In the heart of downtown Jozi, Babette’s Bread is spearheading a return to authentic, no-nonsense loaves. What’s more, this artisanal bakery offers workshops to those who appreciate the time-honoured art of making classic French bread like an epi-baguette, as is masterfully demonstrated here by owner, Babette Kourelos
BY ROBERTA COCI RECIPE AND STYLING BY BABETTE KOURELOS
PHOTOGRAPHS BY ANNALIZE NEL
For artisanal bread baker Babette Kourelos, there are few things in life that beat the feeling of pulling a perfect loaf out of the oven. “People often don’t realise what goes into baking bread,” she tells me, as we sit together in her Maboneng-based kitchen in Johannesburg. “There’s nothing romantic about getting up in the middle of the night to feed your sourdough and make sure it’s happy. But when you end up with a nice loaf of bread at the end of the day, it’s worth it.”
While bread-baking has become both her passion and livelihood, it was never on the horizon for Babette, who in fact pursued a BA LLB at Wits University in Joburg. “During the final two years of my law degree, I randomly came across baking. Something just clicked,” she reminisces. “I loved the simplicity of the ingredients and the different stages of bread-making; how such simple components can be combined to become a dough, how it rises, how you knock it back, and how it becomes something new and fascinating at every stage. It’s safe to say I fell in love.”
Babette tried every recipe she could get her hands on, and found baking a useful way to distract herself from “tedious legal cases”. While at the time she presumed she would continue with law, a fateful conversation with an acquaintance in the industry would steer her in another direction. “I told him I had graduated but that I wasn’t sure law was everything I lived for. His answer was clear. He told me that if I didn’t eat, breathe and live the law, I’d be miserable, and that if I had other interests, I should pursue them.”
Despite having graduated from law school with a golden key, Babette turned her attention to her hobby of bread-baking and before she knew it, she was selling loaves out of her mother’s home on a regular basis. “I don’t regret studying law for a minute, as it has really helped me in my business,” she emphasises. “Not only am I comfortable handling contracts, suppliers and staff issues, but, being such a hard degree to get through, it also made me a stronger person. In fact, when I told my mother I didn’t want to continue with law, she said to me, ‘That was your army training. You did it and you can always go back’.”
Despite the instant demand for her product, Babette knew she wouldn’t feel comfortable selling bread until she had undergone formal training, so she decided to pursue an apprenticeship. During extensive Google searches, she came across a blog post about French master baker Gérard Rubaud, who was based in rural Vermont, USA. “Gérard was really old school,” Babette recalls, explaining that he only accepted hard-copy letters of application.
“I sent a letter and an A4 collage of all the breads I’d baked. I was nervous it wouldn’t arrive, but three weeks later my phone rang, and it was him.”
Gérard told Babette he usually only took on apprentices with experience, but that if she really had baked all the loaves in her collage, she should come. “So, I made my way to Vermont, where I found myself living alone in a log cabin in the middle of nowhere,” Babette laughs.
With nothing else to distract her, she threw herself into the art of bread-making, soaking up all the knowledge her 73-year-old mentor could share. “He showed me how to make traditional French sourdough bread from scratch, including how to make the mother culture, or levain,” she explains. “Gérard had a reputation for never sharing that with his apprentices, but a week after I arrived, he showed me,” says Babette gratefully, adding that this is the levain she uses in her bakery to this day. “I named her Maggie after Gérard’s girlfriend, Maggie Sherman. She is the most colourful, zany, creative, spirited person ever, and when she visited the bakery, the whole place filled with light and joy.”
Babette brought her levain back to South Africa, even though she knew her mentor probably wouldn’t have approved. “It’s not like I couldn’t create a new one, but bakers become very sentimental about their cultures. We name them, keep track of their age – Maggie is almost seven years old – and generally treat them as children. Most real bakers pass their starters on from generation to generation, and there are some sourdough cultures out there that are hundreds of years old.”
Back in South Africa, Babette tried to launch straight into the business of bread-baking, but the young baker was in for a rude surprise. “Everything was different,” she says, explaining that she had to get used to domestic ovens after working purely with wood – fired ones, and that Maggie wouldn’t react to local flours, or Joburg’s altitude and temperature. “I had to basically relearn what I had learned and adapt it to our conditions.” It took a while, but soon Babette’s Bread was officially up and running, selling loaves as pre-orders off a two-weekly mailer.
After about 18 months, Babette, who had been running her business from her mother’s home, outgrew the premises, and fortuitously her soon-to-be-husband acquired a “very hip” space in Maboneng that was just begging for a coffee shop and simple food offering.
Babette set up shop and, in what sounds like the script for a romantic movie, she explains that when she baked with her massive kitchen windows open, passers-by who smelled the bread would ask whether it was for sale. “They would literally give me money through the window and I would hand them a loaf.”
Babette makes a range of breads, from various sourdoughs to baguettes, ciabatta, rye and seeded loaves, but for her, sourdough is a hands-down favourite. “If I had to eat only one type of bread for the rest of my life, that would be it,” she says with gusto. “It’s such a versatile bread, in that the
flavours of sourdough change – like a good cheese or wine, it matures.” Babette goes on to explain that in Europe people actually have their favourite day of a sourdough loaf. “Some prefer it freshly baked, while others like it hard and chewy. My husband loves it when it almost fights back,” she laughs.
While Babette is devoted to baking, the physicality has started to take a toll, and a niggle in her shoulder has led her to concentrate more on spreading the art of bread-making through workshops. “I do workshops pretty much every weekend now,” she tells me, adding that she caters to all levels, and focuses on “old-school, authentic, no-nonsense bread”.
Babette adds that when she was in the bakery in Vermont, all they used was stoneground flour, 100% sourdough starter and a wood-fired oven. “Everything was natural. I wasn’t even allowed to take a phone or iPad into the bakery,” she chuckles.
But ingredients are only one part of a successful formula. “Time is essential,” Babette asserts. “Because of the way modern business goes, time is cut out of bread-baking completely but, unfortunately, that is what is needed for a true, artisanal loaf. The flavour won’t be interesting at all without time, and the bread will be hard to digest.”
Skill is, of course, another element, which is why Babette is so passionate about holding workshops. “It’s an art to work with the dough, shape it and get the best tastes out of it,” she explains. “If you know how, you can bring out very different flavours from similar ingredients by simply tweaking the fermentation time, temperature and so on.”
As a trained baker, Babette has really learned to read and understand her dough. “It’s a very needy product – it requires a lot of attention and checking up on – and you have to rely on your senses when dealing with dough.”
The sourdough starter is no exception, hence in winter Maggie even has her own water bottle and blanket when it gets really cold. “If you don’t look after your levain, the bread will be awful and stodgy. I love the science behind it; you have to learn to adapt quickly.”
Babette adds that her workshop guests often ask for advice on how to open an artisanal bakery, as they are desperate to leave corporate life. “I get it, but I think many people underestimate how much hard work it is. It requires hours of dedication, skill, practise and slog. I start mixing doughs at around 11pm and then I need to mix the sourdough into the dough at about 3.30 or 4am. People tell me that when I have a baby, I will be totally fine!”
Speaking of which, a family is on the cards for Babette and, as such, she is enjoying working on different facets of the industry that will allow more flexibility. “My workshops are becoming more of a focal point, and I am also very enthusiastic about recipe development and creating recipe books,” she tells me.
And, of course, spreading the word is crucial for this baker. “There’s still a lot to be learned in terms of bread, especially in South Africa. I want to continue to grow the movement, so I may even do a specialised course in Europe or Canada, or somewhere with a rich bread history to add to what is already happening here,” she muses. “My focus is shifting, but one thing I can say is that I will never stop developing new recipes. And I most certainly will never stop baking.”
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