Herts artisan bakers rising to the challenge

Freshly baked bread at Cinnamon Square, Rickmansworth

Freshly baked bread at Cinnamon Square, Rickmansworth - Credit: Cinnamon Square

With Real Bread Week celebrating traditional baking in May, Sandra Deeble sought out Herts’ artisan bakers rising to the challenge of an honest crust

Jo Bottrill of Jo's Loaves

Jo Bottrill of Jo's Loaves - Credit: Archant

Sourdough might seem to be flavour of the month but it’s actually nothing new. It might even have been the first risen loaf, something that grew from a happy accident when, the theory goes, a baker of ancient flatbread left flour and water in a bowl and on return, found that the mixture had expanded, a process that happened thanks to the natural bacteria of airborne yeasts.

The resulting ‘leaven’, today usually called a live ‘starter’ or even a ‘mother’, is used to make dough rise without the need to add yeast. The ingredients for a sourdough loaf are cheap – flour, water and salt, but it takes time to make, eight hours or longer, which is why an artisan loaf at a farmers’ market might seem expensive compared to a supermarket sliced loaf that can go from dough to bagged product in a couple of hours.

‘Sales of the white sliced loaf are in terminal decline,’ says Chris Young, coordinator of the Real Bread Campaign, the organisation behind Real Bread Week. ‘People can’t stomach an industrial loaf and if there’s no local bread to buy in the area, people are thinking, “I’ll become my local baker”.’

According to Young, many people are taking up baking as a second career, or after being made redundant. Health issues such as digestion, diabetes and the bloated feeling you can get after eating processed bread, are also driving the move towards a more authentic loaf.

‘That funky stuff, the alchemy of sourdough, it’s growing in popularity,’ Young explains.

Doing the funky stuff in a tiny kitchen in Offley is Jo Bottrill, who founded Jo’s Loaves five years ago. Jo is the real deal. She kneads culinary love into her dough and sells anything from rye bread studded with apricots to sourdough infused with hemp and spring greens at a range of farmers’ markets including Hitchin, Pirton, Whitwell and Kimpton.

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She is outspoken when it comes to discussing the added ingredients in supermarket loaves – fat, sugar, improvers and preservatives.

‘Commercial bread gave me indigestion and raging heartburn. It’s the additives and the process. Everything is made so quickly for maximum profit,’ she says. ‘But it takes so much longer to make a real loaf of bread.’

She loves the slow process, something that contributes to both texture and taste. ‘You might do a long, cold ferment,’ she explains when we talk about the delicious taste of sourdough, and how she ‘feeds’ her starter. ‘If you leave it cold for longer, you’ll get more of that tang.’

Describing herself as a ‘hobby baker’, she bakes around 100 loaves a week, something she clearly loves doing, but is also exhausting, mainly due to carrying heavy bags of flour. ‘It’s actually a hobby gone wrong!’ she laughs.

Jo Bottrill buys her flour from Redbournbury Watermill near St Albans, where Steven Mansbridge, a fourth generation baker, bakes and sells his own bread on site.

‘There’s nothing more satisfying than a loaf of bread coming out of the oven,’ he says. ‘If something comes out of the oven that doesn’t look right, it ruins my day. I do like to get all the loaves the same size.’ This is something Paul Hollywood would be pleased to hear, and both he and fellow Great British Bake Off judge Mary Berry have been to visit the bakery here.

‘Mary Berry came here to film the Alban Bun,’ says Steven. ‘It’s the original hot cross bun. I now make them for St Albans Abbey. It’s a bready bun flavoured with cardamom.’ The Alban Bun is believed to have been created by a monk at the abbey in 1381.

Mansbridge offers bread making courses at the mill, and his bread is also sold at farmers’ markets including St Albans and Harpenden.

Another baker who offers courses in bread making is Paul Barker, founder of Rickmansworth’s award-winning bakery Cinnamon Square, established 10 years ago. ‘We’ve taught at least 11,000 children to bake here,’ says Paul.

Barker is a master baker with 30 years’ experience. He is involved in the Real Bread Campaign but at one time was involved in mass commercial production - he used to work for The Flour Milling and Bakery Research Association laboratories in Chorleywood, responsible for developing the Chorleywood Bread Process, which in 1961 transformed our bread eating and buying habits and continues to be the commercial model used by supermarkets today.

‘I know both sides of the coin,’ says Paul, who has a baking book coming out later this year. ‘And I’d much rather bake real bread. But at the same time you’ve got to be realistic. The supermarkets couldn’t produce millions of loaves of bread in this way.’

For a baker, it’s hard to live by bread alone, which is why offering courses and writing books can be a good way to increase income. But for Andy Smith and his wife Trinka they have no time for anything but baking, after moving out of London to set up Quotidian in a former art shop in Hitchin’s Sun Street 16 years ago.

‘It’s going well,’ Andy says modestly. ‘You see the same people coming back. On Saturdays you get families coming in, buying pastries for Sunday and bread for the weekend.’

Bakers are known to be early risers, and he is no exception. ‘I like being here early in the morning. I’m in here 12 hours a day, but it’s a nice thing to do. I make bread during the day to prove slowly, and then I come back at four in the morning to start putting it in the ovens. The slow prove gives it more flavour and a better texture.’

Andy started cooking in restaurants at the age of seventeen and became interested in baking. He was employed to set up Euphorium Bakery in Islington in the late 1990s, which grew to have several sites.

‘But this is not about the money and it’s not about having an empire. It’s just about doing something nice and making a living out of it – that’s all I want to do.’

As for celebrating Real Bread Week, what should we all be doing? According to the campaign coordinator Chris, it’s just all about local loaves. ‘Go and buy a real loaf from a local baker,’ he advises. ‘Or bake your own at home.’

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