Keeping it real
Food & Home Entertaining|February 2020
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-honored art of making classic French bread like an epi-baguette, as is masterfully demonstrated here by owner, Babette Kourelos
ROBERTA COCI

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 emphasizes. “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 colorful, 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.”

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