There is something romantic about artisan crafts tucked away in strange places: cheeses maturing in caves, fine vintage wines gathering dust in chateau cellars and, in much greater number than I expected, shops and bakeries.
If visible to the public at all, it is often a small retail frontage with tightly packed wares, while the main workings of the bakery are further inside the hefty structures that hold up the railway lines, trains and passengers.
Bakeries in the Big City
Nick May of the Slow Bread Company in London apologised for shattering my romantic illusions. He and his wife set up their family business after years of baking naturally leavened bread for family and friends.
They needed an affordable location with three phase power for the ovens that was close to the pubs and restaurants they supply, rather than a distant industrial estate.
Rents are reasonable and train noise is not a problem. Nick says you can use the tube trains like a clock: they start at 5.20am every day. But temperature control is something you must live with: proving your bread is quicker in summer than in winter.
The e5 Bakehouse, also in London, has a shop next door to the bakery, which is in “a spruced up railway arch beneath London Fields Station”.
A video on the website shows the arched ceiling above the bakery and shop. They say the location offer big spaces good for transport links, and in 2015 they took on their third arch to house a stone mill.
Bakeries in the Second City
Peel and Stone in Birmingham is known to the public mainly for its little sandwich shop at the front of the arch, which was listed as one of Britain’s 30 best places for brunch in the Daily Telegraph in May.
I’ve been popping in here for a year or so now for imaginative sandwiches and salads, or something hot if preferred. However, their main output is selling bread wholesale to pubs, bars and restaurants.
Peel and Stone evolved from the Soul Food Project: initially a small catering operation, providing food for an inner-city pub that was influenced by the cooking styles of the southern states of America: jambalaya, gumbo, and other things in that song by The Carpenters. Later the Soul Food Project took on its own pub – The Church in the Jewellery Quarter. The Church ran for a year selling the same style of food before the Project expanded by opening the Peel and Stone Bakery in Arch 33 on Water Street – a small Peel and Stone café and shop has opened recently in Harborne.
When I was allowed behind the shop inside Arch 33, it reminded me of an aircraft carrier. There are no windows – the bakery has a false ceiling and installed ventilation. The arch is high and wide because overhead is Snowhill station with its rail and tram lines. The space is rented from Network Rail and, important for a small growing business, reasonably priced.
Temperatures are moderated a little by the ovens, but away from them it is hot in summer and in winter it is cold. The day staff are in at 6.30am, and the night staff leave around 4.00am.
The bakeries I spoke with do like their curvaceous locations and, if railway arches seem a little eccentric to some … well, maybe just one or two of the bakers are too.
The interview I recorded with Dave Finn as part of the research for this article will be broadcast on Sunday 9th July around 9.15am on WCR FM (www.wcrfm.com). Next week I’ll try to put a copy here if you miss the broadcast … though the whole show will be available on Listen Again on the WCR FM website for a few weeks.
Join the Real Bread Campaign
A shorter version of this article was published in the July – September issue of True Loaf, the magazine published by the Real Bread Campaign. There you can read all about Real Bread, find how to celebrate Sourdough September … and, if you’re not sure, find out what real sourdough is and why you probably can’t buy it in many if any supermarkets.