Daily bread

It’s a somewhat romantic notion: getting up at 4am, while the rest of the city is asleep, and combining flour and yeast in a miraculous alchemical process.

As I’ve always wanted to watch how it’s done, I join baker Jason Lilley and his team one morning to find out how they make their heavenly breads and legendary croissants.

5am
The sky is still pitch black, but inside the little bakery the lights are blazing, and music is pumping loudly. Baker Travis Edwards lets me in, pausing to turn down the music slightly.
“I’m busy with the rye and ciabatta,” he says, gesturing to where I can put down my coat and bag.

The little room is warm—the huge stainless oven is set to over 270 degrees. 5.05am Travis pours a large bucket of water into the mixer, and adds a tub of flour and salt which has already been measured out.

“It takes the flour twenty minutes to hydrate properly,” he explains. He’s been here since 4.30am, though he tells me he’d actually prefer to start earlier. “I like to get everything done before everyone else gets here,” he explains. “That’s when everything gets crazy.”

He was a chef for four years before, he tells me, but baking - getting up early - is a whole different commitment. “But I love the satisfaction I get out of it.”

5.25am
The dough comes out of the mixer. At this stage, it’s wet and lumpy. The ciabatta will take three hours to prove, so Travis begins with the 66% rye.

5.30am
The rye goes into the mixer, and the twirly metal fork begins to turn. A great cloud of rye flour rises in the air, and I duck to stop myself sneezing.

It’s made with a natural starter as well as added yeast. “Depending on how much the starter is matured, the mix will be wetter or dryer - so you have to adapt the recipe. The age of the flour and the weather also affect it.”

5:36am
Baker Andrew Alexander appears from upstairs with a tray of bacon croissants, which he slides in under a smaller oven to prove.

“Can I come and see how you make croissants?” I ask. He nods, so I follow him up to a little room that smells amazing. “It’s the blueberry apple muffins baking,” Andrew tells me, laying the croissant dough on a big machine resembling a printing press.

“This is for the pains au chocolat and the cranberry Danishes,” he says, winding the lever so that the dough is flattened between two rollers. “It’s basically a very rich croissant dough - more sugar, butter, and vanilla”.

Once the dough has had four folds rolled into it, Andrew folds it up carefully and carries it like a blanket to the table. Measuring it carefully, he cuts off 12cm sections for each pain au chocolat. The rest of the dough is sprinkled with cinnamon sugar and cranberries, and rolled up. Then it’s sliced into sections and put into little metal cases, so that each Danish will keep its shape.

6.02am

Andrew finishes off the pains au chocolat, with a sprinkling of hail sugar, and is on to the second croissant batch. “We make 160 to 170 croissants a day,” explains Andrew, who completed his apprenticeship under George Jardine. “On Fridays, I make an extra three doughs”.

6.10am

Jason Lilley arrives, apologising for not being here when I arrived. “It’s pretty hectic; we’re open nights now.” He tells me. I follow him into a fridge in the restaurant, where a row of wicker baskets—filled with dough—is waiting.

“They are placed in the fridge to retard the proving process,” he explains. We carry them through to the room with the ovens, and Jason tips them out onto the wooden table. The dough is ribbed from the wicker, which explains those marks I’ve always admired on the finished loaves. “They climb up the cane,” he explains, doing an impression of climbing dough for my benefit.

He slices a line down the centre of each lump of dough; this is to control where the loaf expands and splits.

6.15am
“This is the pesticide we spray the bread with,” he quips, as he sprays water into the oven with an industrial sprayer. “You have to moisten the oven to allow the bread to expand.”

“We use a wild yeast starter. His name is Henry and he’s about seven years old now,” he tells me, giving the loaves in the oven another spray of ‘pesticide’.

6.29am

A timer sounds, and Andrew comes running down the stairs. The croissants are ready, and as he opens the door, the amazing aroma fills the whole room. “Has the paper arrived?” Jason asks, and I realise it’s still only 6.30am.

7am
The bread in the ovens emerges—beautiful and brown—and is sprayed once more with water to give it a sheen.

I’m tempted to rip open a loaf straight away. “The only bread you eat straight out of the oven is bad bread,” says Jason sternly. “The flavours take an hour to develop properly.”

The activity around me is starting to get fairly frantic, so I excuse myself and head outside, around the corner, to the hatch. A queue of people is already waiting for their fix of coffee and bacon croissants. I join the throng and order half a dozen of these beauties. Munching on one while I drive to the office, I’m certain they’ve never tasted this good!


Go to www.eat-in.co.za for more.


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