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
Rosemary and raisin sourdough
Wholewheat & walnut sourdough
Light rye sourdough [on a Tuesday]
The daily special sourdough
Ordinary yeasted breads:
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