Saturday, 30 March 2013

THE LIFE & TIMES OF SHREWSBURY'S INDOOR MARKET, as seen by Janet & Peter Heighway


'We have traded in Shrewsbury Market for forty-three years. We have always found it to be a very friendly environment, both for traders and customers. There is probably a publicly held impression of what a market trader is, as well as categorizing the sort of person that uses markets for their shopping. Whatever that is, Shrewsbury doesn’t comply. Over the years, our experience has been that traders are helpful and knowledgeable. We have made some good friends amongst them. In addition, we’ve  felt very privileged to have developed such a loyal and appreciative collection of regular customers.  They are mainly of one mind – namely to get a quality product at a fair price.  They also like to know that the source of the product is reliable, that is has no unnecessary packaging and involves the minimum number of food miles. There is no stereotype of people with these principles. In fact, it has become increasingly apparent to us over the years what a wide diversity of people come to shop in Shrewsbury Market.

Our Beginnings

'We spent our early married years in the Borough of Harrow, North London. We enjoyed our small garden and grew our own fruit and vegetables, developing a keen interest in acquiring more knowledge. For a few years we attended courses in horticulture and both passed the RHS examination. We also joined the local Horticultural Society, and soon Peter was urged to be on the committee, helping to arrange lectures by specialists and to organize four produce shows a year. We even entered classes ourselves – and won some, much to our surprise and the dismay of some of the old-stagers!

'After five years of living and working in London, we had an urge to move to a more rural setting, nearer to Peter’s roots and to his recently widowed mother. It was very exciting, although the realization of what we had taken on was quite challenging.  We both had ‘proper jobs’, but in our spare time we tried to develop our newly acquired house and land, both of which were in a parlous state and required a lot of reclamation and reconstruction.

'To our delight, we had inherited a large number of fruit trees, mostly old ones, but we had no idea what some of the varieties were. We arranged a visit from an adviser of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries & Food [as it then was], and he managed to identify most of them.  In addition to the apples and pears we had about a dozen damson trees that were very productive in those early years, and we were determined to pick as many as we could reach.  We ended up with boxes of them, but we found that nearly everyone in the locality had similar quantities and we didn’t know what to do with them.  As Peter’s work was in Birmingham, he decided to go in early taking the damsons, and he then toured the greengrocers’ shops in Harborne and Selly Oak.  Although at first there was a show of disinterest, it was obvious that they were desperate to have them, but they wanted to give the impression of ‘doing us a favour’.  The price we got for a 12lb box was four shillings [twenty pence in today’s currency], equivalent to less than 2p per pound, which didn’t reward us for all the picking, but it was better than allowing them to go to waste.

Within a year or so, we planted a lot more fruit trees, including plums, together with lots of gooseberry bushes and raspberries.  Many of the original trees have either died or blown down, as we have had some terrific gales.  On one occasion we returned home to find that a huge twenty-five foot damson tree had been lifted over the hedge without touching it, landing in the neighbouring field.  We have continued to replace trees, but at our time of life it’s not worth investing in more new ones.

Our Introduction to the Market

'In September 1970, we thought we would try taking fruit to market.  Peter’s mother was still living at the family home in Madeley, so Shrewsbury seemed the obvious place to go, particularly as Peter had memories of visiting the market as a child. In those days the market was really thriving and every stall was rented out for at least part of the day, but we managed to hire one yard of bench for a Wednesday afternoon, after the previous occupant had gone home.  We found this so satisfying that we continued doing it more regularly, but it was only possible to take the occasional day’s leave from work.  Then after a while we were allocated a permanent place on a Saturday with two yards of bench, so we started coming weekly, and have continued ever since.

'There will be many of our customers and fellow traders who remember the way the market was organized in those days. The man that collected the tolls and kept everyone in order was Bill Cooper – a very amiable gentleman with lots of experience, and he seemed to be quite fair and rigorous.  Everyone remembers how the market benches were arranged prior to the year 2003.  In the Pannier Market, there were rows and rows of benches, each marked in yards along its length so that every stallholder knew the boundaries of their pitch.  For many years we had two yards in the middle of a bench, and next to us on the one end was Mrs Morris who occupied one yard with her pannier in which she brought fruit, vegetables and flowers from her cottage garden.  On the other end of the bench was Mrs Duddleston with her eggs.

'Between the rows of benches was a very sturdy rail, which stallholders could lean against, obviously back to back with the people on the bench behind – so, being in such proximity, you soon got to know each other. Behind our neighbour Mrs Morris there was Mrs Morgan, also with a single yard for her pannier.  Both of them left during the morning to catch their respective country buss back home, and at different times Peter was called upon to carry their baskets to the bus station on Barker Street.  This was not too inconvenient for us because our stall was not as busy as it often is these days.  Also backing onto us were Mr and Mrs Griffiths from Ford with a selection of items from their extensive garden, and they too became good friends.

'In those days, the Saturday market was exclusively produce [including flowers and plants], plus poultry and eggs – except for the four corners, which had other people such as Midda’s clothes, Dave with his carpets and Angela Butler with cakes and biscuits.  The competition from all the large stalls with fruit and vegetables must have been immense, but everyone seemed busy as there were more customers then, before the supermarkets started to draw them away.

Becoming More Established

'Eventually Mrs Morris and Mrs Duddleston gave up due to age and infirmity, so we were able to expand from two yards to four.  We kept in touch with Mrs Morris and joined her to celebrate her 90th birthday in June 1992, but sadly she died the following year and we went to her funeral at Alberbury Church in December 1993.

'Across the aisle from us we had Mr and Mrs Crowther from Nesscliffe and, some years later when they finished, we also took over their few yards of bench.  This was particularly useful because by that time we were selling small bay trees, of which we had over a thousand, as well as a variety of other pots of herbs that we grew both from seed and cuttings.  These proved very popular, but eventually we decided to scale it down rather than compete with other plant stalls, for whom it was their main occupation.

'That part of our bench backed on to paul and Roger Amess from Hemford, with whom we have always had a very happy association.  In the other direction, close to us was Ken Walters from Ford, who will be remembered by many who are trading today.  A characteristic of his still was that he usually had one or more of his many children helping out, and we were privileged to be invited to the wedding ceremonies of some of them.  His poultry and vegetables were much sought after, and he always seemed to be busy. Sadly he died soon after giving up the market and we attended his funeral in January 2008.

'There were many unique individuals in the market – as perhaps there always will be – and there are too many to mention, even if we could remember them all.  We do clearly recall the legendary Nora Lee because she happened to be near us, and she had a fairly large stall consisting mainly of produce she had bought in from a variety of suppliers. Her stall was somewhat untidy, and she never appeared to be unduly busy, so she could often be seen trimming vegetables and fruit that were past their best, to make them look more appetizing.

'In the permanent stall near us, now devoted to Gluten Free Living, we have had a variety of tenants.  But for very many years it was the Pet Stall run by Gwen Parkes, and following her sudden death it was continued by her daughter, Annette, whose memories of the market go back a long way. Fortunately we still see her, as her involvement now continues when she serves at Corbetts near us.

'As we all know, the appearance of the market changed markedly in 2003 when the management was temporarily taken over by the company LSD, with Tony Davis as the local manager in charge. All the old style benches were discarded together with the solid rails that separated them, and traces of these are still visible in the floor. The present canopied stalls were introduced and we all had to apply for a place. The change and upheaval was very controversial at the time, and we were fearful of the effect it would have on us because we discovered we had been allocated less than half the length of bench that we had previously. However, on the day of the changeover we came in to be told that we could have some extra space after all, and this was a great relief.

'Everyone in the market will recall many ups and downs in their fortunes, and many landmark changes. One such occasion was in 2004 with the introduction of the Saturday Street Market occupying most of Claremont Street, Mardol and Roushill.  Many of the existing traders viewed it as an unwelcome threat with more competition, whereas others embraced it along the lines of ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’. The disruption to traffic was another unwelcome consequence of that scheme, with those streets being closed off from the early hours.  Making those streets pedestrianised had been tried many years earlier, disrupting traders loading and unloading, but neither of these schemes proved to be successful, and soon were abandoned.


'Unfortunately we are unable to remember the names or faces of all the traders that we have seen over the years, and in any case it’s impossible to mention them all. Therefore our recollections are very sketchy and incomplete, and there are many other people in the market who have more detailed memories.  After all these years, however, it is the friendliness and sense of family that stands out. Many of our customers already know each other, or have become friends through regularly seeing each other at the same stalls week after week. Many come expecting to meet family and friends, and it’s always pleasing to see how much time people will be prepared to spend enjoying the atmosphere and the wide variety of things on offer.

'Having occupied our stall for over forty-two years, the decision to retire does not come lightly.  We hate the thought of disappointing loyal customers, who are also our friends. We will miss seeing you all on a regular basis, but intend to continue visiting Shrewsbury, so hopefully we will be able to keep in touch.  Thank you for your unswerving support and for being such good and faithful friends.'

Friday, 29 March 2013

Easter Eggs, Chocolate Chicks, Chocolate Nibs and Julia Wenlock's Tout Sweet Chocs

There’s a big old church down the street from where I live that used to be run as town council offices but a few years ago became the shop/well-being centre/ restaurant/cafe Serenity. That’s where I was last night, drawn by my love of chocolate. 

Julia Wenlock is a chocolatier in Shrewsbury’s Indoor Market.  She makes her own chocolates, runs her shop, Toot Sweet, and is there most days.  You can recognize her from her big smile, mass of curly hair and willingness to talk all things chocolate.  Plainly what Julia’s doing is born out of love, and that love of chocolate is on show tonight.

Julia stands surrounded by chocolate in its different stages from beans and roasted nibs to Easter eggs. We’re sat at tables all around her, nursing our glasses of prosecco, surrounded by jugs of water and sliced apple [for cleansing our palates], making discreet notes on our chocolate-tasting charts. 

Julia’s explaining the stages chocolate goes through, starting with the rugby-ball shaped pods which can contain up to forty beans, through ripening, drying, roasting, grinding, cooking and all the other stages that end up with the slabs of couverture from which chocolates are made.  

Julia knows what she’s talking about.  She’s been in business for five years now, and is already a National award-winning chocolatier, securing a gold star for her lavender white truffles and two gold stars for her truly sensational dark butterscotch. 

These are as near to Shropshire chocolates as it’s possible to be given that the cacao bean comes from a narrow region ten to fifteen degrees wide around the Equator.  They’re Shropshire-made chocolates and, apart from the couverture, all Julia’s ingredients are locally sourced and grown, including her lavender which comes from Newport. 

Sourcing ethically is central to Julia’s business.  Many chocolates nowadays are made with palm oil, but she insists on using cocoa butter.  And, when it comes to buying in couverture, she can tell you to the very farm in Vietnam where it comes from. In addition, it’s all single-source chocolate, which is what gives the finished chocolates their rich and interesting flavours.

In the course of the evening, we experience some of these flavours, starting with Cadbury’s chocolate buttons, moving onto nibs, which are cocoa seeds laid out on banana leaves to ripen, then roasted to give off a distinct chocolate flavour which is both nutty and bitter.   We pick up chocolate, smell it, take note of its sheen, put it in our mouths and allow it to melt.  We wash out our mouths with water and freshen our palates with slices of apple, then start all over again.  

How did Julia get into chocolate? She remembers her mum buying massive chocolate chickens for Easter. Remembers her, too, as a great cook.  Her mum, she says, was an inspiration. However, when she finished school Julia went to university to study TV and Radio Production, graduating from Salford University with a 2.1 BA Hons. 

During Julia’s second year at Salford, her mum was diagnosed with cancer.  Julia moved home in 2006, and at the beginning of 2007 her grandmother died, followed two months later by her mother.  It was thanks to her inheritance that Julia was able to give up commuting to Manchester where she'd working for Selfridges since her college days and was now being trained as a department manager, and open her first shop. She’d been on several chocolate courses, one with a chocolatier, had already been making truffles for the Christmas market, and taking them to local fairs. Now she was into full-time production with a shop to run as well.

The shop was Toot Sweet on Butcher Row, housed in an old, half-timbered building in the heart of Shrewsbury. The timing wasn’t good, with the recession kicking in. Faced with high rates and rent, Julia didn’t see a return for the money invested.  But she moved her seat of operations to Shrewsbury’s indoor market – which she describes as like a departmental store with concessions - and she hasn’t looked back since.

We’ve moved on now to Julia’s own chocolates. She brings them round stacked up in little piles on white plates. Her white chocolate vanilla truffles have tiny flecks of vanilla pod in them.  Some chocolatiers would sieve this out, but Julia likes them and so do we. The chestnut caramel with truffle oil has a highly unusual flavour and an unexpected bite. Julia’s chocolate slab with pistachio, nibs and flakes of smoked salt is like a firework with a few surprises up its sleeve. And as for the butterscotch cream – the TWO gold-stars award-winning butterscotch cream -  I could eat it all day.  The combination of sweet, creamy butterscotchy innards and outward casing of dark, bitter chocolate is far better tasted than described.  Recently Julia won Silver from the Academy of Chocolates, which is a massive honour, not least because one of the UK's most famous artisan chocolatiers, Paul A Young, also won silver in the same category.   

By the time we’ve finished, we’ve worked through them all. There’s an interesting white chocolate infused with cardamon, a delicate violet cream which leaves a really subtle after-taste, and then of course there’s the award-winning lavender cream.  Julia talks about coming home from London with bags full of chocolates, sitting with a notebook chomping her way through them all and making notes.  She googles flavours.  She loves researching and trying things out.  Last night fennel and orange weren’t quite right, but tonight she’ll try again because fennel and chocolate are an interesting mix.

Last September, Julia won a bursary that provided her with a stand for five days at the Good Food Show in November.  The experience was invaluable. It was a real big deal.  Julia and Tootsweet found themselves photographed for the Good Food Magazine. Their stall was in the NEC, and daily Julia had the chance to give talks to VIP ticket holders.  She told them about her company, taught them how to taste chocolate and willingly received all feedback.  Because her chocolates had won a couple of awards, people came by especially to meet her and taste the product for themselves.  The stand, which in any other circumstances would have cost Julia thousands of pounds, came for free. However, it generated so much interest, and brought in so many contacts, that Julia is booking to return this year. She's experience at first hand how worth while it is.  

It’s interesting to be here tonight at this chocolate evening having spent last night in the Shrewsbury Bakehouse with Dominic Schoenstaedt and his buns and bread.  The products might be different, but the lifestyle’s much the same. So is what Dom and Julia are trying to achieve. Here are two young business people in our town working their socks off to create a local product of real quality.  Like Dom, Julia’s up in the night.  After her day in the market she’s making chocolates until two in the morning on a regular basis.  Although the chocolates will keep, it’s important to her to sell them fresh [the truffles keep for four weeks; the bars will last for between eight and twelve weeks]-      

Last Thursday in the run up to Saturday in the market, Julia stayed up all night making chocolate eggs, and she’ll probably do the same this week [she’s making chocolate chickens too].  People can tweet her, phone or drop into the market and ask for chocolates to be made to their specification, and she’ll do it too. 

Julia creates chocolates with her customers in mind.  They’ve talked to her, she’s got to know them, she knows what they like - and in the wee small hours when she’s sampling flavours and trying things out, what they like is at the forefront of her mind. 

So let’s support her, that’s what I say.  Let’s support Dom with his bread, and Julia with her chocolate, and all our other young people who are working to make Shrewsbury work for them.  I’ve heard so much about young people in Shrewsbury moving away and only the oldies being left behind.  But that’s so not the case.  There’s Jessicah Kendrick, owner of the Shrewsbury Coffeehouse, and her gang of cheery friends/family/co-workers, bringing not only coffee and cake but new blasts of music, art and discussion to the town.  There’s Helen Foot and Kate Millward with their Shropshire tweed. There are the boys from the Bird’s Nest CafĂ©, who I haven’t interviewed yet [but I intend to, if they’ll let me].  There are Sam and Vicky down at It’s A Nomad Life, and all their tribal artifacts and antiques.  And there are loads of others that I haven’t mentioned yet, or had a chance to interview, but look out for them. 

We pride ourselves here in Shrewsbury on our small shops.  Well, many of them are manned and owned by young people.  They’re passionate about what they do, and they deserve our support.  Dom deserves our support.  Julia does.  And they deserve it because they’ve earned it. We’re not doing them a favour when we buy from them.  They’re doing one for us.  I mean their products are good. And that’s what business is all about.

Thursday, 28 March 2013

One a Penny, Two a Penny, Hot Cross Buns

Over the next four days, I'm hoping to do a bit of an Easter Extravaganza here on My Tonight From Shrewsbury.  There'll be chocolate eggs, a bit of festive spirit in the market, a vigil in St Alkmund's marked by bells and fire, and here tonight, in the run up to Good Friday, hot cross buns, courtesy of the Shrewsbury Bakehouse. 

Come back with me to yesterday morning. It’s just gone 4.00am, and I’m listening to Dominic Schoenstaedt going on about marzipan crosses, which he tried last year  but won't again. I'm down at the bottom of Castle Gates in the Shrewsbury Bakehouse, cup of coffee in hand, trying to wake up. A smell of fresh bread assailed me even before I walked through the door. There are loaves in the oven and more in tins waiting to go in. Dom had been here since ten o’clock last night and his apprentice, Nick, had been in since three. I sit on Dom’s stairs, trying to keep out of the way, decidedly confused as organized chaos - or so it seems to a non-baker like me - rages all around. 

Currently Dom and Nick are getting out twenty-four large loaves for the farm shop Battlefield 1403. Then there will be the next batch of loaves to go into the oven along with the hot cross buns. Then they’ll be the rusticas to turn out ready to be baked, and the dough to be shaped for the next load of loaves and then there'll be rolls, and then all the non-sourdoughs, and then the pizzas and croissants, pastries and baguettes. 

The kitchen’s only tiny. Step five paces one way and eight the other and you’d have it, more or less.  Yet there’s room for a tall fridge, a prover-retarder, an oven, a double sink, a mixer, a work bench, a mountain of shelves and racks and baking trolleys – and 120 loaves a day [more like 250 by the end of every Saturday]. 

There’s a complex system here, which Dom and Nick are working from and I’m trying to grasp.  Everything stems from a long fermentation process. It’s taking time and care with that process that makes Shrewsbury Bakehouse bread distinctive. Tonight’s hot cross buns, for example, were started yesterday and today, once the baking is out of the way, I’ll be able to watch Dom and Nick start the mix for tomorrow’s batch, blending together flour, salt, spice, butter, yeast, milk, eggs and mixed dried peel. 

I photograph today’s buns as they’re slid into the oven, and again when they’re baking and again when they come out. At every stage from dough to glazing they look good enough to eat.  Not only that, but because of the acid-lowering quality of the  long fermentation process, they’re safe for almost everyone to eat, even people with gluten allergies find that they are able to digest the bread easily.  

There’s so much going on here - and all at once - that I can scarcely take it in. Dom likens running a bakery to playing chess, and I can quite see why. You have to be strategic in a stuation like this, and think ahead.  You have to be a bit of a juggler too, moving stuff around and moving yourself too.  They’ve only been working together for three weeks, but I marvel at the comfortable way Dom and Nick move around the kitchen without bumping into each other.

Nick describes himself as the oldest apprentice in Shrewsbury.  He’s a man who enjoys cooking he says, and on his third week of flat-out hard work, he hasn’t yet changed his mind. Previously, he tells me, he spent six months as a Cornish fisherman.  But this is warmer, he says. The hours for both were equally unsociable, but the years he spent prior to that, working as an IT Consultant, acclimatized him to unsociable hours. 

Dom goes into the prover-retarder to bring out the next batch of loaves.  This cabinet is for chilling doughs that need holding back and kick-starting those that need preparing for the oven. How did Dom get into baking, I want to know.  He talks as he works, fetching in tins which have been cooling outside, wiping them down, spraying them with oil, filling them with dough and shooting them into the oven in the time it’s taken me to blink.  Six months ago, he says, he took over the baking at the Shrewsbury Bakehouse from Sheila Sager. He’d started out on her baking course, been offered a job by her and within three months been promoted to Head Baker.

Later, talking to Sheila,she tells me that she knew immediately that Dom had the makings of a star. Since taking on the Bakehouse, he’s doubled its output. Nowadays he has Nick as his apprentice, sister Vicky coming in from Nantwich five days a week, and help some nights from Edmund and some days from Esther in the shop.  But to begin with he was working alone, seven days a week, sometimes as much as sixteen hours a day. 

What does he reckon, I ask Dom, makes a good baker? Hardly surprisingly the first thing he says is stamina.  That and discipline.  Not cutting corners. Doing things right. Endurance too – the work’s not hard, Dom says, but there’s lots of small lifting and bending to be done, and hours spent on your feet.

Nick’s managing the mixer now.  First it’s on, then it’s off and he’s easing the dough away from the sides.  Then it’s on again.  Then the dough comes out and is shaped into rolls that go in long, ridge-shaped trays.  Dom checks the temperature of the oven.  He sets the timer ready for the next batch to go in.  Nick cleans down the work bench and the scales.  He loads dough into plastic trays. This is tomorrow’s bread.

This morning’s bread is ready to go to restaurants all over town, amongst them the Peach Tree, The Golden Cross, Mad Jack’s, the Shrewsbury Coffeehouse, Serenity and Stan’s Coffee Shop.  Some will be carried across town and delivered by hand.  The ordering system is pinned to the wall. Dom does one special a day. Yesterday was mango and cashew. It’s fig and apricot today.

Dom fires up his computer to show me the programme with which he calculates quantities according to need.  It looks complicated to me, but makes sense to him. I ask if there’s anything he’d like to add to what he’s doing now, and he says another refrigerator would mean producing more bread.

My God, more bread. My mind boggles at the thought of it.  Given what’s in the fridge and prover-retarder, in the boxes of mix, in the oven, waiting for the oven, out of the oven or stacked into the baking stands which are piled up in the shop leaving not an inch of space, surely this is bread enough.  Indeed, according to the programme in front of me, the Shrewsbury Bakehouse is producing over six hundred kilograms of dough a week, translating into 861 loaves of 800gm each.  In all, one thousand one hundred and ten items every seven days.

Anything else, I ask weakly.  A laminator would be good, Dom says. At the moment he’s buying in best-quality French pastries and croissants, but he’d rather spend the money employing someone to make these in the shop. 

It’s beginning to get light.  Through the steamy windows I can just about make the street outside. It’s 6.15.  Before long, the first customers will be sticking their heads round the door, wondering what’s available. It’s time to get the croissants out of the oven.  There are always a few at the back, seeming to want to stay behind.  The pastries come out too; Dom dresses them with juicy red fruits, then puts them back in the oven to finish off.   He has a spare nano-second, so he sweeps the floor. The oven belches out steam.  Nick gets a fresh batch of dough out of the mixer and into a box, covers it and stacks it up with all the other boxes to go in the fridge until the following night. 

6.40. The shop is beginning to look like a shop again. Some of the bread has been taken away, some put in the window, along with stands of pastries, and some stacked in long racks fixed to the wall.  Outside the sky is filling with light.  Here in the kitchen it could be any time.  Another time scale appears to be  in operation, ruled by the seasons of the dough rather than the seasons of the sky.  

6.45am. Small tin loaves have gone into the oven, sprinkled with oats.  They look like what they are – a work of art.

7.10am. The first customer comes in.  She’s on her way to the station, with a coffee in one hand. She buys a croissant. There’s a bit of chat. ‘How are you today?’ ‘Here you go.’ ‘See you soon.’  After she’s gone, the loaves in the oven get the thermometer treatment to see if they’ve reached the magic 205 degrees [Farenheit] at which they will be baked. They have, and come out, and the bakewells go in.

7.20am.   Dom’s decorating pastries with an icing sugar/water paste. I ask which of his many different breads he himself chooses to eat.  He goes for the rustica, he says.  Nick says he’s working through them all. 

7.30am. The next customer comes in.  She’s wrapped up in a heavy coat with its collar turned up.  Hard as it is to believe in this baker’s kitchen with sleeveless t-shirts all round, it’s cold out there. I listen to the rustle of a paper bag as bread is dropped into it. The ping of the till.  The jingling of the door bell and the sound of the door scraping closed as the customer leaves.

7.45am.  A couple more customers come in, one after the other. One takes away a whole tray of bread. The other wants Dom to run through the list of what he has available.  In case you want to know as well, this is it:

Plain sourdough - Pain de Campagne
Seeded sourdough
Rosemary and raisin sourdough
Wholewheat & walnut sourdough
Brown sourdough
Light rye sourdough [on a Tuesday]
The daily special sourdough

Ordinary yeasted breads:
Country white
Wholegrain seeds
Tea cakes/hot crosss buns
Baguettes – all done with long-fermentation to a special Parisian recipe, half twenty-two hours old, half eight.

7.40. A couple more customers.  Bits of chat. Regulars, by the sound of things. Now really light outside.  

7.43. People are really coming in now. The window is fully stocked and labelled.  In the kitchen Dom is bashing a half pound of butter with a rolling pin. Someone in the shop is asking Vicky how long hot cross buns will last.  I watch real eggs being beaten with a real whisk, then tipped into the mixing bowl to join the butter and the latest batch of dough.  I’m looking at tomorrow’s bun mix.  It’s time for the fruit to go in, but first the window-pane test has to be applied. 

Dom takes a small piece of dough and stretches it between his fingers until the light shines through.  Only when the dough has reached this state of smooth elasticity can the fruit go in, otherwise, he says, it would be like dropping cold stones into the dough.     

8.25am.  Nick’s wiping down and stacking trays.  Vicky is alternating between washing up and serving in the shop.  She’s also dressing pizza doughs. The bell keeps going as more customers come in. Dom’s hot cross bun dough is ready to be left until tomorrow night’s shift.  At what point, I wonder, does he stop saying tomorrow, and recognize that tomorrow has become tonight?

8.30am. The bakery has completely changed shape since I first arrived.  Sitting on the stairs I can scarcely see the work bench now for all the boxes stacked up for tomorrow night.  When I arrived four hours ago, I was utterly confused about what I was confronting.  Now I’ve a slightly clearer idea of what’s going on, but only slightly I have to say.

What are the things that most stand out? The speed at which these bakers work is astonishing.  The skill’s astonishing too.  None of this is easy. Even the bits that look easy aren’t - as witnessed by Nick who’s trying to roll out baguettes which aren’t shaping as easily as when Dom does them. 

The quality of product stands out as well.  As Dom puts it, when you buy a supermarket loaf, only the smallest proportion of the cost goes into its production and most of what you pay is mark-up.  With an artisan-baked loaf, however, most of the cost is accounted for in what goes into the bread, and only the smallest amount in terms of profit for the bakery.

 It’s 8.45am. The shop is mostly full of customers now.  Everybody’s chatting.  This feels like a local.  Dom peels out of his gloves. I say I’m going home. Nick won’t be here much longer, he says. Vicky will be here all day, and Dom will be here for a while, but then he’ll be home and presumably at some point during the day he’ll go to sleep. He mentions a girlfriend. I’m mildly surprised that he can maintain any sort of life outside a working regime like this. 

I buy a loaf.  The staff of life it’s sometimes called, but on this occasion a rustica and a couple of buns.  Into the bag they go. The till pings. I’m out though the door, blinking into the sunlight of Castle Gates. Dom’s back into the bakery after a quick goodbye. In all the hours I’ve been here, he and Nick have hardly stopped. They’ve worked side by side, mixing, cutting, weighing, shaping, filling, sticking, stacking, covering, leaving, baking and starting the whole process over and over again.  I leave behind a bakery full of tomorrow’s bread in embryo as well as today’s. There is no end to this.

PS.1. Sheila Sager tells me that grains are like grapes, creating different breads with different tastes.  Having eaten my first hot cross bun and a couple of slices of the rustica, I’m all for the Shrewsbury Bakehouse’s choice of grains.

PS.2. Want to know Dom’s favourite bread book?  Jeffrey Harrelson’s Bread – A Baker’s Book of Techniques and Recipes, pub by Wiley in US/Canada.  It’s the definitive work for industrial baking, described as ‘this master work of bread baking literature,’ by one reviewer.

PS.3. Want a tip from Dom?  When you’re baking a loaf, put it in a cast iron cooking pot with silver foil over the top and the lid on to keep in the steam generated by the cooking process.  Then, when it’s nearly done, take off the lid and you’ll get a nice crust that isn’t too thick.

Yeast - yes, the real thing

Saturday, 23 March 2013

SHREWSBURY PRISON - Ever wondered what it looked like on the other side of those massive gates?





5. Outside 'A' Wing

6 - 8.  Inside 'A' Wing



9. Recreation area outside

10 & 11. Free to a good home.  From Shrewsbury Prison kitchen


12. Shrewsbury Castle - from one prison to another

13. 'C' Wing - Housing for older inmates

14. A welcome bit of colour...

15. Shrewsbury Castle from the condemned man's cell

16. The hanging chamber from the viewing room[trap still under carpet in middle of room]

17. The hanging chamber [topping shed in prison parlance]

18. Walls of the old gaol

19. Grille to cell in old gaol

20. More of the old gaol wall

21 - 23 The Gym - HMP Shrewsbury Memories & Dreams
[This is what I found written on the wall]

'As I sat cradling the man's head with blood and brains sticking to my hands, I could hear my own voice. It was asking me something. Asking how I had ended up like this. Desperate people who thought nothing of caving in a man's head and then standing back to watch him die.'

Nick Bullock was a Prison Officer working in a maximum security jail with some of Britain's most notorious criminals, trapped in a world of aggression and fear. He felt frustrated and alone. Then he discovered the mountains. Bullock soon became one of Britain's best climbers, learning his trade in the mountains of Scotland and Wales and travelling from Pakistan to Peru in his search for a new way of seeing the world - ultimately an escape route from his life inside.  Told that no one ever leaves the service - the security, the stability, the 'job for life', Bullock focussed his existence on a single goal: TO WALK FREE WITH NO SHACKLES INTO A MOUNTAIN LIFE.  
Dedicated by PE Officers Past and Present...



24. Prison officers through the years

25. Roll of Governors

26. Roll of Benefactors

27. Thank you Prison Officer, Neil Gregory, for showing us round.

Want to know more about Nick Bullock's book, 'Echoes: One Climber's Hard Road to Freedom'? HERE'S the link.