woodlea stables : real bread

4:30 am. My phone rang and buzzed lightly by my head. Merde. It's early. But I hardly cared. I was already so excited. As I turned off the alarm, I saw Hillary in the darkness, already awake and getting dressed. I carefully extracted myself from Quentin's arms, pressed a kiss to his cheek, and sat up. Thermal leggings, skirt, shirt, one shoe on, then another. I felt around in the dark for my jacket and slipped out the door, trying my best not to wake up the other three people in the room.

Ignoring the cold, I hurried to the other side of the rocky driveway where the bakery lights were already on and I could smell bread baking. I walked into the bakery, converted from an old barn by Jock a couple years back.

"Morning," I said. Jock and Hillary greeted me back with a brief hello; they were already busy, taking out freshly baked loaves of rosemary ciabatta from the massive ovens. I had to smile at the smell of rosemary and olive oil emanating from the ovens and enveloping me like an old friend—the Challah for Hunger kitchen always smelled like this. This was going to be fun.

Fiona, Jock's partner, came into the room with a big bin filled dough and Jock attacked the bubbling pale mound with gusto, scraping it quickly out of the plastic bin onto the metal work table. He gestured at me to come over and showed me how to shape the balls of dough into loaves, and patiently repeated himself when I failed to understand his thick Scottish brogue (which was most of the time). Over the next couple of hours, they taught me how to handle the different doughs and how to shape rolls, loaves, baguettes, scones. I learned how to tell the difference between the malted wheat dough and the wholegrain dough, how to correctly take care of a sourdough starter, how to spray jets of water into the back of the ovens to create a cloud of steam.

It sounds strange, I know. I live in Paris, the heart of France, famed for baguettes and fine pastries. Why the hell would I go to Scotland of all places to learn about baking bread? The company I keep, I guess. Basically, a good friend of Quentin's and mine, this pigeon-obsessed, dreadlocked man from Strasbourg named Thomas, worked in a bakery with Baya through HelpX this past summer. He ended up staying on for longer and moved to the Edinburgh area after his brother's wedding to dedicate his time to the bakery.

The bakery in question is a tiny place run out of Woodlea Stables in Fife, a gorgeous smallholding with about five buildings and a couple chicken enclosures. Jock, a former builder, turned his hobby of bread baking into a bakery operation a couple years back and converted one of the barns into a bake house. Real Bread opens on the weekends and they sell free-range eggs and fresh baked goods made with local flour. Fiona takes care of their four flocks of hens and Jock runs the bakery with the help of HelpX workers that they house in an adjacent barn that's been converted to a dorm of sorts.

Thomas is one of these workers, along with Ivy and Hillary. And for a couple days, Quentin and I were lucky enough to join the fun. The community that Jock and Fiona have created at Woodlea is really special and I am so grateful that I was able to be a part of it. Early morning baking. Slow coffee breaks. Staggered breakfast shifts in their bright kitchen, usually a slice of warm bread and a smear of honeycomb and butter. Plenty of coffee. More baking, juggling different breads in the oven back and forth. Meals are a communal event that Jock and Fiona cook up and dinners are long affairs with plenty of beer and, of course, bread. Lots of warm conversation and laughter. And almost right after, everyone collapses into tired, sleepy puddles in the huge shared room.

I fell in love quickly with everything about it. The cold mornings, supple dough in my hands, the too-hot hard crust of bread coming out of the oven. Sun rising through fogged up windows, warm coffee sipped in between long strands of French whites being rolled out. Cold Scottish air though the open door as customers started to come in. My hands constantly covered in a layer of flour and bits of dried dough. Hillary and I hovering near the warm oven to escape the chill. Even Jock's damn near incomprehensible accent.

Jock saw it in my eyes that first day. "This one's got the bug," he said to the boys with a laugh. "You're going to have to drag her out of here at the end of all of this." Sure enough, Quentin and Thomas truly had to talk me out of that bakery once or twice to go sightseeing. "Just one more batch," I would plead to them as I continued rolling long skinny baguettes out.

I was so sad to leave Woodlea when we finally had to go, but who knows, might come back to bread making in the future. If my track record is any indication, I can't seem to stay away from it. Many thanks to Jock and Fiona and the rest of the team at Woodlea for taking us in for a couple days. Check out their Facebook and website if you want to learn more about their smallholding!