My pizza dough is stuck to the table. It couldn’t be more steadfastly attached if I’d superglued it. I forgot to put flour on the surface but, in my defence, I was distracted by the view.
I’m in the Sierra Nevada at a sourdough baking retreat, run by E5 Bakehouse’s Ben Mackinnon at Las Chimeneas hotel. Owned by British pair David and Emma Illsley, Las Chimeneas sits 850m above sea level in Mairena – a village with only 300 inhabitants.
We’re kneading in full view of the Alpujarra mountains. The striking green foliage covering the red rock looks blue in the morning light, the sun is pouring into its grooves and gorges, and it’s so clear that if you squint across the distant, sparkling ocean, you can see Algeria.
Luckily, I’m saved by a fellow student, who tactfully unhinges my dough from the table with one deft swipe of a scraper. Ages and experience vary among the 11 bakers; there are retirees, a doctor, a newspaper editor and even a bright spark with a part-time baking business – but we have one thing in common: we all like our bread “real”.
There was a time when all bread was real, or perhaps the modern word is artisanal – ie made with human hands and few ingredients: flour, water, salt, yeast, time. When commercial baking became more processed and industrial, we all got our time back, but bread suddenly contained 30 to 40 ingredients. Today, as sales of white sliced bread fall dramatically (75% between 1974 and 2016), artisan bakeries are on the rise. After decades of eating bread packed with ingredients used for preservation and the nourishment of profit margins, people are increasingly seeking a back-to-basics alternative.
My room at Las Chimeneas has two floors, a kitchenette and a wood-burning fire, though with so much to do and see I barely spend any time there (aside from sleeping and snapping sunset photos). During our bread classes, we tackle seeded rye, multigrain, ciabatta, country loaf, bagels, fruit loaf, sprouted rye, porridge bread, focaccia and pizza. We’re in excellent hands: Ben quit his job as a sustainability consultant for an engineering firm and opened E5 Bakehouse in 2010 in the railway arches of London Fields. These days there are queues out the door, mostly for the Hackney Wild sourdough, of which 200-500 loaves are sold each day.
We start the week sitting by the fire, sipping sherry as the evening sky turns pink. Ben presents a here’s-one-I-made-earlier focaccia, spotted with locally picked olives and oily strips of red pepper laid out like spokes on a wheel. We politely rip into it as he sketches the baffling percentages and calculations of baking on a whiteboard (finally, a use for algebra – I really think if they’d passed round focaccia in school, we’d have made more of an effort).
Class begins with painstaking measurements of ingredients, then a collaborative effort of mixing, folding, shaping and folding again. Ben coaches me on shaping my loaf, and doesn’t leave my side until I master it. We do a spot of milling, tasting the freshly ground flour as it tumbles from the chute. Ben says it should be “fine enough to stick to you like face powder,” so naturally we all throw flour on our faces without question. Sole and Conchi, the gifted hotel cooks, produce snacks, such as startlingly juicy Andalucían orange slices drizzled with dark chocolate, and sumptuous lunches.
We spend the afternoon peeking into the ovens, pulling out labelled loaves and shouting things like: “Sally! Yours looks amazing!”
Between baking classes we go on daily mountain walks, savouring the impossibly clean air and picking ripe oranges from the trees. Villages built by Berber settlers dot the valley like clusters of cartoon teeth: bright white to reflect heat, and square (admittedly a design fault outside the desert – the roofs leak in heavy rain). One of the clusters is Ugíjar, the village Ulysses arrives in at the end of the Iliad. Closer to the sea lie vast farms of vegetables that will soon end up on British supermarket shelves (if you like courgettes out of season, you probably have Andalucía to thank).
We stop at the edge of a gorge in the neighbouring village of Laroles, where we see and hear a herd of goats on the other side; each goat-bell is individually tuned so the sound of them all ringing at once creates a harmonious tinkle for the listening pleasure of the goatherd.
On the days without scheduled bread classes, the surrounding area and villages offer plenty of options, and evenings at Las Chimeneas are spent choosing activities for the next day while enjoying delicious Alpujarran fare (spruced up with ingredients that historically weren’t easy to get hold of in the mountains, such as ginger, cumin and meat).
We decide to visit Mairena’s olive press. The olive oil is golden-green and peppery, not to mention hard-won: two villagers are in wheelchairs after having fallen out of olive trees. And yet this exquisite local produce is sold for just £3 a litre.
The jamonería in nearby Yején is not for the squeamish: 50,000 hams hang from the ceiling forming a macabre corridor – though afterwards there’s a tasting, along with homemade red wine poured from a Fanta bottle. We all go in on a £50 ham and spend the rest of the week taking slices whenever we fancy.
Before a picnic lunch by a stream, we stop to visit a goat’s cheese producer in the village of Valor, and receive a tour from Paul Newman’s Spanish doppelgänger. Valor is also where we visit a weaver who lets us have a go on their loom. Later we drive down to the south slope of the Sierra Nevada for a wine tasting at an organic vineyard (the owner is allergic to sulphites) and try a white made from vijiriega, a little-known grape indigenous to the Alpujarra. The daily walks can also be combined with foraging for wild asparagus and fennel.
By the final day, we’re baking like pros. We grab our pizza dough and head to Emma’s father’s back garden in the village of Júbar, where David built a wood-fired pizza oven. Turning our backs on yet another jaw-slackening view, we take turns topping the dough while fiercely debating a hot issue: “Does pineapple belong on a pizza?” (I’m alone in thinking it definitely does.) The dough gets puffy and golden in seconds. It’s a fine end to the retreat: what could be more delicious than homemade and freshly shaped sourdough pizza, cooked by fire, washed down with rosé from a vineyard you can see from the mountain?