Meet the bakers helping to meet the nation's growing appetite for artisan bread and pastries

When flour went missing from supermarket shelves, amateur bakers threw up their hands in doughy dismay.

When they did score a bag of strong white, they baked sourdough loaves and put the photos on social media to prove it.

Those who bake bread for a living faced even greater lockdown challenges. Phil Clayton, of the Haxby Bakehouse in York, was moving to a new baking outlet as lockdown began. While he still has his shop in Haxby, stocked with his acclaimed sourdoughs and slow-fermented artisan breads, he is now baking in a separate unit at Clifton Moor.

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When he started, Phil worked alone through a Friday night to produce hundreds of loaves. Now he has a staff of three and a knowledge of bread and baking as long as a baguette, but nothing prepared him for lockdown. Talking in his new bakery unit, he says: “We’re starting to find our feet now.”

Haxby Bakehouse owner Phil Clayton at work. (Picture: James Hardisty).

Behind us on a long table, two of the team shape pain au levain sourdoughs with swift tenderness. These loaves, his best-sellers, take three days to produce. “Our recipe for sourdough is probably French in style but it’s been tweaked along the way and we’ve incorporated more Yorkshire flour.”

There is a strong local flavour to Phil’s sourdough tin loaf too, a honey and oat sourdough made with 100 per cent Yorkshire organic flour, Stringers oats from Driffield and Strensall honey.

As lockdown started, Phil’s market fell by 80 per cent and two of his staff were put on furlough. His wholesale business disappeared overnight but he kept the bakehouse shop open for a while.

“That first week was really weird because you had the panic buying. The first customer that came in wanted six large sourdoughs and we’d never seen him before. We said he could have three and immediately he went out, put the bread in his car and joined the queue again. Then he wanted to buy ludicrous amounts of flour and it was a bit weird and it was unpleasant seeing that side of people.”

Owner of the Nova Bakehouse Sarah Lemanski at her bakery at Leeds Dock. (Picture: James Hardisty).

Eventually, Phil went over to online orders, delivered by a team of volunteers. This was hard work, with his wife Tina working flat out dealing with emails. “But the upside was we knew what we were baking and there was no waste,” says Phil.

Learning from this, he has reduced his list of loaves and pastries. “Pre-pandemic we were doing too much, I hate to think what we were doing,” he says.

The new unit has a five-deck oven and a convection oven for pastries. “Main thing is the efficiency is much better so the bake time has become shorter,” says Phil. The ovens are on timers and click on 40 minutes before he arrives at work. One of the old ovens used to take two hours or more to heat up.

Phil’s lockdown ended in an unexpected way. Without his knowledge or assent, his photograph was used in a government advertising campaign under the headline: “Welcome back to freshly baked bread”. An unfortunate choice of baker, for Phil is a Labour supporter and no fan of Boris Johnson. “So many people were messaging me in hysterics,” he says. “There were people in Ireland messaging me and someone saw a billboard of me driving out of Birmingham.”

Nicky Kippax at Bluebird Bakery on Little Shambles in York. (Picture credit - Esme Mai Photography).

Phil was not happy, the story ended up in the press and the Government then dropped Phil from its campaign. Now he is free to carry on doing what comes naturally and slowly, baking traditional bread. “The longer the fermentation you increase the flavour,” he says.

York is spoilt for good bread. Al and Nicky Kippax started Bluebird Bakery at their Bishophill kitchen table in 2011 with a baby in tow. That home bakery has risen across three sites, with a fourth in the wings.

At first, Al and Nicky cycled loaves to friends and sold at their local pub, the Golden Ball, and from a stall at Shambles market. Now they operate out of an old butcher’s shop off the Shambles, a bakery and small shop in Talbot Yard Food Court in Malton, and a stall at the Kirkgate Market in Leeds. A fourth outlet, a bakery, shop and cafe in Acomb, York, is awaiting final planning permission.

Nicky, 44, used to be a journalist and worked for Ken Livingstone when he was Mayor of London. Al worked as a chef in London and wanted to open a restaurant, but couldn’t see how that would be possible, so his thoughts turned to bread.

“He went on a baking course in Edinburgh run by Andrew Whitley, the author of Bread Matters,” says Nicky.

That started a now thriving bakery dedicated to “good baked goods”. Their sourdough is made from flour, water, salt and natural starters – “and none of the 27 additives you find in bread at the supermarket,” says Nicky.

They also sell spelt sourdough, rye bread, white cobs, the Golden Kamut loaf (when flour from this ancient grain is available), alongside baguettes, pastries and sweet treats.

Life wasn’t easy during lockdown but all three outlets stayed opened. “It was crazy,” says Nicky. “We expected everything to quieten down but everything ramped up. People still wanted to eat good, healthy bread.”

Loaves were sent out to people who couldn’t leave home, while at the shops customers were served at a social distance, including through the old butcher’s hatch at the shop in York. Sales were down but Bluebird survived lockdown better than Nicky thought possible. She and Al still make bread at home – “a busman’s holiday”, she says – in the kitchen where it all started.

Sarah Lemanski loves everything about wheat and sources flour and wholegrains from organic farms in Yorkshire and the UK more widely. Sarah runs Nova Bakehouse in the Leeds Dock with her sister Hannah Mather. The bakery opened in June 2019 and is part-owned by North Star Coffee Shop.

Lockdown was tricky as the North Star cafe closed, taking away Nova’s main wholesale customer. Luckily for the sisters, Bare Coffee in Headingley provided an outlet for bread and pastries after their usual supplies dried up.

Nova started a collection service to ride out lockdown. That’s still running, and the shop is open on Wednesdays and Saturdays. “All our bread is 100 per cent sourdough,” says Sarah, adding that the bakery uses only organic stone-milled grain.

“It’s a unique style of bread in that it’s very changeable and seasonal and we work directly with the millers and farmers and receive smaller volumes of wheat that change more frequently through the year. So we constantly reassess the quality of the new wheat.”

Sarah believes that “bread is seasonal”, a thought unlikely to have occurred to anyone queueing for a loaf of sliced-white. “We want to bring the attention back to bread and where it comes from. Wheat changes in the season. Just the same as the butter you get in the summer seems different, more yellow or richer, than in the winter months and that guides what we like to do.”

The other employee at Nova is chief baker Isaac Cameron. Isaac kept baking during the lockdown, while Sarah and Hannah set up the pre-order and collection service.

Sarah knows Phil Clayton and has learned from him – “Phil’s a bit of a legend in the Yorkshire sourdough baking game,” she says.

A self-confessed baking nerd, Sarah spends her waking minutes thinking about bread and likes to seek out older varieties of wheat. When not baking, her thoughts turn to “reading about baking, writing about baking, thinking about baking,” she says.

It seems some people can never have their fill of bread.

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James Mitchinson