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Half-baked learning

Memo to all men: be careful what you wish for. Or, to put it another way: know when to keep your big mouth shut.

It was just a throwaway line in the weeks leading up to my birthday. We were watching one of the endless stream of cooking-related television shows when the fateful words passed my lips: "You know, it might be quite fun to learn how to bake bread." Fast-forward to the big day and there it was, tucked into my card from Mrs Jones: a voucher for a one-day course in bread making.

But what the hell. Just see it as a chance for some much-needed in-service training, I thought to myself as I approached the trendy artisan bakery tucked under railway arches in a newly gentrified part of East London. After all, isn't watching other people teach one of the best ways of honing your own skills? And rather than bringing home a mountain of paper to sling out six months later - as inevitably is the case on most conventional continuing professional development courses - I could eat what I made.

In a steamy room at the rear of the premises I met my colleagues for the day: three other men and four women. Interestingly, the men were all over 40 while the women were all still in their twenties and thirties.

Sadly, I failed in my first test of skill - putting on the apron. How can any normal human being tie a bow that they can't see behind their back? Luckily my new-found baking buddy, Matt, was there to do it for me.

Then our master baker teacher explained some of the basics. He held up a little plastic disc-shaped object. "What do you think this is for?" he asked. "Clearing the ice off car windscreens?" I ventured. "D'oh!" he exclaimed. Actually it was "dough", followed by the word "scraper", followed by a couple of other words I didn't quite catch but which were probably something like "you moron".

In practice, though, our master proved to be a positive presence, and soon had nine complete strangers working as a coordinated team. It's a palaver, this artisan baking: you're on your feet all day, measuring, weighing, mixing and manipulating. And then there's the leaving, the waiting, the proving. Basically you make it, knead it, leave it. Until, that is, you need to knead it some more.

The bagel was just one of the bread varieties we made. "Any idea how we get the shape?" the master asked. "Do we start with the hole and then build around that?" I asked. His eyes went heavenwards. "Did you say your day job was in teaching, Mr Jones?"

At last, well into the afternoon, we were finally ready for the baking itself. The master took care of that part. I think by then he felt that letting me near fire wouldn't be a good idea.

On my way home, clutching a steaming bag full of flavoursome goodies, I realised that something had been missing from my day: health and safety. Where were the endless forms to be filled? The sombre warnings that wet floors were slippery and hot things burned? Thankfully, we had survived without a scratch on us regardless. How could that possibly be, I wondered?

Stephen Jones is a lecturer at a further education college in London.

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