My latest and I think best loaf so far. A little over 3 months, with much help from Farinam especially!
I have learnt a few lessons along the way that I thought might be useful to others:
1. Relax and enjoy baking: when I started out I was obsessed with doing everything exactly right, playing with my starter, proofing times and temps, oven steam. It made baking somewhat stressful. After while, partly because I was a bit disappointed with the results I was getting and partly because I wanted to bake more around my schedule, I started to cut a few corners. And low and behold, my bread was no worse, in fact it's continued to improve and baking is less stressful and much more enjoyable. Obviously that doesn't mean you can do whatever you want and I'm sure that the improvement I have made has come from honing my tecnique and useful feedback. But I think if you relax and enjoy baking and allow your tecnique and results to improve gradually you will do better than trying to get it perfect straight away and have more fun along the way.
2. My starter at least is very foregiving. The loaf below was made with the starter coming straight from the fridge a week after its last feed. What I do now is use it, feed it, leave it out overnight then put it in the firdge till I bake again. Less hassle, less waste and so far good bread. I actually have a suspicion this approach might be better than more regular feeds... I experimented with making a large preferment following the Fred Bread recipe. That approach definitely gave me proper 'sour' flavour for the first time. The theory is that the long preferment allows the bacteria as well as the yeast to develop. The problem is that it also means the gluten over-develops making the dough difficult to work with. So I wondered whether a longer preferement period of the starter would achieve a similar result flavour wise but with better dough texture. And that seems to be what's happening for me.
3. Shaping is critical. Until recently, my final loaves were lumpy and mishapen. My last few loaves I have been spending more time shaping. First I Make the batard shape, then I roll it around to try to even and smooth it out. The result has been better final loaf shape. The loaf below is my best so far thanks to the purchase of a rolling pin! With this loaf, after using my fingers to spread the dough out ready for shaping, I very gently rolled it with the rolling pin. Not too hard to knock the air out but enough to make the shaping much easier and to produce I much smoother, even and, if-I-say-so-myself, more handsome loaf.
4. Steaming... definitely crucial for oven spring and good crust. I have a vented gas oven and I tried for ages using pans of boiling water, spraying the oven throughout the bake, using ice, making a foil closh... then I bought a gastronorm tin from a chef supply store in Newtown. It's perfect, covers the loaf and seals in the steam. Now I spray inside the tin, on the stone and loaf and chuck a few ice cubes in and leave it for 15m, then uncover.
5. Share your loaves! If you're like me you are your harshest critic. Even when I wasn't happy with my loaves my friends loved them and would so wonderful things. The one downside is that you have to bake every time you see your friends!
So there some lessons I've learned so far. I don't know how useful they will be, I am still very much a beginner and it seems a lot of baking is about getting to know your own starter, oven and kitchen. But I have found it useful reading others' experiences here. Thanks again to those of you who have helped along the way, especially Farinam.