A baker's life: Lots of rising (early) and not much dough

With 'The Great British Bake Off' inspiring the nation, Susie Mesure visits some artisan breadmakers who are already living the dream

Inside an old lock-up on a former industrial estate in south-east London, three tired-looking bakers are hard at work. It's barely 5am but Nichola Gensler is already inspecting the results of the day's first bake-off. No soggy bottoms here, just tray upon tray of flaky croissants and petit pains au chocolat all browned to St Tropez-worthy perfection.

At the back of the Little Bread Pedlar kitchen, the thud-thud of an industrial dough hook is blending the flour, water and yeast mix known as poolish that will form the basis for the next batch. With a swipe of his blade, Stewart Bowen is cutting and weighing the dough for the next stage, so-called bulk fermentation. "It's quite repetitive. To start with, it's just weighing and weighing," the 28-year-old from Wales says of his chosen profession.

We couldn't be further from the bunting-strewn marquee image of baking that has gripped the UK these past 10 weeks, and will have nearly six million tuning in to catch The Great British Bake Off final on Tuesday evening. This, in gritty Bermondsey, is baking at the coalface, where the nights are short and the hours long. "Very, very long" and, to start with at least, "very underpaid," Bowen adds.

Yet for all those GBBO fans, Gensler and her business partner Martin Hardiman are living the dream. Years of graft have resulted in their fledgling wholesale bakery business, which has grown apace since winning a vital contract to supply pastries and brownies to the doyenne of London's independent coffee scene, Monmouth.

Not that there's much glamour in it. The pair have worked seven days a week, every week, for the past 12 months, with the exception of a brief spell when they "only" worked the six days. Yesterday, Saturday, despite being one of their busiest and that 3am start, is one of the "easier" ones because they shut up shop when their laden trays of glistening Danishes and chocolate brioches have sold out.

Inside the kitchen, talk quickly turns to that final, which will for the first time pit three men against each other: imaginative medical student James; dramatic law student John; and calculating Brendan, the wily operator who's done it all before.

Nichola is rooting for James, but her colleague Morwenna is backing Brendan. "James is experimental but he needs to crack out some really difficult patisserie work," Morwenna thinks.

Whatever happens on Tuesday night, the ultimate winner could well be the Great British Public because the surprise BBC2 hit – last week's semi-final pulled in more viewers than Holby City on BBC1 – has made baking cool. So cool that even the Radio 1 DJ Nick Grimshaw, the nation's new arbiter of hip, tweets incessantly about the show. A scheduling clash with the England-Poland World Cup qualifier will leave millions of men genuinely torn between the two. And countless more will be dreaming of jacking in their jobs and starting that bakery.

Edd Kimber, who won the GBBO two years ago and last month started his own market stall Eddibles in Maltby Street market in London, says he gets bombarded with emails from people keen to get baking for a living. "People are thinking about changing careers to do something that makes them happier."

The School of Artisan Food in Nottinghamshire, which was set up three years ago to address a skill shortage, is adding more baking courses all the time. "Some people are just looking for an experience because they've been inspired by shows like GBBO. Others are using it as a platform to open their own bakery," the school's director, Joe Piliero, says, pointing to Sheffield's new Seven Hills Bakery, or London's E5 Bakehouse. "The majority on our full-time courses are career-changers," he adds.

New bakeries are springing up all over the UK. Many start out as micro bakeries – a group of friends, perhaps, baking from their own kitchens for other friends. Holtwhites, run by Richard Copsey and his wife Kate Smith, trod this path before opening their first shop in Enfield, north London. In Swaithwaite, West Yorkshire, Dan and Johanna McTiernan now sells loaves like Yorkshire Leaven, and Sleepless White, so called because it ferments overnight while the bakers sleep, from the Handmade Bakery, while Allendale Bakery offers bread-making courses from its base in Hexham, Northumberland.

It's hard to guess the number of new bakeries, but the Real Bread Campaign, which does what it says on the tin (to paraphrase the old Ronseal ad), reckons around a fifth of those buying its Knead to Know guide to setting up a community bakery actually do so. Chris Young, who is Mr Real Bread, says he sees demand from two places: "People who are sick of industrialised loaves, and people who are sick of not having their own bakery."

Many get going using equipment they've bought from the online store Bakery Bits, which is seeing sales increase by at least 50 per cent a year. Granite baking stones, dough shoveling "peels" and ceramic baking pots known as cloches, which create the necessary steamy environment to bake a crusty loaf, are among the best sellers.

Back in Bermondsey, I can't help notice the irony of Gensler's latest batch of spelt soda loaves being baked in vintage Hovis tins. They couldn't be further from their mass-produced antecedents. Having perfected croissants – "the secret is 27 layers and French butter" – and Danishes – "we didn't do Danishes for ages, because my image of them is, well, yeah," she smiles – the baker is keen to expand her bread line.

But for anyone wishing to join the Little Bread Pedlar (and they are recruiting) be warned: baking for a living is no easy life. And they are picky employers. Gensler says: "We've stopped taking anyone from a cookery school. They have an image in their head of what baking is like, and they come to us to see what they can learn, like it's a nice experience for them. I can't use that."

The finalists

As the show reaches the climax of its third series, its appeal has been more slow burn than speedy bake but it's nevertheless cult viewing for the nearly six million who hang on every one of co-judge Paul Hollywood's "soggy bottoms". The baking expert turned unlikely stud muffin has women all a-quiver for his unwitting culinary innuendos, despite his bad shirts and that gel-spiked grey hair and goatee combo. Allegedly.

The programme has put 10 amateur bakers through their paces via endless vats of crème patissière, plaited loaves and meringues, in its quest to find Britain's Greatest Baker. Mary Berry, Hollywood's judging partner has an equally loyal following. Retailers now hail her power to shift stock, most notably a floral bomber jacket from Zara.

At 77, to Hollywood's 46, Berry flies an unusual flag for older female broadcasters. In fact, what with Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, both in their 40s, also pitching in as presenters, and that all-male final, the GBBO breaks the mould.

Fans left distraught after Tuesday's final can console themselves with two coming specials: for Christmas and Comic Relief.

John Whaite

The 23-year-old from Manchester will never forget withdrawing from the strudel round after slicing off the top of his finger. And neither will viewers. The former law student likes to distract Mary Berry with his ever-plunging neckline and shorts.

James Morton

He's as famous for rocking his Fair Isle knits as he is for his rock cakes and has been my tip for top baker from week one. Highlight was how the flamboyant 21-year-old rescued his gingerbread barn, by declaring it "derelict" and winning star baker in the process.

Brendan Lynch

At 63, he's done it all before, and he doesn't half like you to know that. Undoubtedly the most competent baker, he struggles against the simple truth: Paul and Mary just don't seem to like him. Probably deserves to win, but I'd bet good money he doesn't.

Alan Bennett has criticised the “repellent” reality shows which dominate our screens
tvBut he does like Stewart Lee
Life and Style
The Google Doodle celebrating the start of the first day of autumn, 2014.
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Ed Stoppard as her manager Brian Epstein
tvCilla Episode 2 review: Grit under the glamour in part two of biopic series starring Sheridan Smith
David Moyes and Louis van Gaal
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Life and Style
Vote with your wallet: the app can help shoppers feel more informed about items on sale
lifeNew app reveals political leanings of food companies
Former Governor of Alaska Sarah Palin, left, with her daughter, Bristol
newsShe's 'proud' of eldest daughter, who 'punched host in the face'
New Zealand fly-half Aaron Cruden pictured in The Zookeeper's Son on a late-night drinking session
Arts and Entertainment
Salmond told a Scottish television chat show in 2001that he would also sit in front of a mirror and say things like,
tvCelebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Life and Style
Carol O'Brien, whose son Rob suffered many years of depression
healthOne mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
Arts and Entertainment
The cover of Dark Side of the Moon
musicCan 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition? See for yourself
Life and Style
food + drink
Rob Merrick's Lobby Journalists were playing Ed Balls' Labour Party MPs. The match is an annual event which takes place ahead of the opening of the party conference
newsRob Merrick insistes 'Ed will be hurting much more than me'
A cabin crew member photographed the devastation after one flight
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
voicesMaybe the new app will make it more normal to reach out to strangers
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    Affiliate Marketing Manager / Affiliate Manager

    £50 - 60k (DOE): Guru Careers: An Affiliate Marketing Manager / Affiliate Mana...

    IT Administrator - Graduate

    £18000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: ***EXCELLENT OPPORTUNITY FO...

    USA/Florida Travel Consultants £30-50k OTE Essex

    Basic of £18,000 + commission, realistic OTE of £30-£50k : Ocean Holidays: Le...

    Marketing Executive / Member Services Exec

    £20 - 26k + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Marketing Executive / Member Services Ex...

    Day In a Page

    Secret politics of the weekly shop

    The politics of the weekly shop

    New app reveals political leanings of food companies
    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
    Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

    Beware Wet Paint

    The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
    Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

    Apple still the coolest brand

    Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits