Feeling kneady: The rise of artisan baking

When even the man running the country can make time to froth his leaven and get baking, it's becoming clear that Britons' expectations of the once-humble loaf are on the rise

He may have surprised the nation by unmasking himself as a secret baker but it seems that David Cameron is far from alone. Kitchens across the country are being turned into mini bakeries as Britain gets a taste for artisan bread.

Record numbers are, like the food writer Rose Prince, enrolling on baking courses with an eye to starting their own business. Many, including Kate Smith, a social researcher-turned-baker, open their own high street bakeries, often replacing those forced out of business by supermarkets.

Yet the baking revival is no mere micro revolution: big retailers such as Tesco, Lidl and Marks & Spencer are overhauling in-store bakeries to drive sales of speciality loaves. And industrial beasts from Hovis to Warburtons, after years of sliding sales in the wake of the fad for Atkins-style low-carb diets, are giving their bread a makeover.

Chris Brockman, who analyses the sector for the research group Mintel, will tell the British Society of Baking's annual conference this week that four out of 10 consumers would buy more bread if they believed in its health benefits. He tipped "stealth health", which spans gluten-free and high-protein loaves to bread made with grains such as spelt, millet and quinoa, as the next big trend.

"In-store bakeries are getting a lot more sophisticated," he added. Mintel figures show that in-store bakery purchases, which account for 15 per cent of total bread sales, rose by 6.5 per cent in the past 12 months.

Chris Young, who runs the Real Bread Campaign, called the supermarkets' push "flattering but annoying, because it is blurring the lines between loaves that just look rustic" and actual artisan bread, which is handmade. "Plus, they can undercut small bakers," he added.

Government data shows that around 20,000 people are working in the industry but it is unclear how many artisan bakeries have recently opened. Mr Young says the Real Bread Campaign has around 2,000 members. "We've seen dozens of bakeries adding their loaves to our virtual map but that's by no means comprehensive."

Jane Mason, of west London's Virtuous Bread, said interest in her three-day "Bread Angel" courses was "strong and growing". The 150-odd Bread Angels whom she has trained found selling their loaves "the easiest thing they've ever done".

Lucie Steel, 47, from Hermitage, Berkshire, is one such graduate. She progressed from baking in her kitchen to kitting out a shipping container ,where she bakes three days a week as Birch Cottage Bread. Supplying local cafés, a pub and several markets, she also runs her own baking classes. "It's my sole source of income. I make a reasonable amount of money," she added.

In east London, Kate Smith said she hadn't looked back since opening Holtwhites Bakery with her husband two years ago. "It's exhausting but very rewarding. Sales in the shop have trumped any predictions and now we are growing the wholesale side, too." They also started out in their kitchen, producing 200 loaves a week before realising they could make it as professional bakers.

A cookery book by Rose Prince out next month details the growth of The Pocket Bakery, which she set up, again out of her kitchen, three years ago. Initially intended for her children to earn pocket money, it now supplies Fortnum & Mason and has given her 18-year-old son Jack a vocation.

Artisan revival aside, cheap sliced-bread sales still dominate the £3.7bn market. And food writer Signe Johansen warned it would take time for more wholesome tastes to become mainstream. "Until a variety of breads become available – and the bakers who have the skills to bake them, a chronic shortage of which unfortunately exists in the UK – then I'm afraid people will tend to buy whatever's at their supermarket."

You're charging how much? For bread?!

As I write this, my mixer is whirring, two different doughs are rising in tubs and another couple are shaped and proving in their baskets. On the side, about a gallon of leaven is frothing and bubbling away for the next mix.

I'm getting ready for my very first street market: I'll be taking my wares to Deptford market in south-east London and trying to persuade complete strangers to part with their hard-earned cash (£4) in exchange for one of my – if I say so myself – ever-so-delicious sourdough loaves.

I can hear some of the punters' responses already: you're charging how much? For bread?! I'll admit I had a smidgen of sympathy with the PM, when he had to admit he didn't know the price of a loaf; it was akin to asking him the length of a piece of string – are we talking supermarket sliced white here or a hand-crafted Poilâne miche?

Mixing, shaping and baking 50, 60 or 70 loaves is hard physical labour, even with a mixer to take some of the strain. My back is starting to protest at hefting 25kg sacks of flour round the kitchen. So why have I given up salaried employment to do it?

Two reasons, really. Having spent 20-odd years staring at a computer screen and working as part of a team, it's invigorating to do something for myself, by myself. If my loaves don't rise, or I can't sell them, there's no one else I can blame but me.

But more than that, the alchemy of flour, water and salt has an earthy, elemental magic that appeals to the digital refusenik in me. It's just not the sort of thing a computer could do.

Can I make this business work? I'll have a better idea tomorrow. But at the very least it is, forgive the pun, a whole new way to make a crust.

Adam Newey runs the Hill Bakery in south-east London. (And he sold out of bread by lunchtime...)

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