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Peter’s Yard: not just any old cracker

Peter’s Yard: not just any old cracker

by Great British Chefs 17 October 2019

Peter’s Yard sourdough crispbreads are revered by top chefs all over the country, but they had the most humble of beginnings – in a small bakery in the wild countryside of southern Sweden.

Many are the joys of a cracker. Not only does it provide lovely textural crunch to go with your topping of choice – be that cheese, fruit, vegetables or a simple spread – but the cracker itself acts like a little edible plate for transporting food from plate to mouth. It’s much more convenient in many ways than a piece of bread, which requires a certain degree of propping up. Crispbreads are eaten the same way in Scandinavia as bread is here – a hefty stack of them accompanies every meal, ready for dipping, scooping and piling up of goodies.

Crispbreads have long been an important staple in Scandinavia, largely for practical reasons – they’ve always been favoured for being easy to bake and, perhaps more importantly, easy to store in harsh conditions. That’s reflected in a huge variation of styles and recipes across the country today, but generally speaking, Swedish bakers have been making so-called knäckebröd since the sixteenth century, baking them on hot stones and stacking them on sticks, tucked into the rafters where they would stay dry for months. Unlike the UK, which has always been relatively densely populated, Sweden’s population has always been spread sparsely throughout the land. As a result, a huge variety of different recipes and techniques have evolved in silos, confined to settlements that were rather isolated.

These crispbreads may be ubiquitous in Scandinavian food, but they’re not all created equal. Just as we have rediscovered the joy of sourdough and traditional baking methods, so too we are embracing traditional sourdough methods for baking knäckebröd, thanks to Peter’s Yard. Perhaps that’s why so many chefs choose Peter’s Yard to go with their cheese courses – delicate, thin and incredibly crisp, they pack way more flavour than your average crispbread. The British company has been making these crispbreads for ten years now, and while they might sound like a simple thing on the surface, Peter’s Yard crispbreads have their roots in traditional Nordic baking practices, which go back nearly 1,500 years.

Traditionally, knäckebröd would be cut out from dough using a cutter, before being baked on a hot stone
The baked crispbreads would then be stacked on sticks and kept in the rafters for months at a time

Knäckebröd methods changed somewhat over the years – superheated stones made way for wood ovens and natural leavening made way for fast-action yeast. By the turn of the twenty-first century the majority of crispbreads in Sweden were made this way, mass-produced to meet growing demand. But near the town of Ystad – deep in the southern wilds of Sweden – Peter Ljungquist and a group of his friends were doing something different. Peter wanted to breathe new life into traditional Swedish baking methods, so he turned to Jan Hedh – a beloved celebrity baker in his native Sweden – for help. Jan cultivated a special sourdough starter, and the pair had decided to roll back the clock, making their knäckebröd using traditional baking methods and recipes, and selling it in Peter’s bakery.

Meanwhile, two English friends – Ian Tencor and Wendy Wilson-Bett – had both recently left Cadbury’s in 2008 to pursue their dreams of owning their own Swedish bakery. They soon flew out to Sweden on a research trip and took in vast swathes of the country, absorbing all they could about the history and culture of Swedish baking. It was another baker who told them about Peter’s bakery near Ystad. When Ian and Wendy eventually tracked down Peter, they found his wonderful artisan bakery – pots of sourdough starter bubbling away gently; mahogany-crusted sourdough loaves; stacks of beautiful knäckebröd. Among all the delights of the bakery, it was the knäckebröd that really impressed – the use of a sourdough starter gave it extra complexity and a depth of flavour that they’d never tasted in a crispbread before.

Between Ian and Wendy’s business nous and Peter’s expertise, a partnership was born. The group started selling knäckebröd in the UK under the name Peter’s Yard, taking inspiration directly from Peter’s beautiful home in the south of Sweden. Though inherently humble and simple, knäckebröd was something totally new to Britain, and a dedicated following quickly grew behind the company – including the likes of Mark Hix and Nigel Slater, who swore by the new crispbreads.

Peter’s Yard was still baking all of its crispbreads in Sweden, and their popularity was starting to outstrip the amount the company could import. The final piece of the puzzle was John Lister – founder of Shipton Mill. Not only did he provide Peter’s Yard with an artisan bakery in the UK to base their operations from, he also supplies Peter’s Yard with a never-ending supply of organic Shipton Mill flour.

These days, the company’s gate logo is synonymous with crispbreads – Peter’s Yard has become the de facto choice we all reach for when we’re looking for crackers, whether it’s for a cheeseboard or for a tasty snack. Aside from the ever-popular original knäckebröd – perfect with a slice of gravadlax – the company makes a wide range of other crispbreads, including pink peppercorn, caraway, seeded wholegrain, charcoal and rye and a delicious spelt and fig cracker that goes beautifully with salty blue cheese.

Much has changed at Peter’s Yard over the last ten years. The company has a new artisan bakery to keep up with the rising demand for their crispbreads, as well as new flavours and new products, but Peter and Jan’s original recipe has always stayed exactly the same. The sourdough starter they use is forty-four years old and counting, and they still ferment each batch of starter for sixteen hours before the crispbreads are baked. In that sense, every batch of Peter’s Yard crispbreads that emerges from the ovens at their bakery has its roots in Ystad – that fateful meeting between the three and the traditional recipes revived by Peter and Jan remain at the very core of what makes these humble crispbreads special.

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