Chef’s Dish: Lesley Draper talks to baker Chris North

Pain aux Marron et Figues with cheese - by baker Chris North
Pain aux Marron et Figues with cheese - by baker Chris North

A lifetime’s experience in the baking industry provided Chris North with the perfect ingredients for a book...

And now he is hoping it will prove a recipe for success, following publication of A Taste of History – a collection of 40 French bread recipes, seasoned with facts, humour, anecdotes and a liberal sprinkling of photos.

Baker Chris North with one of his loaves

Baker Chris North with one of his loaves

The book has been a labour of love for Chris, a retired Sheffield College lecturer.

His love of baking began at the age of seven, when he first helped his grandmother to make ‘oven bottoms’ on her old Yorkshire range: “So it was hardly surprising that I became apprenticed to a local baker.”

After studying for his professional qualifications, he landed a job in research and development with leading national company J. Lyons & Co. He travelled all over the country, helping to launch new products and train staff.

It was an exciting job in many ways: “One day I was kitted out with a new set of protective clothing... and then told I’d be involved in making Princess Anne’s wedding cake!”

Chris North and wife Jenny with the book

Chris North and wife Jenny with the book

He regularly watched filming of The Sweeney near his offices and also discovered that Margaret Thatcher worked in laboratories just across the road.

When Lyons opened a factory in Barnsley, Chris was offered the job of supervisor – and then made the switch to lecturer.

“College was a culture shock, just the scale of production,” he recalls. “I’d become accustomed to thinking in thousands but my students could only make 12 teacakes at the most!”

Through his work he forged links with schools and colleges across Europe and took his students to Holland and France to broaden their horizons – which is where the idea for the book took root.

Then Chris began suffering from sleep apnoea and was forced to retire: “I needed a purpose and Jenny, my wife, said why not write a book about French bread. So we hitched up the trailer and left for France.”

Following the medieval pilgrims’ route, he visited artisan bakers across the country, building up a stock of recipes, stories and photos.

“For three years I returned to France, working in bakeries, talking to marquises and millionaires and meeting wonderful people. The result is a book about bread and pilgrims, with history, myth, folk law and bread-making theory mixed in too.”

A Taste of History is available from the Porter Book Shop, Rhyme & Reason in Ecclesall Road, or direct from northstarbread@gmail.com, priced £16 including postage.

Here Chris gives us a flavour of his masterpiece...

Recipe by Chris North

Pain aux marron et figues (Bread with sweet chestnut & figs)

INGREDIENTS:

(makes 2)

450g wholemeal bread flour

50g chestnut flour (roasted)

10g fresh yeast

7g salt

295g water

150g pre-fermented dough

30g nibbed (roasted) chestnuts

30g dried figs, diced small

METHOD:

Place the flours, water and yeast in a bowl and mix for 5 minutes.

Cover for 20 minutes.

Add the pre-fermented dough and the salt which has been dispersed in 5g of warm water taken from the recipe.

Mix for 8 minutes then rest for 5 minutes.

Add the nibbed chestnuts and figs to the mixture and mix slowly until the nuts and fruit are well distributed in the dough, or finish it by hand.

Cover bowl and leave in a warm place to ferment and rise for 1 hour.

Knock back the dough by re-kneading.

Leave to prove for a further 45 mins at 25°C.

Warm and lightly grease a tray, 38 x 26cm

Shape and form the dough into two balls.

Dust with rye flour and cut with scissors, like a horse chestnut shell – make lots of spikes

Pre-heat oven to 230°C and bake for 35 mins. If the bread appears over-coloured, lower the oven temperature to 210°C

Remove bread from the oven and immediately mist with water spray. This will improve the crust.

Cool rapidly on a wire tray.