It is Sourdough September across the world this month, and to celebrate this we have an exclusive interview for you by Xanthe Clay of the Telegraph newspaper with the baking legend that is Nancy Silverton.
September also means the start of our 2022–2023 Nutrition & Digestibility of Bread Online Diploma and Bake for Health Certificate, which starts on the 22nd of the month. We always have a last-minute flurry of bookings, so if you are considering joining, please do look at both courses and make sure that, if eligible, you apply for a bursary or scholarship – this is the last chance this year.
You can’t miss Nancy Silverton. Her red lipstick and owl-like spectacle frames are signature in themselves, a food lover’s Iris Apfel. But we see another side of Silverton every time we slice a loaf of airy sourdough or crack open a perfect baguette. With her groundbreaking bakery Brea, she’s credited with bringing artisan bread to the mainstream.
Silverton was brought up in Southern California, and enrolled in Sonoma State University to read Political Science, but dropped out in her senior year, opting instead to study at Cordon Bleu in London. A stint at restaurants including Wolfgang Puck’s Spago followed, before she headed back over the pond, this time to France to study bread-making at Ecole Lenôtre Culinary Institute in Plasir.
She opened Brea in 1989, using a homemade sourdough starter to make baguettes, rosemary olive oil loaf, olive bread, country white, whole wheat and dark Normandy rye. She sold it in 2001 for $6 million, only to lose the money in a Madoff investment.
Her restaurant Campanile, founded with her then-husband Mark Peel, had opened in 1990, but it was Pizzeria Mozza, Osteria Mozza and Pizzette that cemented her reputation. The idea was inspired by a conversation with legendary chef Jeremiah Tower over lunch at her house in Umbria, when he told her about Obika, an Italian restaurant that focused on one ingredient: mozzarella. The obsession with fine ingredients, detail and layering flavour on to an apparently bland base struck a chord with Nancy, and Pizzeria Mozza opened in LA in 2007, with a branch launching in London last year.
Vanessa Kimbell is among Silverton’s fans. ‘It’s inspiring to see a woman pushing the boundaries. When I was training in the 1980s and 1990s, it was rare to meet other women bakers,’ she told me. ‘Bakers owe much to people like Nancy, who built the foundations of how we bake bread. Her work underpins it.”
I asked Silverton some questions about her life in bread: she answered in typically acerbic style.
What’s so special about bread?
‘Is this a trick question? That’s like asking Rembrandt “What’s so special about a canvas?” or Lewis Hamilton “What’s so special about asphalt?” Bread is the foundation of food for me. And, for the record, I am not comparing myself to Rembrandt, although I am a far better baker than him.’
Did you eat good bread as a child?
‘No,’ she says. For Nancy, growing up in the fifties and sixties, bread came from the supermarket, not a fancy baker, and certainly wasn’t made at home. Eating happened round the table, with her mother, a writer who wrote for the TV show General Hospital, and her lawyer father, and the focus was on the conversations about politics or writing. ‘The food that we were eating was completely secondary,’ she told the LA Times.
When did you bake your first bread?
‘Spago in 1986.’ The first sourdough was the same year, a dinner loaf. Successful? ‘It went well.’ So, were there any baking hurdles you had to get over? ‘Of course. Too many too list. Countless loaves lost and never to be recovered.’ She told the New York Times in 2011, ‘I didn’t know about adapting recipes. They were all failures. I had to start from the beginning, a tablespoon of this and a teaspoon of that. It took hundreds of tries.’
Any advice for new bakers?
‘Love baking. Do not bake if you do not love to bake. There will be many failures. Countless. But that is part of the beauty of baking. When it gets better. And better and better, and then, then, you get it! It’s wonderful.’
What is your favourite flour to use?
‘This is a question that needs an answer with a prefix. If I had one restaurant in one city, likely I would mention some small flour that is produced near this mythical restaurant. But, since I have restaurants just about all around the world – from California, to London, to soon, hopefully, Singapore and the Middle East, with more to come – I need to have a flour I can get to these places. I need to have some serious consistency in dough. Therefore, I will say King Arthur.’
Any particular mill or grower you’d like to give a shoutout to?
‘Like I said above, I need consistency from one of my restaurants to the other, so no particular mill or grower. Other than the widely available King Arthur.’
Describe the spot where your first bakery shop was, and the look/atmosphere.
‘624 S. La Brea Avenue, Los Angeles. It was in the building that would house my husband at the time and my restaurant Campanile. It was in a bell tower-ish building, hence the name, that was built in 1929 for Charlie Chaplin. I was there so much we lived there. I mean it. We lived there. For a few years.’
How about Pizzeria Mozza and Pizzette?
‘Pizzeria Mozza is on the busy Los Angeles corner of Highland and Melrose, about two miles south of the heart of Hollywood. It’s a corner where there is nearly always traffic and honking horns. It’s a lively place. It will turn 16 years old this year. Pizzette is in a former newspaper building and it has a good feel, too – sleek.’
What would you say to yourself if you could go back in time?
‘Depends how far back in time you’re talking about. If you said I could go back to July 1994, I would say to myself, “Make Jeff Bezos an offer for Amazon he couldn’t refuse.” If you said I could go back only to tomorrow, I would say to myself, “Don’t take the 405, take La Cienega.”’
Do you ever regret not finishing your degree in political science? (I dropped out of university, and ask myself this question.)
What’s on your playlist as you bake?
‘There are too many songs and recording artists on it to list. But just a smattering: Frank Sinatra, Willie Nelson, Drake, Cat Stevens, John Coltrane, Neil Young, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan.’
OR do you prefer podcasts?
‘NO, I prefer music.’
What is the secret to a great grilled cheese sandwich?
‘Quality ingredients and paying attention.’
Interview by Xanthe Clay
You can find and follow Nancy here:
Books: View all of Nancy Silverton’s books here
View all previous editions of our Sourdough Club Magazine