IT’S an absolutely baltic Monday morning in early February, and I’m stood at a tiny pier on the edge of West Cork, waiting for the boat that will take me to the pier that I can clearly see across the bay — 450 metres away to be exact. Almost close enough to throw a stone and hit it.
The reason I am here, and happy to be so, is because today I am on my way to The Firehouse Bakery School on Heir Island, run by award-winning baker Patrick Ryan and his partner Laura Moore.
If there is anything to put the fear of god into me when it comes to cooking, it is the prospect of making bread. Anything else, fire me in at the deep end and I’ll figure out and make something tasty to eat. But bread — well, now, that’s for the magicians and wizards amongst us, isn’t it?
I am excited, nervous — possible signs of anxiety, but mainly excitement. It is an eerily calm morning, the sea is like a millpond and there isn’t a wisp of wind to be had. Still waters run deep, they say, seems appropriate for the day that’s in it.
The boat journey is over in less than two minutes. We are seven in number and surprisingly trusting of the two strangers we meet on the pier. They assure us they are from the bakery school and invite us to clamber into the back of two Island-worn vehicles to take a short drive...
We arrive at the bakery school. Walking into the old stone building, the warmth is welcoming as are the smiles and handshakes from Patrick and Laura, who welcome us to the Island.
Laura is a host at ease in her environment. We are a lively group, already testing the edges of what we can get away with for the sake of the craic. Two from Cork city, two from Kildare and three from West Cork including one lady who cannot understand why she is there.
“I’ve just retired, my son is paranoid I’m going to get bored so he keeps sending me on courses. I don’t even like cooking,” she declares.
Naturally, by the end of the day, she becomes our champion, turning out some of the best biscuits I have ever tasted. Bravo to the lady who hates cooking!
And we are straight in, aprons on, and almost immediately we are mixing sourdough starter into flour and making our first bread. In total, each of us will make three different types of bread and a sweet treat. On any other day, I would say “no chance” — surely it is not possible to make this much bread in a single day? I feel like a baking superwoman — anything is possible now!
We busy ourselves with mixing and kneading our sourdough mix. We ask about flours; we ask about water; we ask about temperature and how long we should knead for. We’ve clearly all been reading up on bread making and managed to get ourselves into a bit of a tizz about it all. Patrick’s ever-practical response? “Just get on with it: make the bread and don’t over- analyse it.” Of course. What is bread only flour, water, yeast and salt? What would a child do? Throw it all in, give it a mix, enjoy getting cakey hands but most of all — play with it and have fun.
So indeed there is no mystery to bread making after all.
We make our sourdough and yeasted bread mixes and set them aside to prove. We complete the soda breads and pop them in the oven to bake and we stop for a bite to eat. Everyone is truly delighted with the morning’s efforts.
In the afternoon session, we turn out our sourdough and place it into the outdoor bread oven. I make a mental note that this is the year I finally get to do this project in the garden — all procrastination has left me. I have shown I can make a sourdough loaf and now anything is possible.
Back inside the classroom, and reassembled at the scrubbed wooden table we pick a sweet treat to make. It turns out I’ve gotten off relatively lightly — I will be making double chocolate cookies.
Someone else will be making black forest gateaux from start to finish in about two hours. How this is possible I am not sure — it’s a process that I usually spread out over two days. It’s the main reason why I get away with only making about one a year, but now that excuse it out the window I fear I may be spending all of my spare time making BFGs for my highly addicted friends.
The focus is strong. Heads are down, reading and re-reading recipes because no-one wants to mess up. Murmurs of “we know how it must feel like to be on Great British Bake Off” start circling around the room.
Various turns at the stove see people making custards and ganache. Breads start appearing out of their ovens, looking and smelling amazing. It’s a hive of activity and people actually seem happy to do the washing and drying up. This place really is magical!
As we finish we are encouraged to take a walk to the beach while our lunch is prepared. A welcome stretch of the legs is appreciated, as is the view.
“I could live out here,” is a phrase I hear repeated often; the romance of the day has well and truly captured our hearts.
Imagine spending your days in this place, doing nothing but baking bread.