Food: All rise with Velvet's Lisa Millard
Bread is a staple food but can be a thing of wonder. Fortunately for us our region is blessed with some excellent artisan bakers. Lisa Millard breaks bread with three of the best
Grain Culture, Ely
Luca Fiorio is passionate about bread. A chef and the baker behind Grain Culture, Luca has grown a reputation for making bread well worth eating. Working as a chef in northern Italy and then London in Michelin-starred restaurants, Luca was always keen to get his hands on the pastry section of the kitchen. His appetite for baking finally got the better of him and he turned his back on restaurants to focus on creating beautiful bread – Grain Culture came to fruition in November last year.
“I grew tired of the restaurant kitchen, it just bored me and I found it a bit unimaginative. At the same time I felt the need to specialise in something and bread was the natural route for me to take. It has always been a passion since I’ve started my career in kitchens – I remember really enjoying making it for dinner service when no-one else wanted to. I just wanted to focus on one product and on making it the best,” says Luca, who now lives in Ely with his young family.
The best is what Grain Culture is. Using only organic and ethically-sourced ingredients and taking no time-saving short cuts, Luca brings immense knowledge and a deep respect for food to his bread making.Starting out selling at Ely Farmers’ Market, Luca’s bread was an instant hit, attracting legions of customers who snapped up as many loaves as he could make, and still do. Quickly outgrowing his first kitchen, Luca moved to a larger unit to turn his talents to upscaling production without compromising quality or ethos. It’s all gone so well that last month saw the opening of the Bake Shop on St Mary’s Street, a permanent home for Grain Culture. Currently open every Saturday, Luca has plans for the autumn. “I want to open Bake Shop three days a week so Ely can get their bread fix more regularly. People have been asking for this, so it needs to be my priority.”
“Ely farmers’ market has been incredibly welcoming and we will still sell there. I really enjoy talking to the people buying from me – it feels like we are putting bread back at the centre of the community like it used to be,” says Luca. “I love that bread is a staple. Every table should have good bread on it and people are coming to realise that – it’s more of a feature than filler now. I love its simplicity; it’s just three ingredients, but that said, there are so many variables affecting it. Every day is different.”
Baking days mean an early start for Luca. “I get up at 2am and head out to my rural unit just outside Ely. When I arrive, the ovens are on and I load the first loaves and have a cuppa then start scaling baguettes, its non-stop. At around 6am (halfway through the bake), I start to put the mix on for the following day’s bread and then load the deliveries for wholesale. We pre-ferment a large percentage of our dough and it is all cold proved for a minimum of 12 hours before baking. It’s important to us that our bread is baked through the night, so is delivered fresh, still warm.”
There is no rushing a proper loaf. “Good bread takes time – we bake around 500 loaves a week and that doesn’t include pastries and buns. Even on days off I’m at the unit refreshing the leaven – without shortcuts it’s a non-stop operation.” While Luca turns his hand to making a wide range of breads – table loaves, multiseeds, buttermilk with rye, spelt and seeds, fermented oats, all things focaccia, pastries, croissant and naturally-leavened white tin – he has a firm favourite: “If I have to pick one it has to be the Fruit and Treacle. It’s just so versatile, I like it fresh with a really good cheese or toasted with thick slices of butter and loads of Vegemite.”
While Luca’s own family were not bakers, food has always played an important part in their life. “I lived above my dad’s patisserie until I was six and both my dad and my uncle had restaurants and I was always involved in one way or another.” Bread – really good bread – requires attention to detail and takes a lot of looking after. “There is just never enough time in the day, that’s the main challenge, even when you get up at 2am. The flour is never the same and also the external elements, the weather, humidity, they all affect the bake and sometimes trying to control those elements in the time you have is tricky.” But Luca wouldn’t have it any other way. “I love being awake when everyone else is sleeping, but really, it makes me happy. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for such a long time.”
Grain Culture bread can be bought every Saturday at Bake Shop, St Mary’s Street, Ely (get there early as it is always a sell out) and Ely Farmers’ Market every second and fourth Saturday of the month. On Tuesdays and Fridays at Provenance Brix and Mortar, Whittlesford, Cambridge, and Fridays at the pop-up Meadows (31 Eltisley Avenue), Newnham, Cambridge. Follow@grainculturehq
Wooster’s Bakery, Bury St Edmunds
When Simon Wooster started his bakery in 1992 it was a big hit – he was making quirky and unusual breads before ‘artisan’ enjoyed a renaissance. But the unsociable hours and the arrival of baby sons Joe and Will forced Simon to hang up his baking apron just a few years later. Fast forward to 2015 and grown-up Will, who ran a kitchen in south Norfolk, decided to reopen the dormant bakery. “It was my nothing-to-lose mentality if truth be told. I didn't really think much about it. Just jumped right in. Now here we are,” says Will, who learned his trade from his father and “honing skills through practice - read blood, sweat and tears”.
Making traditional artisanal breads and cakes, Wooster’s was awarded Best Newcomer at the Suffolk Food & Drink Awards in 2017 and Will’s breads and cakes continue to attract acclaim and customers. “Our recipes are unique to us and you won’t find bread like it anywhere else. I love the process. Taking inane ingredients, adding life (yeast or a natural levain) and pulling something truly beautiful out of the oven. The feeling of creating that perfectly proved, dark-baked, light, complexly-flavoured loaf never loses its appeal.”
That said, Will is no stranger to the hard graft that accompanies his craft. “I always laugh when people who bake at home say that baking is therapeutic or it de-stresses them. Baking is hot, stressful and often heavy work – if it's not, you're not doing it right! It's not for the faint-hearted. I admire every baker for doing what we do. I usually get up around 1am during the week to travel from my house to our bakery on a farm near Knettishal Heath and can sometimes be found starting a Saturday bake on Friday afternoon – hours necessary to push out about 2000 plus loaves a week through our [comparatively] small deck oven. Even though it can bake between 40 and 160 loaves at a time, it's our current bottleneck – an ever-shifting pinch point in the process somewhere along the production line as we rapidly expand. Added to this is all the unseen management and over-seeing of production and the business dealings. A one hundred hour week is not unusual.”
Wooster’s also runs hugely popular baking courses (Will says success is down to the patience and huge knowledge of dad Simon who teaches them). In fact it’s all going so well – Wooster’s bread is served at the Leaping Hare, All Saints Hotel in Fornham, Gastrono-me in Bury St Emunds and The Wigmore in London (owned by Michel Roux Jr) among others – the current Bardwell Windmill shop, run by brother Joe, is being joined any minute now by a brand new shop in Bury St Edmunds, on Hatter’s Street.
While challenges are present, “making sure we're producing the absolute best product we can every single day – the bread's good today, how can it be better? And with that, also reigning myself in from trying to make too many changes. It's got to be a steady process with development: a per cent of water here, a hundred grams of flour there, and then, oh, it's summer and it's now 40 degrees in the bakery…”, Will loves it all and the bakery’s malt loaf is famous across Suffolk. “The malt loaf is amazing and a lot of people love it. But I love anything sourdough – the challenge of process, the nuance of flavour. Burnt to a crisp, full of holes, and depth and tang in equal measure. My preference. Plus anything sweet and laminated with loads of Fen Farm Dairy butter. Oh...and I'd put our traditional white yeasted loaves against anyone's.”
Wooster’s bread can be bought at the Bardwell Windmill shop, Bardwell (Wednesday to Saturday), and the new bakery at 8 Langton Place, Hatter Street, Bury St Edmunds (Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday). Also: Hadleigh market on Fridays; Wyken Leaping Hare Farmers' Market on Saturdays; Bury St Edmunds Farmers' Market every second Sunday of the month; Aldercarr Farm Shop every Wednesday and Saturday. Follow @woostersbakery and see woostersbakery.co.uk
Bread on a Bike, Cambridge
Baking bread for a living was not originally part of Alison McTaggert’s life plan. “I didn't intend to start a bakery and I never launched the business as such, it just crept up on me. Suddenly there I was making and baking bread every morning and cycling around Cambridge in the afternoon delivering to more and more customers.” A redundancy in 2013 gave Alison time to explore interests and a sourdough bread-making course led by one of her food heroes at the time, Andrew Whitley (Bread Matters and one of the founders of the Real Bread Campaign), marked the start of something new for Alison, who worked as a researcher in nutrition. Curious to learn more about the alchemy of bread making, a visit to the acclaimed e5 Bakehouse in Hackney, London and founder Ben MacKinnon resulted in Alison enjoying a Saturday job there for the next 18 months. “I loved the experience,” says Alison, who still makes her breads at home – she thinks Cambridge can be a very hard city for independent businesses as properties are in short supply and rents very high. “I also spent six weeks at the Handmade Bakery, a community- supported bakery near Huddersfield. Working as part of a team of bakers producing hundreds of loaves of bread was hard work over long hours but immensely rewarding and I absolutely loved the environment.”
Taking loaves to work at the request of colleagues and friends, demand for Alison’s hand-made, slowly fermented loaves was on the rise and, delivering on her bicycle, Breadonabike was born. Alison receives orders by email and bakes up to 100 loaves a day in her small stone deck oven to supply (by bicycle) to wholesale and retail customers, who collect from her off-Mill-Road home. Alison made her own yeasted bread for years but when she discovered sourdough there was no turning back. A passion for nutrition is also an important ingredient in her bakes: “A lot of bread sold now is made in large factories with the addition of far more than the three basic ingredients, including additives and improvers that don't even have to be declared on the label. The emphasis is on production of cheap bread (and not only bread) ahead of nutritional value and impact on public health. My focus is on making delicious, nutritious bread using organic ingredients, with a focus on wholegrains, as that is what I want to feed myself and my family and want it to be available to others.”
While she bakes a wide range of breads, Alison has a soft spot for a staple. “My everyday bread is definitely a wholemeal loaf and another favourite is my roast potato, cumin and chilli loaf which is great with food but can equally well be eaten on its own – I have been known to consume most of a loaf in one sitting.”
Baking and being part of the bread community in Cambridge and beyond brings Alison great pleasure. “I can't help but think that bread is amazing. Wheat grains are transformed into flour by grinding, mixed with water and a tiny bit of salt, allowed to ferment and baked and from something indigestible you get a product that sustained generations of people.
“A simple loaf of bread can bring a lot of pleasure and I love people's response to it, they might tear a piece off the loaf and eat it as soon as I hand it to them. I love children coming with their parents, seeing how bread is made, getting excited about bread and loving to eat it. The wonderful, evolving, sometimes transient community of people I meet is a major and unanticipated benefit. I have made some lovely friendships and meet such interesting folk from all over the world.”
To buy Alison’s bread email firstname.lastname@example.org to be added to the mailing list. Alison sends out an email to subscribers at the beginning of the week with the breads available and options change weekly. Follow @breadonabike