Sharmaine Allison reckons she's got the best job. Sure, she had to study at university, and her official title is "Senior Product Development Technologist", at heart she's a baker who works with a team to come up with new varieties of Ploughmans breads.
That involves a lot of taste-testing– and, as Sharmaine told media personality Hayley Sproull when she visited the Ploughmans bakery in Christchurch, "any job where eating food is part of the role description is always a winner."
Lots of experts will tell you that the recipe for baking bread is equal parts of art and science, and Sharmaine wouldn't disagree.
"My background is food science, and working with Ploughmans bread, the thing that's really interesting for me is learning about the specifics of bread – how we make bread, and it's rewarding to learn all those things."
"But it's creative, too. We get to work with new ingredients. Sometimes Marketing will talk to us, or we will think about some ingredient that we think would taste really great and go really well into Ploughmans."
"We look at trends. Often food trends start at restaurant level and work their way into the supermarket. Sometimes our suppliers will come up with new ideas or ingredients that they're keen for us to try."
"We work through all of that and refine it down to a few ideas that we want to have a go with, and then we just have a play-around in our test bakery and see what works, how we need to tweak our recipes to make different flavours work and see what tastes nice, what looks good."
"That's the fun bit – when you're baking bread, when you're trying new bread." Yes, tasting it too.
For Sharmaine and the innovation team, the quality and variety of local seeds and grains is important – not just for the flavours they bring, but also because supporting local growers supports the community.
"It's nice for people, when they try our breads, to feel that a link to that New Zealand-ness through our characteristic seeds and grains"
Sharmaine is concerned about the quality and consistency of each loaf bearing the Ploughmans brand, too.
"I know that when people bake bread at home, of course there's a bit of trial and error involved. But when you're baking on the scale that we are, there are a lot of things we have to think about and get right - the right ingredients, the right amounts, how we're mixing them and how long, and then we go through all the processes to make sure the humidity and temperature and baking times are just right."
"We don't want our bread to dry out, and we make sure it springs up really nicely and has a nice golden crust on the outside, baked right through so that when people eat it, it's nice and soft with a crunch on the edge of it."
"It goes even beyond that - and this is the bit that people baking at home wouldn't do –our loaves have to go through slicers and get packed– and then it goes out the door on the way to the supermarket and the kitchen table."
Making the seven varieties of Ploughmans bread is not a one-style-fits-all process, either. "We have to make sure that everything in the bakery is clean and set up correctly for the individual variety we're making because they're all a little bit different."
So, any tips from the expert for the home bakers who might have tried to turn out their own sourdough during lockdown, then?
"The window test is something you can do at home. When you think that you've kneaded your bread enough, before you've baked it, before you've proofed it, you grab a small ball of dough in your hand and you slowly, slowly stretch it so it becomes quite thin – kind of like a window, so you should be able to see right through it if it's working well. You know that the bread is ready to go on to the next stage."
"If you get some holes forming quite readily, that means you need to work the gluten a bit more – the dough is not quite strong enough."
Sounds tricky. Best to leave it to Sharmaine and the experts at Ploughmans.
To find out more about why local tastes better go to www.nzherald.co.nz/ploughmans