When I started making Our Daily Bread, a couple of years ago now, I had thought of using the blues as a metaphor for baking – bread has three essential ingredients (flour, water, salt – and the natural yeasts found in the flour if you’re making a sourdough) just as the blues uses three chords.
Yet these three simple essentials yield up the most astonishing variety – and in the hands of a master the most basic of things become magical. And, just like the blues, with bread there’s nowhere to hide if you don’t get it. You can’t duck behind fancy ingredients with bread any more than you have the luxury of hiding your lack of talent as a guitarist behind a blizzard of notes; BB King can say more with two than Steve Vai can with 200.
So it was great to hear Liz Weisberg saying pretty much the self same thing when I asked her about why she endures 16 hour days to turn out great bread.
Together with Rachel Duffield she transplanted the Lighthouse Bakery from an area of London that earned the nickname Nappy Valley (the Northcote Road between Wandsworth and Clapham Commons) to the High Weald.
I’m constantly astonished at what bakers put themselves through. They get up before the crack of dawn or, often as not, work right through the night, to make something that most of us take for granted.
Yet, despite their customers all too often not giving what they eat a second thought, a growing number of bakers really care about the bread they turn out. Both Liz and Rachel were good to their promise not to use the word passionate. I didn’t sense ‘passion’. I detected a mix of quiet pride, determination and a refusal to be outwitted by whims and moods of a lump of dough that wouldn’t surprise the parents of an average teenager.
Their next step may be to open a new shop. Liz and Rachel had one on the Northcote Road and I sense they miss the direct contact with their customers. It’s certainly nice to hear how much people appreciate what you do.
They also offer baking courses. They were kind enough to invite me to go on one and when I take them up on that I’ll post about it here. For those of you who don’t live in the South East you might try Loaf-Online in the West Midlands or those run by Andrew Whitley and Bread Matters in the Scottish Borders.
And if you’re looking for a Christmas present for someone sending them on a baking course might be a perfect balance of kindness and selfishness; after all you might end up being treated to great home baked bread.
Lastly I should mention that when I went to visit Rachel and Liz today we had a misunderstanding that made me laugh. I’d rung a few days ago to arrange going over and I asked what time I should pop in. They explained they worked through until the morning and suggested I pop round at between four and five O’Clock.
“Great,” I said. “I’ll drop round about half four and then I can go off for a pint afterwards at the Salehurst Halt.” The Salehurst Halt is my favourite pub and serves Dark Star beers.
But when I rang this morning at about a quarter to ten just to check it was still convenient they said “We we’re expecting you this morning.”
“I thought we said four,” I replied.
“Yes,” came the answer, “four a.m.”
I know journalists have a reputation for boozing but really…. (though I did once or twice pop out for an early morning pint at Smithfield after finishing an overnight shift with the World Service at Bush House).
So there you are; bakers really do live by a different clock. Spare them a thought next time you enjoy a really good loaf. It hasn’t gotten so good the easy way.