Sunday, October 22, 2006

Sonoma Bakery Sourdough: Hands On

This is beautiful bread. No, really, exceptional bread. The texture and taste is chewy and sour, crusty, it has a delicious aroma. Hot and warming, straight out of the oven. Satisfying and well crafted, hand made artisan produce for sure. You find this bread at Aria, Tetsuyas, Café Sydney, Bondi Icebergs – and many other great eateries.

This bread, pictured left, cost $100. Yep. These two loaves: a c-note. This bread, taken home by us two participants cost as much as lunch for two at Bécasse not three days prior, even including an extra drink each. Am I mad? Maybe. Let me tell you the story.

Left: unbaked rustic loaves in the retarding fridge.
offered a sourdough bread making class as part of GFM at their new-ish Alexandria bakery space, and they are soon to open a retail outlet there as well. Sonoma is a renowned NSW and Sydney bakery that furnishes many top restaurants with their loaves and rolls and Andrew Connole, who is one of the owners and took our class, is obviously a passionate and talented bread maker and very committed to his task. Their blurb in the GFM program read “Go behind the scenes at one of Sydney’s best sourdough bakeries and learn to make naturally leavened loaves.” At $50 a head I did expect a hands on experience and a bit of tutoring in the sometimes elusive art of starters, mixing, shaping and so on. I have to say up front I was disappointed.

Left: Sourdough starter at the bakery.
Maybe I’m too harsh. Maybe my definition of learning is too stringent. Maybe my definition of ‘hands on’ is too literal. But I didn’t learn a lot and didn’t get to do too much. But I did get a loaf of bread and some dough. The thing is, did the dough parted with equate to the dough received.

Left: Andrew Connole explaining the scoring of loaves and rolls.
Maybe I also need to manage my own expectations, or the bakery does. I originally tried to book in to the Bourke St Bakery class, but within less than 24 hours of the GFM Program coming out, it was booked solid. This led me to believe they would be pretty small classes. I quickly rang Sonoma and got two places. Yay.

Turning up on the day amid not only the Sunday Hillsong Church happy clappy crowd, but also the impending Danks St Festival that morning, I was glad to get a parking spot. As it transpired there were 36 people there for the class. Hmmm. Forget the personal attention enjoyed at Oh Calcutta for $45, where there were about 10 involved with three chefs. We went through a preamble about the founding of the bakery – much hardship, long hours, night time baking, driving hundreds of kilometres, hawking wares to restaurants – yadda yadda. Yes, these people are driven and impassioned.

Then donning our hair nets we ventured into the warehouse space with the equipment and two bakers preparing the lunch order for the day to be delivered to waiting restaurants.

Left and below: unbaked dinner rolls; and the same rolls ready to be packed off to Aria for lunch service.

For an hour of our 90 minute ‘class’ it was very much eyes on rather than hands on. We viewed the starter in a plastic tub, which was a little less riveting that an evening of watching paint dry, watched the two bakers shaping dinner rolls and baguettes at lightning speed, and were paraded past some rustic loaves sitting in a retarding fridge which were later to be baked and taken home by us. With 36 people in a room full of whirring equipment, ovens, and other baking paraphernalia it was also hard to hear what Andrew was saying. It was impossible to hear any questions asked and therefore the answers he gave were meaningless. Along the lines of “shhhhsssmmmmrrrrmmmrrrrr?”. Andrew: “Yes very important, no more than an hour”. Great. Glad we’re clear on that one.

After more watching experienced bakers dispose of loaves and rolls in seconds ready for baking, it was on to the actual baking of bread in a gazillion dollar hearth-based gas powered oven. It looked like a space shuttle. I’m sure we didn’t need to watch 40 loaves being dumped out of baskets and scored, but hey, why not. Our bread was baking. As an aside, can anyone tell me why men who are over six foot tall insist on elbowing their way to the front of any demonstration, leaving shorter women to struggle to see past them? At least half the people there tried vainly to dodge past these gawping twits who seemed to think they were the only people entitled to see what was going on. Sometimes I just give up on the human race and their ineptitudes and inability to spare a thought for people around them. But that's just a personal gripe and not the fault of the bakery.

Next we had 10 minutes of hands on. Right. Now I can get to grips with the whole sourdough thing. Our dough was divided ready for us to play with, and there was enough for all of us to have a go astride two long tables. A quick extra demo by Andrew and onto the work. Roll, push, slide back, turn into itself, tuck under, repeat til you have a smooth, tight skin on the dough. Cool. I played and rolled and flipped and folded and within seconds had a reasonable round loaf. So reasonable that he said as he eyed my dough “you’ve done this before” I said no, not really, but he insisted I had. Well maybe with yeast, but not sourdough. He winked. The six-foot-plus brigade's loaves looked the consistency of macaroni cheese, so all that elbowing and effrontery got them nowhere.

Now the value added. The dough we’ve been playing with was our own to have. This was important, as one participant pointed out, because we can use it for a starter. Ah hah! All the sourdough I can conjure for the rest of eternity. I felt like Dr Faustus. The saying goes, give a man a fish; you have fed him for today. Teach a man to fish; and you have fed him for a lifetime. Problem is, I have my sourdough starter and I can shape the loaves, but I’m still a little unclear about the middle bit, despite the hand out and ‘formulas’ or recipes. I can follow them, sure, but it would have been really nice to be in a smaller group and have a go at some of the steps in between. In essence I feel like I’ve been on an expensive factory tour and given that Deb recently enjoyed a similar thing at another prominent bakery for free, I’m wondering why it cost $50. The only difference seems to be playing with and taking away some raw dough. I still don’t really have the learning that was promised.

So some tips for Andrew for next time.

  1. Smaller groups. No more than a dozen. No one can hear with all that machinery if they’re standing and further away than right next to you.
  2. Give people a go at mixing the dough. Kneading isn’t important in sourdough, so we’re told, but to know how the dough feels with starter, water and flour, and the consistency it should be, would be invaluable.
  3. Educate people better about how to store and care for a starter and how to propagate it from dough effectively.
  4. Provide a selection of breads to take away – even smaller rolls of different varieties would be good.

For this you could charge $50. If you want to leave it as is and give a few more samples, then charge no more than $20, because it’s little more than a factory tour as it stands.

But no matter what, the bread is still sublime.


Blogger PiCkLeS said...

I'm glad you wrote such an honest account of your experience. $100 for 2 loaves of

9:32 AM  
Anonymous Ellie said...

$100 for a loaf? It may be spectacularly tasty, but if I'm paying that much for bread which I probably won't be able to finish before it goes stale... I'd want it to be able to play the ukelale!

Sorry to hear that it was such a poor experience, sounds like they were mostly doing it for the money (though why they'd need it if their bread is that pricey is beyond me!) Your tips are good ones, hopefully this Andrew fellow will come across them and take them into serious consideration!

9:32 AM  
Blogger Helen (AugustusGloop) said...

Very disappointing :( I wonder what the Bourke Street one was like?

I've often thought that you're probably better off going with cooking classes through community colleges etc. The lack of hype and novelty value means you're certain to get a lot more value for your dollar (or dough for your dough, as you put it!).

9:48 AM  
Anonymous kathryn said...

What a shame Rebecca. You should send a link to your post into the GFM people - as feedback on their class?

Given sourdough cultures can last for centuries, it is quite a special thing to take some home. But they do need special care and attention - and I would have thought that'd be a significant component of any sourdough class, not kneading and rolling the dough.

10:33 AM  
Blogger Reb said...

Well PIckles, there was the tour and a talk, but honestly it was a bit pricey for the outcome.

I'd actually want good conversation over dinner and a nice bottle of wine for that price, Ellie :)

You're probably right, Helen. But you have to try these things. It certainly sounded good in the promo.

I'm certainly pleased to have some culture Kathryn, but I'm just unsure what to do with it. I don't want to kill it. I'll hit the books and work it out, and he gave some tips in a handout, but I kind of expected for the price to not have to do the research myself and be shown how to feed it and store it. Anyway, an experience indeed!

10:41 AM  
Anonymous jules said...

that's such a shame that you didn't get a lot out of this...hope your sourdough starter proves more successful

2:57 PM  
Blogger thanh7580 said...

It definitely sounds like the dough you parted with wasn't worth the dough you got in return. For such an expensive class, they definitely should show all the steps involved in making the bread and let you actually try it. If they keep this level of teaching up, their classes wont last for long when word of mouth (or words of blogs) start spreading the news around.

7:48 PM  
Blogger jenjen said...

Thanks for such a detailed write up Reb. I was actually booked in to go to one of the classes, but had to cancel as I had a shoot to go to. The description of the "class" and the fact that it was called a "hands on" experience, sort of leads people to believe it that it is what they say it is. What a shame that it did not live up to the expectation.

9:33 PM  
Blogger Reb said...

The starter is growing in the kitchen Jules, but I'm pretty well making it up as I go along.

I think so too Thanh. But hopefully they can rectify the pronlems for the next people who take the class.

Well JenJen you saved $50. And if you want some starter I'll give you some of mine!

2:18 PM  
Blogger goldfish said...

I was at the sonoma bakery course also - they told me that you couldn't use the lump of dough as a starter as it already had salt in it - although it is working fine. I was similarly dissapointed with the course as I had been to the Bourke Street extravaganza the day prior...

I have to say, that Paul and David [from Bourke Street Bakery] are truely inspirational - they adjusted the course to our needs - everyone asked for them to show how we could knead the dough by hand at home, and they were happy to accomodate. Paul sold me some flour, they gave us each a couple of plastic bannetons, some bread to bake the following morning that we kneaded, shaped and slashed. We were also assured that help was just a phone call away..

In a word, sensational.

3:57 PM  
Blogger Reb said...

Wow - thanks for leaving this comment goldfish. Bourke St was my first choice - darn it - so it's great to have the comparison and also to know that it wasn't just me being overly picky. My lump of dough went nowhere. Half I fed and it just went rotten, the other half went in the fridge and and it went west as well. So those loaves really were expensive! If Bourke St ever do another class I'm in for sure after your feedback! thanks for dropping by and reading and commenting.

7:30 AM  
Blogger goldfish said...

Oh, I forgot to add that I'm baking a dozen loaves a day using the starter that I propogated using the sonoma dough.

I feed the starter 3 - 4 times a day (when I get up, midmorning/early arvo, evening, bed time); I use the starter about an hour or two after the early arvo feed. I'm using a feed ratio of 60% 20% 20% (which is what they use at bourke street); e.g. if you've got 600g of starter - feed using 200g water and 200g flour. I started making 600g loaves, but they were a little small, especially if I over-proved the dough. 708g is the current loaf size which seems to be far better.

Does anyone want me to post a method/baking schedule? Acutally, if you want it just send me an email.. nick at

Happy baking.

11:31 AM  

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