Britain seems to be in the middle of a baking renaissance, but is it just another fad or a sign of our changing tastes? Chris Bond reports.
THE smell of a freshly baked loaf of bread is one of life’s little pleasures.
And in this age of austerity when many of us are having to cut out holidays and trim our household bills, such simple pleasures suddenly seem even more appealing. Not only that but at a time when we’re tightening our belts a trip to the local bakers for a homemade croissant or cake is an affordable treat.
There has been a renaissance happening in British bakery for a couple of years now, first cupcakes were all the rage, then it was macaroons and now artisan breads are flavour of the month. If you’re in any doubt then you just have to look at the phenomenal success of the BBC’s The Great British Bake Off, which attracted 6.5 million viewers for last month’s final – nearly two million more than watched the final in 2011.
It’s not the only cookery programme looking to ride the wave of interest in baking. Later this month Britain’s Best Bakery, a new ITV1 show billed as a celebration of bakeries around the UK, hits our screens.
The Sunshine Bakery, a French style patisserie in the Chapel Allerton area of north Leeds, is one of those taking part. David Bennett, who was crowned Cupcake Champion of Britain in 2010, set up the bakery three years ago since when his tasty treats have been selling like, well, hot cakes. He believes there has been a sea change in the public’s taste. “People want freshly baked bread, because the stuff you buy from the supermarkets tends to be made for shelf life not flavour.”
He says programmes like The Great British Bake Off have helped to make baking more approachable. “A lot of cookery programmes in the past made it look difficult but now you see amateurs producing extremely good looking and nice tasting things and people look at that and think, ‘I can do that’ and they can.”
In town, cities and villages across Yorkshire there is a brisk trade, especially among skilled craft bakers. Caroline Sellers, of the award-winning Side Oven Bakery, near Driffield, has been running the bakery – which makes artisan breads, flours and mueslis, using produce from their nearby farm – for nearly 10 years. “We’re seeing a growing interest in bread making courses,” she says. “People don’t just want to go and buy a nice loaf they want to learn how to make it.”
She says baking isn’t as hard as people believe. “Before I started I thought it was rocket science but bread is actually pretty resilient and that’s a message we put across on our course, because it doesn’t have to take 15 hours to make something nice to have with your soup on a Saturday afternoon.”
This DIY approach is proving popular. “The great thing about bread making is it’s something the whole family can do, the children can dive in and help so they’re learning at the same time, plus you get something to eat afterwards.”
It’s an ethos adopted by Simon Garrod and his friends Phil Dacey and Ian Fitzpatrick, who are in the process of setting up the Leeds Bread Co-op, a community-based business that aims to deliver fresh bread made with ethically sourced local ingredients. Each of them is a baker and they plan to train another baker to work alongside them. “If it goes well then the idea is that rather than the three of us working five or six days a week we’ll have more people working shorter hours, because we all have other things going on,” he says.
They are in the process of raising £8,000 for an oven and are looking for suitable premises, but hope to be up and running in January. “We were really keen from the start to get something experiential into the bakery, to get people in there and teach them how to make bread. So it won’t just be about us producing bread which we then go and sell, we want to debunk the myth that bread-making is difficult. We want to encourage people to make bread and we want to encourage there to be a community of people who are into baking and want to come and share ideas.”
There has been much made of the so-called food revolution in this country over the past decade, but is the interest in artisan bakers just another foodie fad or here to stay? “I think a lot of people have signed up to this idea of ‘what are we good at, what have we got around us and how can we make better use of it?’ Places like Hebden Bridge, Brighouse and Todmorden are good examples of this but it’s catching on elsewhere. It started as a grassroots movement with local schemes and that led to an interest in local food and shows like The Great British Bake Off have come along afterwards.”
But while the merits of a fresh, handmade loaf are there for all to see, it is more expensive. “There’s a massive difference in taste and quality between a factory loaf and an artisan one, and that’s what we’re hoping people want to engage with, that for a little bit extra you get something that is incredibly good.”
George Fuller, a director with the National Association of Master Bakers who also runs a craft bakery business in Yorkshire, says the standard white loaf no longer rules the roost. “There’s nothing wrong with the standard loaf but tastes have changed and the British public is fed up with standard white bread. They are becoming more discerning and they want something different to put on their table which is why there has been a renaissance in speciality breads,” he says. The supermarkets tend to try and steal the show by putting on silly offers that craft bakers can’t compete with, but even the supermarkets are having to bring in their style of speciality breads.”
Despite this growing interest in baking he says the number of master bakers has halved to 611 in the past 10 to 15 years. “Small bakers are suffering from the demise of the high street in exactly the same way as butchers and greengrocers are.”
So although there is a renewed interest in baking and a demand, among those prepared to pay a little bit extra, at the same time people are eating less bread and the market is shrinking. “These two things are running parallel,” says Fuller. “The independent bakers still left are having to fight a declining market but what they are doing is trying to offer more variety and better bread and when we say ‘better’ we mean taste and flavour. What bakers are looking for now is something to whet people’s appetites by re-introducing speciality or artisan breads and we are seeing that with more people reverting back to using sour dough and sponge doughs.
“We’re also seeing new flavours like olive oil and sun dried tomatoes being used and different types of breads like ciabatta which has helped revive what was something of a flagging industry.”
So what does the future hold for British bakers? “I think in the future we will see more one-man bands turning themselves into artisans and supplying the local need, and I think the reason we’re seeing people starting up at the moment is they see there’s scope to fulfil that need. The renaissance has come about as a result of people’s desire to have a better product. There’s nothing wrong with what the big boys make but people want a bit more taste and flavour and that’s what master bakers are striving to offer.”
Simon Garrod also believes that fresh, homemade bread is one of those things that can transport us back to our youth. “When I was younger we had a local baker and I remember on Saturday mornings walking down to the bottom of the hill and buying a bloomer and some lardy cakes and on my way back home picking out all the soft bread inside the bloomer which was still warm from just coming out the oven.
“It’s one of those amazing things that taps into a memory from our childhood, it’s one of those smells, like roasting coffee and freshly mown grass, that take people back. There’s just nothing quite like something fresh out of the oven, slathered with butter that you can enjoy with a cup of tea. I mean what more do you need?”
How baking industry stacks up
According to the National Association of Master Bakers there are about 27,000 people working in the bakery industry at present with about 40 per cent of these bakers, the rest work in retail, distribution and administration.
There are about 4,500 small craft bakeries in the UK. They vary in size from two or three bakers in their own shop, to large bakeries employing several hundred.
The term “craft” is important as it describes the nature of daily production of bread and confectionery for sale and consumption often within one day.
The Bakers Federation says the UK bakery market is worth about £3.4 bn and is one of the largest markets in the food industry.