Even after analysing its website and brochure several times, nothing can quite prepare you for the size and beauty of the Thyme At Southrop cookery school. Set in an enormous, wooden framed tithe barn and all its ancillary outbuildings, the cookery school is surrounded on all sides by a fertile kitchen, herb and flower garden, rolling pastoral landscapes, galloping horses and Cotswold stone cottages.
At the centre of the estate lies Southrop Manor, home to Caryn and Jerry Hibbert and their three children for the last ten years. The cookery school was set up by the couple in barns that now form part of the estate just eighteen months ago with the help of Caryn’s parents, Michael and Patricia Bertioli, after many years of planning permissions, architect’s drawings, refurbishment and redecoration. In addition to the main house and its barns, the family also own the award winning pub, The Swan at Southrop, five luxury cottages and one farmhouse for private hire.
Guests are able to come to Southrop for several days at a time, for weddings, corporate parties, presentations, weekends away or dinner parties, in groups ranging anywhere between 20 and 100 people. Or, if you just want to come on your own for some tuition, you can just sign up for a day’s cookery or gardening course. The courses are divided into various categories: artisanal skills; seasonal cooking; dinner party and entertaining; international cuisines; basic cookery; childrens’ classes; foraging and gardening. One of its most popular skills courses on offer is bread making, taught by Clive Mellum of the Shipton Mill Organic Bakery in Tetbury, in a course named “The handmade loaf”.
Clive has been a master baker for 47 years, and is responsible for having taught literally hundreds of professional bakers and amateurs. He told us he started becoming really interested in doughs and fermentation at the age of about eleven. “And even if I carried on baking for another 47 years, I would still be learning every day. There is so much to learn, no one can ever say they know it all”, he confessed.
Despite his humility he is widely regarded by many of Britain’s best bakeries as being one of the foremost influences in the “Real Bread” revolution that is sweeping across the country.
Clive explains to the class how the Chorleywood method, widespread after the second World War, was responsible for introducing pappy, bland, tasteless sliced white bread to our supermarkets, filled with additives, fast action yeast and flavour enhancers. This style of baking has only served to produce dietary problems and a generation of Britons who do not really know what real bread tastes like.
“Our food chain has been completely destroyed by the supermarkets” he told us, and a discussion ensued about how only proper, long fermentation can create the kind of crust and crumb flavours and textures that the participants round the room were looking to create at home.
Clive became extremely dispassionate about the lack of demand for good, wholesome, slowly fermented artisanal bread that he was selling in his Dorset bakery, so he closed his shop, and after working for several other companies, he joined organic flour millers Shipton Mill seventeen years ago. He now helps other young bakers realise their dreams of opening up their own businesses, as well as troubleshooting the problems that exist in larger bakeries.
His introduction is punctuated with baking jargon, but he is quick to elaborate what he means as he goes along: relaxation of the gluten; gelatinisation; feeding the sourdough mother; intermediate proving; pinch back and flying sponge and dough methods; emulsifying fats; opening up the crumb and scalded corn flour wash were all explained in detail. By the end we too were talking “Clive speak”.
In order to introduce ourselves, we go round the room explaining why we have come on the course, and what we are hoping to get out of it. Clive is really thrilled to see how many people intend to take baking up either semi-professionally, or just for the love of really good bread.
He talks us through the breads that we are going to be making on that day, as well as talking about all the different ingredients that we will be using. He shows us a number of different breads he has made and brought for us to try (rye bread, sourdough bread, plain white loaves and walnut and fig bread) and as we pass round cut sections of the loaves Clive explains how the crust and crumb textures were achieved and why.
The breads smell earthy, nutty, sweet and quite pungent. These are breads of old, the breads of our childhoods, the breads of our grandparents’ generation. Clive tells us about his Grandfather going off to work with a cottage loaf, with some cheese, pickles and an apple. The top of the cottage loaf was called “upper crust” which then became common parlance to mean “upper class”. Clive’s grandmother used to scoop the inside of the bottom layer out and use it for bread and butter puddings.
The space inside the cookery school is so big that we each have ample workspace to mix all our doughs as well as watch Clive carry out his demonstrations in front of us, in his own section.
We were shown how to make a basic white dough, with which any number of breads can be made: a cottage loaf, pitta bread, a white loaf or a plait. From this basic recipe, Clive also showed us the proper way of kneading. There are so many bread making books now available, with their ubiquitous DVDs, but Clive believes that you really need to do a course to learn how to do it properly. “Too many bakers have jumped on this recipe book bandwagon, but you can’t learn proper baking from a book or DVD.” Judging from his dexterity, and the deft way he rolls, turns, spreads and folds dough, we believe him.
His methodology is very therapeutic: we stretch the dough out to the left and right, folding it in on itself, trapping air and creating a very elastic, firm and pleasing result. This is not sweaty or arduous work, it is actually really enjoyable. At the end of kneading, our doughs are covered with plastic and then set aside to prove in a separate section of the cookery school.
We were given a master class in soda bread, which we all agreed we would be making at home, it was so delicious. The recipe consists of flour, salt, bicarbonate of soda, buttermilk and mixed seeds, and we added feta cheese, broken up into little cubes and some dried herbs.
Clive took a great deal of time explaining the sourdough ferment concept, and also how the method of pinch back sponge worked. We were each given a white and a rye sourdough mother, 17 years of age, and were taught how we needed to feed them with a mix of flour and water.
“Don’t you all go off and kill my mother!” he warned us.
All of Clive’s work is done in percentages: he takes a standard measurement of 500g of flour, which is enough probably to feed a family of four for one day, and then tells the students how much sea salt, yeast, water or other ingredients need to be added, as a percentage, to that base in order to create different effects.
He works very slowly and patiently, and there is a great deal of laughter as we compare our results to his. “Yes, but I’ve been doing this for so long!” he reminds us every time. He is very funny, very patient and very chirpy. Smiling broadly when he tells us a funny story from his baking courses, he raises his arms and punches the air with clenched fists when he wants to describe how yeast is “Up and ready to go!” when we mix it in with the other ingredients. He does not overcome the class with science and technique, but is actually very open and simplistic in order to encourage everyone to have a go.
“I’m alright Jack!” he exclaims when he completes a task successfully.
And have a go we do. To our absolute delight we are able to produce the neatest, puffiest pitta breads, the most golden brown perfect plaited breads, a delicious soda bread sectioned into four pieces, a poppy, onion and sesame seed cottage loaf and, the epicentre of all deliciousness, a whole Chelsea Bun tray.
After a long morning’s work we eat our lunch in the dining room. There are two main chefs who work in the cookery school. Daryll Taylor, the Head Tutor, has worked in restaurants both in London and in Sydney, and he made bread alongside the students during the course, ensuring everyone had all the ingredients they needed and that no one was left struggling. Marjorie Lang, the winner of Masterchef in 2000, works alongside Daryll, and today she made us the most delicious lunch of spinach and fennel tops filo tart, puffball mushroom slices sautéed in garlic, lemon and thyme and a mixed nasturtium and green leaf salad. There is also a cheese platter showcasing local cheese making artisans and some green tomato pickles. We also ate slice after slice of Clive’s breads, both with the main course as well as with homemade jams.
It is only when you sit down that you get a chance to look at all the details: thyme flowers are embroidered on napkins and aprons, as well as etched on purple water carafes. There are soaring oak beamed ceilings, natural stone floors, woollen tweed sofas and cushions, coir matting, wild and garden flower displays and wrought iron outdoor seating. The kitchen was designed by Bulthaup, the ovens by Wolf and the tableware by William Yeoward. There is a very clean, stylish and uncluttered feel to this interior, almost medieval and monastic.
The ethos of the cookery school is very much explained in six little words on the front cover of the recipe sheets: for the love of the land. There is an intrinsic attachment and thread of continuity between the soil, the herb parterre, the kitchen garden, the changing of the seasons, the chickens in the enclosure, the rearing of pigs in the fields, the sourcing of local ingredients and the structure of the courses. Land, shovel, kitchen and pot are all intertwined.
Earlier there was the opportunity to meet Claudio Bincoletto, the Italian ethnobotanist gardener and forager at Thyme, who is also responsible for a number of the kitchen garden courses. Most of our lunch had been picked by him about a couple of hours before we ate it.
We were back to work in the afternoon, making the much awaited Chelsea Buns. We discussed with Clive how there is now a new and up and coming generation of bakers that look back to Banbury Cakes, Eccles Cakes, Bath Buns and Lardy Cakes as inspiration.
At its lowest point, there were only 2500 professional bakers left in Britain, but now that number has risen to 4500. Clive is very optimistic for the future and believes that, by carrying on teaching here, as well as in a number of schools all across the UK, he will keep taking the message of slow, artisanal bread making far and wide. ”This is the industry that I love, and I just want to inspire the generation that comes after me.”
There is so much butter and sugar in the bun recipe that we all start giggling. “It’s all very low calorie! And what little calories there are in the buns are all consumed with your conscientious kneading” he reassures us. The smell of mixed spice, raisins, caramelising sugar and icing fill the warm air.
We also make a shortcrust pastry, and it is in making this pastry and the Chelsea Bun that we learn the really interesting technique of not rubbing the butter into the flour. The flour needs to absorb the moisture of the water in the recipe, and the fat would only line every flour particle, not enabling it to absorb moisture. Clive bakes some of the pastry and shows us the difference, and this method really works. No other recipe book we have ever bought has mentioned that, nor has any other course, it’s a “Clive secret”. If you come on this course, make sure you bring a notebook and pen as you will not want to miss a single word.
We are all given a rectangular cardboard box filled with the fruits of our labours as well as the mother doughs and the recipe folders.
This is truly an exceptional bread course: informative, inspirational and rewarding. Clive Mellum is a very gentle, unassuming and modest man, but clearly outstanding at what he does, with a natural talent for conveying the minutiae of science, craftsmanship and care, all part of the baker’s essential skill base. He even gives students his own, personal e-mail address, in case they have a “dough emergency”. Now, we’re not sharing that with anyone.
Thyme at Southrop
Southrop Manor Estate
Gloucestershire GL7 3NX
Telephone: 01367 850174
E-mail: [email protected]
Follow the Thyme team on Twitter: @ThymeAtSouthrop
Shipton Mill website: www.shipton-mill.com