Bread-making helps sculptor get over artistic block

Neil Jonker is also in demand as a teacher of making sourdough bread

Those attending the inaugural Winter Wild Coast Family Festival in Chintsa last weekend were able to participate in a sourdough bread-making workshop given by Western Cape-based sculptor and artisanal bread maker Neil Jonker.

Thirty-four years ago, Jonker matriculated from Oudtshoorn High School with a distinction in art. 

Five years later, he graduated with distinctions in painting and sculpture from then Technikon Natal (now Durban University of Technology) and has pursued a full-time art career from 2004.

Jonker, a painter and sculptor, has since established a cohesive body of oil paintings in various genres, mainly plein air landscape painting, and figurative bronze sculptures.

However, when he hit a snag, Jonker saw breadmaking as an extension of his artisanal work.

“I was struggling with my art because I had been in business for a long time, and had lost the feel, confidence and inspiration to make art. My girlfriend, who was a chef, had bought a book on building ovens and said it was too complicated for her, but she really wanted to have a pizza oven. So, I built an oven for the restaurant.

“When it was time to make pizzas, staff were too busy. I said 'well, I'm going to make bread' because in the oven book there were some recipes,” Jonker said. 

He started with a sourdough starter and, as he played around with the recipes, developed his artisanal breadmaking skills. 

Little did he know this was the escape he needed to revive his art. 

“With a wood-fired oven, you have more natural processes, and with sourdough it's natural process upon natural process... and that loosened up my art, where you need to trust a natural process, have faith and go in blindly without support. So, the breadmaking really helped me learn natural processes.

“After the success of the first oven I needed to find somewhere where the bread could be sold, so I found a market and sold there for a long time.”

While selling at a Saturday market, Jonker was contacted by someone in Johannesburg who wanted to learn artisanal breadmaking from him. And so, his journey metamorphosed from artisanal bread maker and seller to teacher.

“I couldn't say 'no' because they flew specially to George to do a cheesemaking course in Oudtshoorn. They then planned to drive along the wine route to where I live in Baardskeerdersbos and do the bread course and then fly back to Johannesburg from Cape Town. So they wanted to do cheese, wine and bread. That was very oulik (cuteof them. 

“I said 'well, all I can do is tell you what I know from experience' and so we did it.”

In no time, Jonker's breadmaking workshop became such a hit that he no longer had time to sell at the market.

By then, he said, his art had also started selling well.

Jonker has now been hosting artisanal breadmaking workshops from his house in Baardskeerdersbos for more than 10 years.

The fun yet thorough workshop emphasises the benefits of slow fermentation, wholegrain ingredients, and process consciousness.

The workshop has evolved into a travelling breadmaking workshop with Jonker travelling to teach groups. 

“Bookings went down during Covid-19, and people asked me to go to them.” . 

He hosted a group sourdough 'lite' workshop at Buccaneers on the Beach, Chintsa West, last week as part of the inaugural Winter Wild Coast Family Festival. 

Jonker said people cited various reasons for wanting to learn. Some were opening bakeries and others wanted to become home bakers. 

“When I started the workshop at home, it was for people who were opening bakeries. That was 10 years ago. Now the Western Cape is full of bakeries. The common reason now is to become a home baker.

“Regular practice is required. I find those who come to the workshop go home and send me photos of their bread, ask questions, then go quiet for a month or two because they are busy baking. I'm constantly getting this nice feedback,” Jonker said.

Jonker said artisanal breadmaking involved more than just the end result. It carried many lessons and served multiple purposes.

“For this [Chintsa] group, it was a novelty. Doing a course like this is a way of introducing artisanal breadmaking to those who aren't used to going down the road to get a cup of coffee and coming back with [artisanal] bread. It's also a lot of fun for the people who experience it.

“It teaches you to trust yourself because, from when we grow up, we are told not to make something but to buy it. By doing this with your hands, you get to trust yourself. So, there's an element of self-esteem and development.”

After the Chintsa workshop, Jonker travels to Tankwa Karoo to teach another group on July 8 and 9. 

He will host more home workshops in Baardskeerdersbos on September 27 and 28, October 25 and 26 and November 29 and 30.

Participants receive notes which should be studied before the workshop. They should also practise basic baking.

They are encouraged to bake simple recipes at home and experiment to get the most out of the workshop.

“If you have taken part in some of my online classes or the sourdough course, this will be a revision of that material plus learning about the wood-fired process and more hands-on experience, while eating and having a good time out,” he said.



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