EAST BRISTOL BAKERY
PRODUCE: BREAD AND CAKES
DISTANCE TO TABLE: 0.2 MILES
Bread is something I eat almost every day, but for years I bought the fairly typical branded loaves stocked in most supermarkets, used to the eternal softness and addictive sweetness that comes with these loaves. It was the writer Michael Pollen who opened my eyes to a deeper understanding of bread and the wonder of sourdough with his book ‘Cooked’. A few years later I found myself living in rural Canada, in possession of my own sourdough culture and churning out four loaves a week of pretty decent bread for the people I lived with.
However, I freely admit that I will never be an expert bread maker; my bread is definitely edible, but it falls short of the incredible loaves that a great baker can create. Fortunately, Bristol has recently seen a growth in artisanal bakeries, and the East Bristol Bakery was my first port of call. Dragging him away from his busy schedule, I meet Alex for a lunchtime coffee in Poco on Stokes Croft, a fitting location for a chat about local food with a menu bursting with local and seasonally inspired dishes.
Opening a little over three years ago, Alex admits he had very little experience when he opened the bakery; “I just made it up as I went along. I didn’t have anything to lose”. He was attracted by the idea of being able to see something through from start to finish, pointing out “It’s a cliche that a lot of bakers will tell you. It’s a complete process from raw ingredients to baking it to selling it. You build a relationship your customers, with your sourdough culture, with the bread you’re making, with your suppliers. That’s what I really needed at that time in my life.” He pauses for a moment before continuing. “And the finishing point isn’t producing the loaf, it’s the conversation with the customer. And in some ways, it’s actually the next day when people come back and say that’s the best loaf of bread they ever had. It’s normal now that with the work you produce, you don’t ever see the final outcome of it. We’re so dependent on people working all the way on the other side of the planet, but people need connections.”
And connections he has. Now a central part of Easton life, the locals are a huge part of the bakery. “Residential customers, people who live in Easton, are so supportive of what we do in the bakery. They’ll try it, and if they don’t like it, they’ll tell us!” he explains. “But a lot of my customers are from northern and eastern Europe, and they come from all over the city to get the bread because it’s closer to what they’re use to.”
As the cafe fills up around us, Alex moves on to a lesson about British flour. “Most bread flour is Canadian,” he explains. “The sunlight hours you get in Canada means the wheat can produce a lot of protein, whereas the wheats that grow well in the British climate tend to be lower in protein. If you think of our British bread tradition, it's not light fluffy bread; it’s usually flat breads, griddle cakes, scones.
His passion for local ingredients goes beyond just words. Two summers ago, he cycled from lands end to Bristol, collecting the ingredients for a farm to oven loaf of bread. Cornish salt, Devon honey, Somerset sourdough starter, Sharpenham Park flour and Mendips water all went into what he calls the connected loaf, because as Alex explains, “I met everyone who makes the ingredients we use”.
This passion for local ingredients has continued to feed through into the bread available at the bakery. “We have a 100% British loaf,” Alex points out. “It started off being a one week special and is now a permanent fixture”. Using wheat from Shipton Mill and rye from Sharpenham Park, it’s one of the regular features on the menu, and one of my favourites. “There’s a couple of great millers who are focusing on British flours,” he tells me. “But we’re not at a point where we can exclusively use those British millers; partly because of price, an partly because of consistency. When you’re doing 200 loaves a day, you need that consistency”.
As we finish up our coffees, Alex points out that people still see their bread as being expensive. “The cost of a loaf would have traditionally matched a pint. Our most expensive loaf is £3.50, which is less than a pint in most pubs. The perception is skewed because of what you see in supermarkets, but a loaf of rubbish white bread there is now £1.60, and our traditional white is £1.75. Yet we still get people coming in and saying our bread is too expensive.”
Alex is currently taking a step back from the bakery to focus on their new venture, Flow, leaving the bakery safely in the hands of co-owner Polly. “Three months ago we opened up a restaurant, which is an extension of the process in the bakery,” he explains. Boasting a seasonal vegetarian menu, Alex points out that the vegetarian part isn’t really the focus. “Food doesn’t have to be meat and two veg; you can have variety of texture and flavour. We're aiming for people who value their food, who say ‘we eat loads of meat, but we had a great meal.’”
And just like that, Flow jumped to the top of my list of restaurants to visit and write about.
A few days later I find myself at the bakery, nestled at one end of the busy St Marks Road in Easton. It’s Friday, so they’re making Challah, partly for general sale, but also for pre-orders from local synagogues. It's a calm but productive atmosphere as two of them do the detailed braiding of the bread while another measures out and mixes out the sourdough for tomorrow. As she heaves huge sacks of flours into the industrial dough mixer, I reflect on how much the place has grown in the last three years; just being in the bakery for 15 minutes I see a string of locals coming in, buying bread and chatting to the staff like only a regular can.
From their standard white loaves to artisanal sourdoughs, beautiful baguettes to intricate challahs, this is a bakery that loves what they do and seeks to bring a real variety of beautiful bread to their customers while maintaining the values at the heart of what they do.
Find out more: http://eastbristolbakery.co.uk