e5’s Head Baker visits the Bakehouse

Head Baker @ e5 Bakehouse Luke Duffy recently visited Kenya. Here is his blog:

A little over a year ago, Ben asked if I would help train some of Kenya’s freshest sourdough bakers at the Maili Saba camp. Here, I aim to provide an account of the joys and pitfalls of fermenting flour in Kenya’s wilderness.

I begin writing after a day on safari at Lake Nakuru’s National Park. Hanging out with animals I’d only seen on David Attenborough documentaries, has really brought it home, how lucky I am to be here. Also, it has made me realise how much I love Gazelle’s. Gazelle’s are great.

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That’s the great thing about having a day off in Kenya, you can go on safari. You can’t do that in London.

Ok, sorry I’m getting sidetracked.

Let’s rewind back to arrivals. 21:00 – 26th September 2016 – I land after a long, two part flight, very thankful to be met by my host and Ujima bakehouse general manger, Dave Fung. Dave is a Reading boy, ex-chef and former Soil Assocation employee. I used to work as a chef, studied in Reading and care deeply about managing our planets resources. That, coupled with a mutual penchant for late night acoustic singalongs, meant it was easy for us to work together. I first met Dave when he visited e5 to learn more about the world of sourdough bread. He has been out here for 7 months now, managing the day to day running of Ujima Bakehouse, as well as the cafe in town (where we sell the bread). On the long, bumpy drive from Nairobi Airport to Nakuru we discuss Kenya, from the social, to the political. Developing countries leave me with the desire to leap into action and bring about great change. Then I take off my critical, western lens and let Kenya come into full focus.

Kenya currently doesn’t have much of a bread culture. Sadly, the main offering is very fluffy, very white and full of improvers and preservatives. The main crop here is not wheat either, it’s maize. Kenyan’s eat a lot of maize, sometimes barbecued on the roadside, but mostly as a stiff porridge named, ‘Ugali’. This, along with a variety of different beans, dark greens and a smattering of meat helps to form a fairly balanced diet, albeit a little plain. There are some beautiful fruits however, namely bananas, avocados, mangoes and pineapples. Dave explains that the farming is as simple as the finished dishes. One type of onion, one type of tomato, one type of maize. Most likely selected for high yield and disease resistance, over any flavour preference.

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Luckily for Ujima, there is a man growing and stone grinding wheat and rye grains. Of German origin, he moved to the area over 20 years ago to establish his farming project, which also grows buckwheat.  He also has a similar, Tyoll, style mill as back at e5.  The opportunity never arose to go out and visit him, but Ben did manage it, when he was out here a little over a year ago. The bakehouse  has received wholegrain wheat and rye flour in the past, yet recipes and breads made with this flour had yet to be established. The white flour which is used by Ujima is roller milled and comes from a large industrial plant that supplies much of the local area. I note the faster staling quality of this flour, as well its ability to draw moisture from my mouth in the eating. Is this an inherent quality of the grain, or is this flour more than just sifted before arriving?

On my first day, we visit the cafe where the bread is sold. Agora is a co-working space, located in Nakuru town. Currently, the breads are sold out front, along with aeropress coffee and sandwiches that are prepared in a small kitchen. Dave has constructed firm favourites that include chicken with avocado and a bacon sandwich with freshly made mayo. The day before I leave, the large WEGA espresso machine (donated by e5) arrives at Agora. Funny, I saw it being packaged up in the yard in Hackney 10 days prior, and now here we are rifling through 140 pages of instruction manual, trying to figure out how to install it. Dave shows me a large space at the back of the building that Andrew and Madeleine have their eye on for development of the full scale cafe. Problems with the landlord’s tax payments mean any development is on hold right now. It’s clear that nothing moves fast out here, but I really admire the scope of this project. With a newly delivered coffee machine and great sourdough bread, I have faith that this project will continue to go from strength to strength.

 

The following day, I get my first look at the bakehouse. Seven miles (the literal meaning of Maili Saba) out of town, lies the camp, with an adjoining bakery. It is here that Justan and Alfonse (trained by Ben, initially) bake three times a week. The little bakehouse with a big view, as it looks out over the Menengai crater. This volcano was formed over 200,000 years ago and is lit up at night by geothermal rigs. It is the largest natural crater in Africa. Baking can be a cathartic enough practice as it is, but with this view, it was set to be positively blissful.

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We spent the first couple of days working on recipes for wholewheat, seeded rye and ciabattas. Initial results were good, but when working with new flour, in a new environment, one must adapt quickly. We upped the hydration of the two major sellers, a plain sourdough and a seeded version of the same dough. Justan and Alfonse soon took to shaping with water instead of flour, a major benefit when working with wetter doughs. We baked through the night and the guys got a brief moment of rest, before packing the loaves for orders and working the crowds at a local motoring event. That’s hardcore! I only do one to two early bakes a week, so my hat goes off to Justan and Alfonse for their dedication.

After a couple of days rest, we returned to the bakehouse for more experiments. Before I came away, I met up with Dee, baker and creative director of Fernandez and Wells. We had a chance to talk over all things bread and pastry. What I really came for, was Dee’s ‘sourdough banana cake’. A product Madeleine was keen to see baked at Ujima. Ever since discovering the health and flavour benefits of fermented flour, I’ve asked why we don’t try out this age old technique on our sweet stuff? Turns out Dee had the same thought process, years before. While at their Denmark Street branch, I got to taste this wonderous treat. A thick slice of spiced, dark banana cake, griddled to order and served with heaps of butter. The sourdough had given the crumb a tender and moist chew. Substantial, but not heavy – a real success. Understandably, Dee’s recipe (many years in the making) was a closely guarded secret, so the proof had to be in the pudding, and in little nuggets of advice thrown my way. Once I got to Kenya and tasted how great the bananas were, I was excited to set to work.

The final two days were spent perfecting recipes for ciabatta, baguettes (and pizza dough) and the sourdough banana cake. The team were engaged and I felt more settled in as their mentor. Earlier that day, Dave (a keen forager) picked a local variety of lemon thyme, as well as some basil from the fields close to the bakehouse. These got incorperated into our herby tomato sauce, to top our semi-sourdough pizzas. As the sun set on our final night, we huddled round our small work bench to enjoy the fruits of our labour.

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I admire the scope and potential of this project. It was an honour and a privilege to work with Dave, Justan and Alfonse and I wish Andrew and Madeleine the best of luck with its development. I hope to be a part of Ujima’s story in the future, if only for the chance to see the beauty of Kenya’s people and places.

Luke Duffy – Baker at e5

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