You have to be strong to be a baker," says Caroline Parkins - strong-willed, that is, and not just physically fit, if you’re to fight the tide of mediocrity that she believes has dumbed down our bread.
Mediocre is not a criticism that can be levelled at her artisan bakery in Bridport, Dorset, where the product list changes in response to seasonal bounties of fruit and veg, mostly grown for her by small suppliers. "If I feel stale, which you inevitably do, I’ll take myself off with half a dozen cookery books," says Parkins.
A good sprinkling of Elizabeth David, Eliza Acton and obscure, often nameless, regional authors, usually relieves the "baker’s block" and helps to leaven an imagination that has already brought the seaside town Jurassic Foot Loaf, Dorset Cider and Cheese Cottage Loaf, and Cheese and Chilli Beer Bread. "We’re constantly updating product lines. Part of that comes automatically if you’re using seasonal and local produce."
A trained cook and accidental baker, Parkins fell in love with the Leakers’ family bakery, its doubled-decked brick-floored ovens and "practically antique" mixer, which achieve what she wants - "to make good bread in a decent way... slowly".
In fact, after five years on the baker’s watch, she’s not in a hurry to do anything other than build on a reputation for using traditional techniques to meet modern expectations for exceptional tastes, such as her takeaway Delhi Delight vegetable curry in a naan bread bowl. "I believe in local, small and slow," she says. "I’d rather do one thing properly than run six shops."
This rather goes against the grain in the manic world of corporate bakery, where fortunes rise and fall faster than a three-minute fermentation. "Plant bakers always seem to be in crisis," observes Parkins coolly. "Small, artisan bakers are successful because people appreciate the difference in our bread."
A ban on hydrogenated fats, as well as extra yeast to make up for foreshortened proving times, are all part of the Leakers Bakery culture. Organic plays a big role, although Leakers is not accredited because of the prohibitive cost and administration involved, says Parkins. "I think it’s important for the big people to register, but our consumers already believe in our food."
And that’s largely to do with building a strong sense not only of place, but also of continuity - even going so far as to tempt the granddaughter of the bakery’s founder out of retirement just to make her famously rustic Dorset Apple Cake, which is popular enough to keep one person employed two days a week. "There are outcrops of strong support for local food in areas where people are still close to the food source," says Parkins. "I suppose it is difficult in some areas for bakers to find a local supplier, but it’s always possible." n