Dan Lepard is my baking hero. If you know my blog(s) you’ll know I mention him a fair amount. His book The Handmade Loaf was the encouragment I needed to take my baking to the next level, and I had a great run making his reliable recipes from The Guardian, now collected in Short and Sweet. So I had some fanboy excitment when I heard he was doing a day at The Hearth pizzeria and bakehouse in Lewes, arranged by proprietor Michael Hanson.
Taking place on Tuesday 30 September, this was surely one of the biggest days of Lewes Octoberfeast, and indeed The Hearth has been at the heart of the 2014 festival. Dan had three events over the course of the day: classes Bread Made Simple and The Big (Cake) Bang Theory, then an evening meal, prepared in The Hearth’s wood-fired oven.
As Michael said in his introduction, a hearth is “where people are around a fire, sharing stories, in each other’s company” and you can’t argue with the warmth, literal and metaphorical, that comes from a wood-fired oven. It also gives a remarkable depth and richness to any food cooked in it – both in flavour terms but also in more rarified, almost spiritual terms. This is real cooking: wood, smoke, oven walls with serious mass, ancient technology.
For the meal itself, Dan, aided by Michael, food and travel writer Andy Lynes and The Hearth team, prepared a series of hearty dishes that carried on this theme of warmth, real food, depth of flavour, all eminently suitable for the last day of September, where our Indian summer is finally giving way to a change of seasons and the food cravings that accompany cooler weather.
First up flatbreads with a bagna cauda. I’d not encountered the latter before, but it’s a hot dip originally from Piedmont/Piemonte, northwest Italy. Dan’s version was an intense, thick, oily and salty, as only serious anchovy-based dishes can be, and was served with flatbread. It included oregano brought back by Emilio and Diane, who we shared a table with, from Emilio’s Sicilian hometown of Pachino (of tomato fame).
The main course was shoulder of pork, with sage, lemon and garlic. The woodfired oven is perfect for proper, slow-cooked pork, and Dan said they cooked this for about four hours. It was served with crisped-up polenta slice, roasted celeriac and potato, and mushroom and borlotti bean stew. I hope Fran isn’t reading this as she’ll be really sad she wasn’t able to make it, as these are some of her favourite things, excellently done.
The desert was one an apple and pine nut cake served with Amaretto and raisin gelato. It was a delicious, surprisingly delicate desert. The cake is based on one of Dan’s recipes for the Sydney Morning Herald, and he explained how cooking apple in orange utilises the ascorbic acid to preserve the natural sweetness, resulting in a need for less added refined sugar. And cakes with some form crumble on the top are always a winner in my book (cf toscakaka, streusel cake).
All in all, a great evening, hosted by two men who combine experience with enthusiasm, to paraphrase Dan quoting Forbes. An evening that played to the strengths of a wood-fired oven, which isn’t just for pizza – though The Hearth remains one of the few places I’ve had a decent pizza in England. Let’s hope Dan Lepard comes back to The Hearth more in future, to spread knowledge – and cook great food.
(Oh, and usual apologies about the photography. I’m really not a photographer, despite being the only one wielding a DSLR yesterday evening. Not only was Dan a professional photographer, I also met Susan Bell that evening, which throws these bodges in a very sorry light.)