But first a bit of background about bread and me. You’d kind of expect that wouldn’t you, being my blog and all?
Come late summertime four years ago I was almost completely knackered. Three years of being Sarah’s principal carer as we both worried ourselves through the landscape of breast cancer, together with continuing to run our business on my own, had nearly wiped me out.
I badly needed a complete break. So with Sarah through the toughest of her treatments I took two months off working. And for the first week I went away.
They do B+B as well and also agreed to do me an evening meal every day. So I had nothing to do except roam the hills and villages, read, reflect and sleep. No responsibilities whatsoever. It was exactly what I needed, a retreat for one.
Around me there was a working farm going on and I, gloriously, did no work at all. But I did start to learn how to bake bread.
I’d noticed they had a wood fired oven out in the yard. So one day Tom, who was working at the farm that summer, showed me the basics, and helped me produce something that was at least edible out of their miraculously hot oven.
Later on in that summer’s break I decided to do some more about bread making. It felt elemental. Like a core part of helping Sarah and me to recover from the years of illness and worry would be to bake our own fresh and wholesome bread.
So I went to Scotland, to a place called Bread Matters.
I’m the kind of person who can only learn physical things from a teacher who’s right there by my side. I’d already read most of Andrew Whitley’s book ‘Bread Matters’ but I knew that the only way I was ever going to really learn what he was teaching was to go and work with him in his kitchen.
Andrew had been a BBC Foreign Correspondent who’d got interested in bread while reporting from Russia in the 1970s. He’d noticed how much tastier their breads were than the white pap he’d been eating in England for the previous decade. So he came home and formed the Village Bakery in Melmerby and started making what he calls ‘real bread’.
I could write a book on what he means by this, but fortunately I don’t have to as he already has. In short, most British bread is created by an industrial process called the Chorleywood method. A method the bread industry created and adopted in the 1960s which produces white, light and fluffy loaves, with very short rising times and long shelf lives due to the preservatives added along the way. Much of the wheatgerm is removed from the bread in the process, as, in my opinion, is the taste.
So ‘real bread’ dispenses with all of this, leaves all the natural ingredients in and allows the dough to ferment in its natural time – sometimes longer than 24 hours. Permitting all kinds of natural and nutritionally beneficial chemical processes to happen and creating loaves with a texture and taste that the bread industry had tried to make us forget about.
On the course at Bread Matters I particularly enjoyed learning about working with sourdough. A way of using a mixture of flour and water that you ferment continuously and use instead of yeast as the raising agent in breads. Again, a slow method of making bread that worked particularly well for Sarah, who for years had been made very uncomfortable by gluten in her diet. I made mostly rye bread, low in gluten anyway. And using sourdough produced loves which we both enjoyed and I enjoyed making.
Still, I never got to be more than a novice bread maker and – poor worker blaming his tools though I may be – the culprit is behind me there in the picture. Our particular domestic oven doesn’t produce the consistent heat levels it says it does. I know this because Andrew had recommended I get an oven thermometer to see when it was ready to put the bread in.
So results were patchy and, frankly, disheartening. And though I’m not saying I’ll never bake again it’s not going to be in that oven.
So have we gone back to eating industrial pap? No we have not. Because now we eat the best breads either of us have ever tasted. Baked locally here in Liverpool, and bought even more locally from just down the road.
But the problem was that matter of ‘if I was passing’. Bread is a daily essential and I believe you need to be able to walk to wherever you get it (Much like in medieval times you’d go round to the local Bakehouse, somewhere with a better bread oven that you’ve got).
So though I walked down to the Bakery to take these pictures, it’s about three miles from where we live and therefore not something I would be doing several times a week. (This is also why Homebaked in Anfield, much as I love them and publicise what they do, could only be a regular supplier to us if we lived in Anfield.)
It was therefore a delight this past April when a Baltic Bakehouse opened on Allerton Road near to us. Something I celebrated briefly in ‘Books and Bread‘.
Ignore those opening times from back then.
Brenda Henley is the mother of the brother and sister team who run Baltic Bakehouse.
“When they were growing up I rarely had time to bake. And anyway we’d get wonderful bread from Chalkin’s on Church Road, just at the top of Penny Lane. And I’d never have guessed it then but all that time Chalkin’s was inspiring them to want to set up their own bakery one day. And after much learning, experimentation, gathering of tools and resources and no help at all from sceptical banks, in March last year they did it. Started Baltic Bakehouse.”
And yes, they might seem expensive compared to say a Wonderloaf. But now you know about the time and the methods and the ingredients and what’s not added, I hope you can see you’re not comparing like with like.
They do make real traditional yeasted loaves too – not Chorleywood of course.
“We don’t bake all of the breads every day, there’s a schedule of what gets baked when on the website.
But one thing we do know is that Mr Fletcher, the last of the bakers at Chalkin’s before it closed down, eats bread from here. He’s retired now, with an allotment. And one of his allotment mates comes in here on his way there and gets his bread from us. So we know Mr Fletcher eats some of our bread even if he’s not aware of it. And we’re very happy about that.”
“This too is a piece of continuity with Chalkin’s as we always loved their Chelsea buns.”
And I suspect this all reads like an advert, especially the later part of this post. Be assured it is not. I gladly pay for everything I get from Baltic Bakehouse because I value it so highly. And I’m writing about them (Just like my Homebaked and Granby friends) because I want everyone to be able to celebrate what they do. Baltic Bakehouse, a Liverpool treasure.
So then I walked home with my bread and made my lunch.
See, at least I still cook my own omelettes!
Credits and links:
Primrose Farm, organic farm and retreats
Bread Matters, books and courses
Baltic Bakehouse, Bridgwater Street, Allerton Road, Lark Lane Farmer’s Market and Bakehouse Kitchen at Fly in the Loaf.
Just to repeat, all retreats, books, courses, bread and even Chelsea Buns paid for!