Bakery is evolving into an art form in Nairobi discovers Winnie Wangui during a recent trip to Le Grenier a Pain on Riverside Drive
In all its various forms, bread happens to be the most consumed food in the world. In fact, it is said that humans started baking bread about 4,000 years ago.
During the ancient times, bread making started by using simple, manual techniques like smashing grains with stones to remove the inedible husks and to grind the cereals into flour. Today, different types of flour are common. These include: rye, corn, oat, barley, spiked millet and sorghum. These are usually combined with wheat to make breads with different textures, flavours and leavening. Refined flour, artificial leavening agents and mechanised slicing, all results of industrial modernization, kickstarted the process by which bread was produced during the twentieth century and for a long time, sidelined traditional methods of using a natural sourdough starter to leaven loaves.
Bread making is a science just like any other form of baking and it takes time and precision to achieve perfect results. In a bid to find out the secret to the perfect loaf, we head over to Le Grenier à Pain on 9 Riverside Drive, a French Bakery that has won the love of Nairobi diners.
We meet the Chief Baker at Le Grenier à Pain, Wallace Odongo Munai, who has been at the French bakery for three years now. His youthful looks betray the culinary skills and knowledge he possesses. Wallace’s career journey did not start with his desire to be a baker. On the contrary, his journey started at home, where together with his eight siblings, they each had their own day to make dinner for the entire family. It so happened that every time Wallace cooked, his family would really enjoy the food. This is what sparked his interest to study hotel management, a course he pursued with the aim of becoming a chef.
For Wallace, landing on pastry making was somehow accidental. His first chance to work at a professional kitchen was during his internship in Sigona Golf Club, then Royal Grill in Thika and later at Tribe Hotel, all in the hot kitchen section. “It was while at Tribe Hotel when the executive chef asked me to give pastry a try, after seeing how successful I was in all the other sections; cold kitchen, banquets and the hot kitchen,” explains Wallace.
“Up to that time, I was absolutely sure that I never had the patience for pastry or bakery,” he adds. The pastry section was a whole new world where a slight mistake in measuring the flour could destroy an entire baking process, unlike the hot kitchen where things moved fast and there were tips and tricks that helped restore the food flavour in case you added too much salt or spice. Focus, patience and precision are the skills required for successful baking.
“Baking not only is a science but it is an art as well. The secret to the perfect loaf is temperature control. And it starts right at the first step when kneading your dough. The temperature of the room, the temperature of the dough and the dough’s texture consistency account for good or bad results. Different baked goods demand different temperatures throughout the process and once you master this, you cannot go wrong”. He goes on to explain that preparing dough in a hot room leads it to rise excessively, and when you put it in the oven it falls flat.
Kneading bread dough is an art that requires a tricky folding technique by which air is allowed to enter the dough to help it rise to the required consistency. The fermentation of the yeast combined with the water, air and the sugar in the flour is what makes the dough bubble up and create the air pockets which are visible inside of a baked loaf. Sometimes you may toss the dough in the fridge to keep it from rising too much as this may also cause it to fall once tossed in the oven.
As much as it is believed that the bread making process has evolved and machines seem to do much more, traditional methods like baking on a stone seem to be making a comeback to kitchens such as Le Grenier à Pain. The natural earthy flavours incorporate magically onto their baguettes ending up into a flavourful, airy loaf that you can’t get enough of.
Photos: Peter Ndung’u