Another contentious word was “fresh”. But there is not sufficient time here to go into that story!
With commercial bread, two similar casualties have been “craft”, and lately, “artisan”.
For the corporate world the term “craft” had an image that was ready to be borrowed, bastardised, debased. The term was used in advertising and bandied about to such a degree by huge firms that it really had no connection to the craft of baking, and soon became meaningless.
It is indeed a difficult task to pin down a useful definition of both these words. In my office I have the Shorter Oxford Dictionary, two vast tomes, and find that their definitions are vague.
“Artisan”, originally from Latin, but borrowed in English from modern French, is uncomfortably linked to arts and artistry in learning an art form. It would be an odd baker nowadays who considered himself or herself an artist, although that baker’s contented customers would extol the artistry of the product. The definition of “craftsman” is easier to accommodate because it mentions skill at handicrafts, and surely it is mention of the hands that is the main pointer to what I think of as craftsmanship.
Look at basketry, pottery, weaving, or any traditional craft, and some people would say that the craftsman is a person who is capable of the successful and efficient repetition of a range of hand skills to produce the crafted object consistently. Certainly it is true that a real craftsman has to be able to churn out the crafted object with both repetition and consistency, and in our trade of baking, a degree of speed is also necessary when you need to earn your living. But, as well as skill with the hands, one must be careful not to overlook that vast platform of knowledge embodied in a craft that entails knowledge of the materials and how to treat the materials according to certain governing rules, even before the repetitive hand skills are undertaken.
When my interest in commercial baking began in the seventies, it was already difficult to find in Britain a tradesman baker worthy of being called a “craftsman”. Industrial practice, “instant” dough (meaning chemically assisted dough that is hurried to the oven without being given actual fermentation time in bulk), reliance on machinery – all these changes had undermined the craft to a point that it was an endangered species. Young men were following the modern way, not interested in what their father or grandfather could show them.
Reacting to the debasement of everything that rightfully belonged to the craft, during the nineties I preferred to use the word “artisan” to refer to the baker or firm that was still actively engaged with the craft of fermentation. Although a tiny sector, the artisanal bakers could recognise each other fairly easily, and still do today. An initiative, spearheaded by Dan Lepard ( bakery writer and consultant) to create a trade group called the British Association of Artisan Bakers had trouble getting off the ground mainly because hard working artisan bakers who are doing long hours in their demanding small business never seem to have spare time to devote to travelling to meetings. During the few meetings that were held, it was challenging, and exciting at the same time, to find a suitable definition of the craftsman/artisan in order for the group to be able to identify those worthy to be its members. The charge of elitism reared its head during lengthy circuitous discussions that were trying to find the code of practice that made a craftsman. Was the tradesman baker who used chemical “improvers” in his bread to be banned when he still worked dough by hand on a wooden bench with the obvious skills of a craftsman?
During the recent decade I have now given up with the word “artisan”. To the industry it means a product that is made by a machine to look hand made or crafted by an individual establishment! I have even seen advertisements for an “artisan” range of nifty chemical additives to make the product look rustic and hand crafted.
Such absurdity and deceit has now driven me back to the words “craft” and “tradesman” baker. But, as Peter Cook has pointed out, our trade has lost its way in the use of these terms when describing what I prefer to call “light industrial” baking, where dough is barely touched by the human hand.
The craft baker can be forgiven for wanting some machines to speed up the process or boost the output capable of being produced by one session of work. Imagine starting each day in the bakery having to hand knead two hundred kilograms of dough in two or three batches! But by pursuing that process of reliance on machinery, is the baker still a craftsman if the dough is moving from one machine to another without being touched by bakers’ hands?
Sometimes the dough’s journey from mixer to oven is so steadily mechanised that the bakers can only be described as machine minders. They cannot be thought of as craftsmen because they make no judgement along the way about whether or not the dough is actually ready or not to go on to the next stage.
Hence, for me, when we are in the grey area and not dealing with a real craftsman in a tiny bakery, the main thing that indicates whether or not the bakery is a “craft” establishment is the inclusion of that process of constantly making judgement about the state of the dough, its readiness to be allowed to go along to the next stage. Most of these establishments, although heavily mechanised, will also have the bakers shaping by hand those types of loaf which cannot be properly turned out by the moulding machine. Similarly, there are types of loaves that have a delicacy about them, like sourdough, or a baguette made with softer flour, where it would be considered that the moulding machine would be too rough for their internal structure, hence they are done by hand.
PANARY Breadmaking School, Dorset