This impressive bakery and cafe has been around in various guises since 2009; why it’s taken me so long to get there is a mystery. But I’ve made up for lost time. I first visited at the end of last year and have been back half a dozen times since. Partly because I’ll travel some distance for great bread and patisserie, and partly for the food and coffee they serve up in the cafe.
This not-for-profit workers’ co-operative was the brainchild of Dan McTiernan, a former communications officer for the Permaculture Association who did a day’s bread-making course at HFW’s River Cottage – a day that changed his life forever. It can get you that way, bread. Dan started in his kitchen then “borrowed” the oven belonging to the local pizza joint in down-time. With his Finnish wife Johanna, he sold Bread Bonds to raise money to buy the equipment they needed to open a bakery. Before too long demand exceeded supply and they moved in 2011 to their current location, a huge former garage on the canal side. As one of the staff, a smiling young lad with “Higgs” written on his pinny, told me, with no small amount of understatement, it needed a bit of scrub.
Slaithwaite’s a muscular village – not touristy or pretty, but interesting. The walk along the canal to the bakery is a pleasant one. Push open the big glass door and the aroma of baking bread hits you; it doesn’t half kick-start your tastebuds.
On a sub-zero Sunday afternoon, the place is throbbing. For a minute I think I might have blown it; will there be anything left to eat? It’s all bare concrete floors, rackety trestle tables and wonky chairs but it’s stylish in a thrown together sort of way. Tables are shared, so chances are you’re going to have to engage with strangers. You’ve been warned. The brick walls are lined with bookshelves so there’s plenty of reading matter if you can’t bring yourself to make eye contact. But you won’t be short of diversions – there’s loads going on – “baking with wild yeast” on this particular day. Aproned learners of all ages are working at the back of the vast, open-plan kitchen, hanging on every word of the master baker. Other courses include Italian baking and artisan patisserie and it looks huge fun.
As you walk in there’s a tall rack piled high with fabulous looking bread including seeded spelt, Sisu, a sourdough rye created from a culture that originated in Russia over 40 years ago, and one of the best sellers, Sleepless White (so named because it does its work overnight while the baker’s sleep). Next to it the counter groans with cakes and savouries. Thank goodness we skipped breakfast. I want to just work my way through the menu – that grilled cheese sandwich belonging to the woman sitting next to me looks fabulous – but in the end the Mexican stew wins. It’s the simplest of dishes; a rich, deep, warming bean mix finished with lime and accompanied with a couple of pieces of griddled sourdough and a pot of crème fraiche. Mum goes for the savoury Danish – an extraordinarily good looking thing and obviously popular as it’s the only one left. The texture is lovely, somewhere between bread and pastry, and it’s packed with flavour. It arrives warm with a piquant salad and I particularly like the sweet carrot gently flavoured with fennel.
There’s beans on toast – not just any old beans of course, the homemade variety “with a slight chilli kick” and a North African squash and chickpea stew which is laced through with ginger and coriander – delicious. It’s hard to know where to start with the cakes as they all look so damn good; will it be the Tunisian orange cake, dense and aromatic, or the midnight black chocolate Guinness cake? But it’s baked Polish cheesecake for Mum and an insanely ginger ginger cake for me – it’s gloriously sticky and eye-rollingly divine, but the cheesecake is a revelation and is selling faster than you can say “let’s not bother counting calories today shall we?”
A word about the coffee. I’ll spare you my usual rant, but just to say that here it’s so good I’m compelled to walk over to the majestic Italian espresso machine and its operator and thank her for one of the best flat whites I’ve had in some time. She modestly says it’s the coffee, not her skills. So, a small plug for Dark Woods Coffee, “an adventurous new coffee roaster, barista training school, unique shop and tasting room on the edge of Marsden. Coffee is roasted on a vintage 1950s Probat drum roaster in a refurbished textile mill by the canal.” If like me you’re an unrepentant coffee snob, blaze a trail to their door.
This isn’t fine dining or even bistro food, but it is good value, rustic and honest – and most importantly, full of flavour. You can’t book, so you’ve got to take your chances. Artisan is becoming an overused word, but in this context it’s absolutely accurate – food in this glorious place is made with love, time and no small amount of skill. And there’s a little part of me very happy to be contributing to a not-for-profit business employing local people and using local products. Particularly when the business is great grub and brilliant bread!
• The Handmade Bakery, Unit 6, Upper Mills, Canal Street, Slaithwaite, Huddersfield HD7 5HA; 01484 842175, www.thehandmadebakery.coop; open Tuesday to Sunday, 9.30am to 4.30pm.