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.

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
David Moyes gets soaked
sport Moyes becomes latest manager to take part in the ALS challenge
Life and Style
techCould new invention save millions in healthcare bills?
A meteor streaks across the sky during the Perseid Meteor Shower at a wind farm near Bogdanci, south of Skopje, Macedonia, in the early hours of 13 August
voicesHagel and Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise, says Robert Fisk
peopleEnglishman managed quintessential Hollywood restaurant Chasen's
Life and Style
food + drinkHarrods launches gourmet food qualification for staff
Arts and Entertainment
Michael Flatley prepares to bid farewell to the West End stage
danceMichael Flatley hits West End for last time alongside Team GB World champion Alice Upcott
Members and supporters of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community walk with a rainbow flag during a rally in July
Life and Style
Black Ivory Coffee is made using beans plucked from elephants' waste after ingested by the animals
food + drinkFirm says it has created the "rarest" coffee in the world
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T plays live in 2007 before going on hiatus from 2010
arts + entsSinger-songwriter will perform on the Festival Republic Stage
Life and Style
food + drinkThese simple recipes will have you refreshed within minutes
Jermain Defoe got loads of custard
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

    Oracle 11g SQL 2008 DBA (Unix, Oracle RAC, Mirroring, Replicati

    £6000 - £50000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: Oracle 11...

    Recruitment Consultant (Graduate Trainee), Finchley Central

    £17K OTE £30K: Charter Selection: Highly successful and innovative specialist...

    SQL DBA/ C# Developer - T-SQL, C#.Net

    £45000 - £55000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Working with an exciting ...

    Sales and Office Administrator – Sports Media

    £23,000: Sauce Recruitment: A global leader in sports and entertainment is now...

    Day In a Page

    All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
    Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

    Radio 1’s new top ten

    The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    The Everton and US goalkeeper was such a star at the World Cup that the President phoned to congratulate him... not that he knows what the fuss is all about
    Match of the Day at 50: Show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition

    Tom Peck on Match of the Day at 50

    The show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition
    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
    Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

    Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

    A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
    Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

    Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

    Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
    Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

    Nick Clegg the movie

    Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
    Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

    Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

    Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

    Waxing lyrical

    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
    Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

    Revealed (to the minute)

    The precise time when impressionism was born