The soulful art of farmyard breadmaking

Well-made bread has an otherworldliness about it. How else to explain our love of the perfect loaf that began its life in the bakery’s pre-dawn oasis of light?

Almost every day, early risers across the world make their first stop for a sourdough at Tartine on San Franscisco’s Guerrero Street; at the eponymous St Ives Bakery (despite incessant drizzle); and at Berlin’s Zeit für Brot on Alte Schönhauser Street for a Dinkel-Vollkorn.

Likewise, Knysna’s île de Païn established by Marcus Fabinger quickly became the local paniphile’s beloved pilgrimage of choice. To take in the heady smells and scuttling activity of elf-like bakers in the doublevolume space with its wood-fired oven and shelves laden with dark loaves of all shapes, is to be in heaven. 

So, when the invitation came to join a workshop during our stay at Babylonstoren’s Fynbos Cottages in the Drakenstein Valley between Paarl and Franschhoek, the decision was a no-brainer. The good news was that while the bakers start their day at 3am, we could arrive after breakfast.

The breakfast harvest table and the interior of the Babel restaurant at Babylonstoren

On the allotted morning, our small group is first directed to an anteroom with instructions to wash hands, strap on an apron and don one of those nasty-but-necessary hairnets. Our Mexican companion has wisely brought his cowboy hat while the rest of us look even more like the amateurs we all are.

Selfies done, we’re ushered into the bakery itself, to a large marble-top workspace where baker Erica Bedo is slicing a large, plump boule into equal parts. Natural light spills into the space from wall-to-ceiling windows along one side. Subway-style tiles of deep tropical green and ice white run the length of the others. A high shelf displays antique bakery knickknacks. Most of all, it’s the heritage of baking that makes this course on this farm so appealing. One interpretation of Babylonstoren might be as a window to the fundamental overlap between wilderness, horticulture, agriculture, kitchen work and wholesome nourishment.

Dusting before baking the bread and moulding the bread at the bread makers course at Babylonstoren

The 1,200-hectare estate, with its diverse crops from rooibos to risotto rice, visitor complex and iconic garden, has been developed over the past 14 years through the lens of Cape Dutch heritage.

The Tasting Room at Babylonstoren
Relax in the new communal spa and pool extensions - an indoor outdoor experience.
The Hot Spa
The greenhouse at night
Play beside the lavender and waterblommetjie ponds
The Healing Garden
The Fynbos Cottages
A birdseye view of the Fynbos Cottages
Life on the dam

Along with activities such as balsamic vinegar, soap and olive oil making, beekeeping and distilling, baking is contextualised within its agricultural roots and given life at this marble top by, among others, Erica and colleague Wendy Joseph.

The succulent house, taking in the view and a chef watering the garden at Babylonstoren

“They think I’m crazy, but I like to talk to my dough,” says Wendy as she carves out croissants at an adjoining table. “I like running my hands over the surface of the dough and giving it a little pat now and then.” 

At our workbench, Erica demonstrates how to stretch and fold — an action that I think resembles giving a starfish physiotherapy. Then we add one of a selection of ingredients in the middle of the table: garlic bulbs, rosemary, Maldon salt and coarse-ground pepper. “We use pears in season, and spring onions too,” Wendy pipes up.

Preparing the dough for bread making at Babylonstoren

Breads including ciabattas, seed loaves and sourdoughs are made for all the dining venues and the farm shop, while Babylonstoren has recently also included bread in its online shop.  

We each flip our dough over and shape the oily ball by running our hands down its sides before scoring and passing them off to Erica for baking.

Baking hot cross buns during the baking course at Babylonstoren. 

The longer half-day course focuses on the holy grail of sourdough. “Our mother starter is 10 years old and made of rye. It’s a really good and flavoursome starter,” Wendy tells me. 

I ask her about those early mornings. “You really have to love the job,” she replies. “It also helps that this is an awesome team. The mornings get crazy with all the bread and chatter.”  

As I wash the oil and bits of dough from my hands, I’m reminded of bakery wisdom as pertains to the long-fermenting sourdough in particular. Many learners want to know how long it all takes. Bakers know that good bread is easily bought, but making bread is all about a love of the process.

Slices of different types of bread

In addition to baking, Babylonstoren has numerous other farm and nature-related workshops on offer throughout the year, often hosted by invited specialists. Participation for visitors staying over at Babylonstoren is complimentary. You can find details of future workshops on the website 

Of course, visiting the area can easily be turned into a weekend, with numerous options for accommodation. Other interesting places to visit and things to do in the area include mountain biking at Plaisir Wine Estate, exploring local wineries on the Franschhoek Wine Tram, and shopping for antiques at Koöperasie Stories. Chef Jan Hendrik van der Westhuizen’s pop-up restaurant also returns to the Veepos at La Motte in September.


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