I remember my first sourdough. It was San Francisco’s Mission District, and the Noe Valley Bakery – a tiny shopfront high up on 24th Street, packed with an astonishing array of artisan loaves. I filled my suitcase with loaves dense with fruit, packed with raisins as vast as prunes.
San Francisco might be the home of our modern day sourdough revolution, but good bread has always been a way of life across Europe: think of all those German wholegrain breads, full of nutty seeds, Italian focaccias, Pain Poilaine, Scandinavian ryes. Nowadays, if you’re in London, this kind of European experience isn’t hard to find. Tucked away behind Hoxton station, in a converted railway arch, you can step into a tiny piece of Stockholm in Fabrique: a classically minimalist bakery with a cool, urban style turning out flawless cinnamon and cardamom buns and a range of rustic looking rye sourdoughs with a cracking crust and a moist, fragrant crumb. They’re not cheap – they import a lot of ingredients from Sweden, but Max, who’s manning the counter, says it’s a myth that artisan bread has to be expensive. “It’s just flour, water and salt, after all. It just takes time to produce.”
Fabrique has managed to reach a wider audience through collaborations with Selfridges and Fortnums, but it’s still something of a niche. Outside London, though, with cheaper startup costs, small bakeries are flourishing. According to Chris Young, from the Real Bread Campaign, 650 bakeries and microbakeries have added their names to his organisation’s map.
“We’re seeing one-off, local independents thrive in places like Bristol”, he says. And there’s a community aspect too – with a rise in social enterprises, “they not only make true value loaves but also help people who face a tougher time than most of us, to find their way in life.” Bread, not just a staple commodity, but a power for good. Stick that to the low carb brigade.
At the Pump Street Bakery in Orford, Joanna Brennan says they’ve managed to build up a great relationship with customers who flock to the shop for their trademark sourdoughs as well as traditional white tins and granary loaves. Their Eccles cakes are a particular favourite – and they’ve even branched out into handmade bean to bar chocolate – the sourdough and sea salt is irresistibly good. “We have a great, local customer base that we know really well, and it’s a pleasure to provide them with something we’re proud of”, she says.
It hasn’t been quite so easy for Birmingham’s Peel and Stone, which opened back in May in an industrial archway in the Jewellery Quarter. Good bread, even decent coffee, is hard to find in the country’s second city: places like Yorks Bakery have only recently started revolutionising the scene. Peel and Stone’s baker Dom Clarke says it wasn’t easy to begin with: business was slow, and they only managed to keep going thanks to their portable wood fired oven which they carted round various pop up food events.
Now, though, they have a steady revenue stream through supplying local pubs and restaurants with sourdough loaves and burger buns, and they’re about to take on apprentices: although at their shop, customers tend to buy lunchtime food like sandwiches and pastries rather than bread. “We struggle to sell large quantities through the shop…people seem reluctant to buy a loaf to have them tormenting them all day in their office!”
And price, of course, is also an issue. “People still think £3 is a lot for a loaf because it hasn’t been offered to them in the past. It doesn’t help that supermarkets are offering products very cheaply, labelled ‘artisan’ or ‘sourdough’ when it’s full of additives and made in the same Chorleywood fashion as the sliced bread it sits next to”, he says.
Don’t mention supermarkets to Chris Young. Instead of creating more skilled jobs for bakers crafting all natural, long fermented loaves, he says, supermarket breads are “a marketing tool to help them charge more for what is essentially the same product they made before, only now shaped in a basket and sold from wooden shelves.” Ouch. For those who’ve only got access to a local Lidl or Morrisons, I still think it’s better to have some choice than none at all.
But of course, the best thing about a proper bakery is its place in the heart of society. At Pump Street, says Joanna Brennan, “we’re a hub for bread, real food, conversation, interaction – and providing a service to the community and being part of it is a big part of what we do.”
Talk about earning an honest crust. Invest in a properly made, well crafted, interesting and creative bread – and you’re investing in more than just the means to make a sandwich. It’s about jobs, training, local enterprise, helping to build civil society. No wonder they call it the staff of life.