The Fresh Loaf

A Community of Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts.

Everything is different at Varda’s

proth5's picture

Everything is different at Varda’s

It has been my great good fortune to have interacted with a number of extraordinary individuals – some of whom have become my teachers (some in the area of baking). It has also been my great good fortune to have been able to bake in various kitchens and bakeries throughout my baking life to date.

(I feel compelled to say here that one of these extraordinary teachers – in an area far removed from baking – would remind me that it was not so much good fortune, but that I sought out these opportunities, managed priorities in my life, and was willing to work hard so that I should be able to pursue them. However, I do feel fortunate and am grateful that both chance and will have allowed me the experiences I have had.)

So last week I headed to the great northeast – where driving seems to be some kind of competitive sport – to bake.

Of course, as the blog title suggests, everything was different: the work surface, the doughs, the mixers, and the shaping methods. No friendly wooden surface with its unique combination of being non-stick yet slightly “grippy”, rather stone with its qualities of cold and absolute smoothness. Every shape (and pre shape for that matter) was made in a way that I had never done it and although the mixers were familiar to me, most of the work would have been faster and easier in my beloved spiral. Although I will often say my oven has no “soul”, the wind tunnel of an oven we baked in was never meant for hearth breads and each batch pulled from that heartless thing is a triumph of skill and persistence over the machine.

In short, everything I knew was wrong, but for me this was far from the first time this has happened (and while I will not tell the story, it recently happened in a particularly spectacular way) and I have learned in such situations that it is best to be humble, empty oneself, and learn as though for the first time. 

What I have found is that when the vessel is emptied, not only does it make room for the new, but actually grows in capacity. Certainty is replaced with curiosity and for the curious, the days fill with wonder.

This may be applicable to many things, but when making breads to another person’s specifications (for I was there to learn more than to teach and we all should control the bread that comes from our own kitchen), it is essential. And although Varda did some amount of fussing at many of my loaves, I did my best to use her methods and most loaves came out looking pretty much like hers.


My braiding (and I’ll contend that the braid she was using is supposed to come out like that – but it was her bread, not mine) was naturally much more linear than hers, I contented myself with dividing and pre shaping. I could have learned her twist on the method, but there was no sense in my slowing down the process.

Varda puts a special finish on the ends of her baguettes which I could do, but, as it turns out, in my own specific style. It wasn’t enough of a difference to make the baguettes not acceptable, but it was a difference caused by my hands and how I approach rolling dough on the bench and was enough to identify my loaves.

It was the baguette shaping that caused me to think of the nature of this craft (for it is a craft) of bread baking.

Once I heard one of my extraordinary teachers discuss why he had chosen the equipment he had for his well-equipped (and well-funded) bakery. He had purchased a large, state of the art hydraulic divider (much better than the old mechanical dividers) but had declined to purchase machines to do shaping and pre shaping even though these fast and effective machines might produce more consistent loaves. His rationale was that dividing was a solitary and mechanical process (although skill comes into play in cutting the dough into nearly the correct weight before putting it on the scale) no matter how it is done. But he looked at the bakers who were pre shaping and shaping and they were clustered around the bench talking and laughing. Shaping equipment would reduce this group to solitary individuals feeding machines. His first consideration was to create a good life for the bakers in his employ. Most hobby bakers bake alone (and I am certainly one of them most of the time), but as Varda and I stood in the same kitchen chatting about various things we were doing, I began to regain a better sense of the community of bakers, and not in that somewhat over sharing and yet impersonal realm of the on-line community, but in the world where a hand can reach over and feel the dough, correct the mistake right away, or laugh together when, once again, one of the bakers (well, me..) talks to the bread.

The second consideration was that in his bakery, although consistency was important, retaining the subtle differences in loaves made with hands and skill was just as important. Baking is a hand craft, and consistency is not uniformity. While the risk is always that with hands there can be bad days, with machines there can never be exceptional ones. Bread is being made, but it is the baker, the baker, who is always central.

There are those who contend that our understanding of symbols (for what are words but symbols - pale representations of vibrant realities) may never change but I am not in their number. So as my understanding of the word “artisan” develops, I will say that while I washed what seemed to be an endless stream of the bowls and containers created by the baking process I found myself thinking about being both central and humble.

I did teach Varda a way more efficient pre shape, but will I be changing my methods? Not in my kitchen, not for my breads. No. I am very fast with my shaping, my breads carry my signature, and I am content with that. But I have been changed, and we can all hope for the better, by the experience of doing things someone else’s way yet again.  I am even more convinced (after closer reading of the Colorado Cottage Laws has informed me that I can sell  - with many restrictions – foods made at home) that baking hearth breads in a greater volume is more work (and investment) than I want to take on, although other baked goods and confections seem distinctly possible. I will be happy to return to a wooden work surface, but will miss the good company.

And I have adopted a new motto: “Bake wonderful brioche or the terrorists win!”


Janetcook's picture

Lovely summary of your experience how, as bakers, when we do get to share with others, we are indeed changed.  Our horizons widen wether or not we change our ways.

 I know my  breads never could have been crafted by me alone in my kitchen with flour water and salt.  Books educated me in the beginning but once I found TFL - this community taught me things I would have been hard put to find in books.  I consider my breads the results of bakers throughout our world.  Past and present bakers who are so generous in sharing here.  Asian breads displayed here by txfarmer, yy, telekeke to name just a few.  Whole grains breads from Khalid in Dubai and Phil in Australia.  MC and her introductions to bakers in the US and her beloved home country - France.  And then Susan and her site WIld Yeast where the variety is never ending.

I could go on for ever but you did it very eloquently.

Welcome home to our cold Colorado.  I have a pot of narcissus bulbs in my kitchen window that are my reminder that Spring will indeed arrive once again to our mile high city.  A pot of hope and beauty that requires minimal care.

Tale Care,


proth5's picture

we get a warming trend over the week. Got to love the CO weather. And you know me - I'm getting to be a homebody.

For some reason I have a lot on my plate this week - later...


varda's picture

Well Pat,   I'm not sure how many people could do what you did - which was set aside all your hard won techniques to adopt my homegrown ones.   It was quite impressive, and your eloquent description above all the more so.   And of course, great fun to bake together as you say.   Hope we can do it again some time.  -Varda

proth5's picture

takes many forms, but dishwashing springs eternal.

We'll see if I do another swing by when the weather is better.

Meantime, I've got to practice brioche technique - or...



fotomat1's picture

motto........"Je Suis Brioche"

Our Crumb's picture
Our Crumb

Just want to thank both of you for sharing accounts of your little private master class with the TFL world.

Can't put my finger on it, but there's something *special* about two TFLoafers meeting face to face and baking together -- an alignment of stars.  The TFL world is so -- sometimes exasperatingly --  disconnected in conventional personal ways:  We read each others' prose, interpret each others' meaning, admire each others' photos but wouldn't know each other if we were all on the same (overloaded) elevator and have no idea what each others' breads smell or taste like.

Great that you two could join forces in person, and greater that you shared it with us.  And with such poetry.  Thanks!


proth5's picture

for your kind words.


PiPs's picture

I love this blog post Pat,


yozzause's picture

Nice to see you are alive and well Phil, revenge is coming Mr Newman!

Great post i too enjoyed the article immensely.

kind regards Derek


proth5's picture

So - when can I head Down Under to bake. I still have a ton of frequent flyer miles...


Kidding. Sort of...

yozzause's picture

if you come this way we are sure to make you welcome 

LindyD's picture

You are most definitely a philosopher, poet, and baker, Pat.  

Reminds me of another baker with the same qualities.


proth5's picture

If only...

I've repented of my silence in another medium also - be on the watch...

Take Care!


v's sis's picture
v's sis

Wow!  I loved your description of baking in Varda's kitchen, a place where I have spent many happy hours, learning from her, watching her bake, and then eating her wonderful bread.  And your thoughts clearly articulate excellent advice to anyone going someplace new to learn: be open to everything and then use that new knowledge to enhance your own.   Everyone's bread style is so clearly recognizable:  your knobs versus hers on the baguettes or whatever.  There was the time that I opened Freshloaf and, as soon as I looked at the two featured loaves, I knew that one of them was Varda's.  And it was.  When I told her that, she was surprised as it was a bread she had not previously made, but, to me, her signature was all over it!  Happy baking in Colorado!


proth5's picture

a batch of baguettes yesterday and finished one a la Varda. It looked cute, but in my kitchen, it just didn't seem right.

I'll be thinking of this from time to time...