South San Francisco — UP at the crack of dawn, the campers were bused to a nondescript building in an industrial district. Inside, men and women in uniform were calling out orders.
"Action, action! Let's go!"
A military encampment?
No, it was Camp Bread 2005, a celebration of artisan bread sponsored by the Bread Bakers Guild of America that brought together bakers from the U.S. and Canada last week for three days of demonstrations, lectures and, best of all, hands-on classes taught by some of the superstars of bread.
And if the teachers, dressed in crisp, white baker's jackets, got a bit insistent at times, you didn't hear any complaining. This total-immersion weekend was heaven for the bread-obsessed. Within a week of the announcement of the event, all 200 attendee slots were filled and a waiting list started.
Most of the students were professionals (only about 20% were home bakers), including such experts as Sumi Chang of Euro Pane in Pasadena. Many were from Northern California and the Pacific Northwest -- the mother lode of artisan bread in this country.
Camp Bread was actually less like a camp and more like an extremely lively academic conference, with labs, except that you could eat the results.
It was serious bread. Artisan bread-making processes are based on those used in Europe for centuries to make hearth breads. They often begin with a starter (sourdough or one made with commercial yeast) that's allowed to develop for at least 12 hours.
The main dough is mixed for a relatively short time, just four or five minutes in some cases. Then the risings of the main dough -- professionals call the first rising the fermentation stage, and the second the proofing -- can take as many as three or four hours.
The general rule: small amounts of leavening and large amounts of time to develop flavor.
The scene was intense, with simultaneous workshops -- taught by the rock stars of bread -- unfolding throughout the San Francisco Baking Institute's training center building. In a supply room, popular author Peter Reinhart demonstrated his baguette methods before rapt attendees, while in the vast kitchens, King Arthur Flour bakery director Jeffrey Hamelman taught techniques for rye breads, and legendary teacher Didier Rosada took a group step-by-step through the mysteries of sourdough.
"Someone is doing it all wrong," Rosada said, looking directly at me as I tried to shape dough into a round boule loaf. "But no names, no names," he continued with a laugh as he rushed over to show me how to save the woefully misshapen mass by gently cupping my hands around the dough and moving them in a circular motion as I dragged the mass across the tabletop. The combination of the hand motions and friction brought the dough together in a taunt ball. Well, at least on the third or fourth time I tried it. Rosada, the French-born head of production at Uptown Bakers in Maryland, is known for his vast knowledge of the field.
His sourdough class began with a half-day lecture on techniques and science. The next day, he started the daylong kitchen session earlier than scheduled to demonstrate how to tell, by feel, when a dough is adequately mixed. It should be still quite sticky, he preached -- the water content of his breads are much higher than in the usual homemade loaves. Then, during the first fermentation, the dough was periodically poured out onto a lightly floured board and folded like a letter from all four sides before being put back in the tub.
It was astonishing how time and the folds built up the strength of the dough, transforming it into a springy mass.
THE next day, William Leaman of Essential Baking Co. in Seattle took us through hand mixing, a short kneading process and the risings (with folds). Finally, each of us divided our developed dough into six equal pieces, giving us six chances to learn how to form a baguette. As we watched, Leaman folded one into a taunt cylinder and then put his hands, one over the other, at the center. He began rocking the dough back and forth, applying gentle pressure, and then gracefully drew his hands apart as he worked. It took him maybe 10 seconds to stretch the dough into a long baguette shape.
"I learned more about forming a baguette in a few minutes of that class than I have in years of trying to get it right," said home baker Chuck Robinove of Monument, Colo.
Not all the learning came during classes. During meal breaks, the famed bakers talked shop and tried each other's breads. Cutting open a baguette that came out of a Reinhart session, Maggie Glezer, author of "Artisan Baking Across America," peered at the inner structure with the intensity of a scientist examining a rare specimen.