My two partners and I have written an endless stream of cheques. We have devoted hour upon hour to meetings with estate agents, architects, builders, environmental health officers, oven engineers, millers and even a crafty character who described herself as a 'bread broker'.
We had what seemed like endless late nights projecting figures and drafting a business plan. We went through enough paper to transcribe the Guinness trials. Then, staring at the schedule of works, the costings and the budgets, I was hit by a terrible certainty: I was the farinaceous equivalent of a visitor to a zoo who climbs the fence and tries to hug the polar bear.
It all began with an article extolling a bread recipe from the Acme Bread Co in Berkeley, California. This tantalising article praised the hard crust, the moist crumb, the perfect balance of creamy, wheaten sweetness and fermented acidity of the sourdough loaf.
Arriving at the finished product took some doing. The starter, a wet mix of organic flour fermented by contact with wild yeast from the skin of ripe fruit, replaced conventional baker's yeast. This had to ferment in the airing cupboard for a week, hopefully without crawling into the sheets and towels. When it actually came to baking (another long process), there was only one problem. The recipe did not work. The journalist had transcribed it inaccurately.
Yet struggling with the incomplete instructions led me to the conclusion that the only way to learn to bake sourdough bread is to begin with a faulty recipe. Anyone can make bread with commercial yeast; the stuff could make sawdust rise. Making sourdough, I learnt that bread-making was as unpredictable as the weather. No two flours will absorb the same amount of water, nor produce the same dough. Over-proved sourdough will deflate the minute it is scored and, once baked, become brick-like.
Which is exactly the texture of most 'sourdough' sold in London. So I thought the weighty stuff I was producing was good. Good enough to sell.
Clearly, research was in order. The first point of call was the Acme Bread Co, whose recipe, even mangled, had snared me. To pay for the trip, I turned it into a journalistic assignment. Arrangements were made by a chef friend: Acme's founding baker, Steve Sullivan, had long before foresworn interviews after one too many journalists had asked, 'Is that flour you're using?'
At first glance, Acme was a surprisingly plain business, set in a single- storey, light-industrial building in a modest residential neighbourhood. The smell of baking bread filled the air. Shiny white transit vans fitted with wicker baskets sat in a lot at the back. Inside, the fittings were utilitarian: not a whiff of gourmet goody- shop cutesiness.
The concrete floor was sealed with deck paint. Latin music poured from a radio. Several young bakers worked at large wooden tables that had their backs and sides cleverly edged with a tall lip so flour would not spill. As I watched them sweep the tables with special hand-brooms, I made a mental note never again to try to wipe flour away with a damp cloth.
I asked Mr Sullivan if I could watch the bakers at work. To the rear of the bakery was a huge cast-iron oven, built in Manchester by the Tom Chandley firm at least 20 years ago (for a country that produces a lot of bad bread, Britain makes surprisingly good ovens). In front of it, a young Hispanic man was turning out small sourdough loaves from canvas-lined wicker baskets. He then deftly scored them with a razor.
I had always thought it necessary to rush at this point, having convinced myself that preventing the loaf from collapsing was somehow a matter of speed. By contrast, the young man moved slowly and confidently in time with the music. The loaves did not deflate. I was quite speechless. I asked if I could touch them. They were springy but firm. The resulting bread was delicious and incredibly light.
I decided not to open a bakery. Time passed. Then a friend recommended that the owner of a British sourdough bakery approach me: he had lost his baker. Did I know one? I lunched with the owner, a charming, elegant man who I liked enormously, and with whom I disagreed on every principle of baking. We drank a bottle of wine and decided to open a bakery together.
Having taken pains not to ask Steve Sullivan a stupid question, I wrote to ask him several. His reply was long, considerate and witty, and pointed out that Acme only survived because the owners worked there and did not have to line the pockets of investors. I could not see my potential partner doing any baking and my loaves still had a tendency to deflate.
I looked for a baker partner. I found a young Frenchman from Vannes who came from a long line of bakers. One glance and you could appreciate his suitability for baking: his hands were enormous. He could flip dough that I could scarcely lift.
We baked. His skill was such that one top miller who met him remarked wistfully, 'Why don't we train British bakers correctly?' The rarity of his skill explained why loaves made in Britain, with the sole exception of those sold by a company called Bagatelle, either have sneaky additions of commercial yeast and consequently lack flavour, or are heavy.
An investment banker friend joined our business. I found a potential site, a run-down bakery, but after long and expensive negotiations we discovered the leaseholder had 'half-sold' it to somebody else.
I found a second site, this time in a neighbourhood with 50 per cent unemployment. We looked on the bright side: no problem recruiting staff.
Our ambition swelled. My bread stopped deflating. We were not just going to bake great bread, we were going to attack inner-city blight with expensive organic flour.
Then the calculations came to call. I found myself planning to employ 22 people (at well over Labour's recommended minimum wage), produce and deliver a nightly bake of more than 1,000 loaves. Oh, and there would be a cafe, too, whose profits would keep our bread affordable for all the unemployed locals.
Then, as the reality of the workload became clear, a terrible jealousy arose. It would be the French baker, not me, who would bake the bread. I would be lying to VAT inspectors, tracking down truant trainee bakers and hiding from creditors. As for my own genuine area of expertise, journalism, there would be no time. I would be too busy hugging the polar bear.
Not one friend wept or argued and only a few felt a twinge of sadness when I admitted the balloon had been pricked. The French baker, who I am now determined to help with his own business, seemed relieved. I will be first in the queue at his shop.Reuse content