The recently formed School of Artisan Food has just seen its first batch of students complete an intensive year-long diploma in bread-baking. It transpires that among the first to graduate was a student who hailed from... yes, Chorleywood: the spiritual home of the industrial loaf. You could not make it up! Nor pass it up.

Inevitably, the Real Bread Campaign (RBC) clamped its jaws around this too-good-to-be-true morsel of chewy PR goodness and the student, Vanessa Holloway, fronted a recent tongue-in-cheek event to mark or mock the 50th anniversary of the Chorleywood Bread Process.

So you might expect the School to be a fermenting bucket of Luddite rage: a kind of Al-Qaida training camp for Real Bread insurgents. The reality couldn’t be further from that. The school, developed on the Welbeck Estate in Nottinghamshire, is a slick and sophisticated operation. The bakery course is run by two experienced pairs of hands: Emmanuel Hadjindreou, formerly of Judges Bakery in Hastings, and consultant Wayne Caddy, who has travelled the world developing products for the likes of Asda. Both were involved in the team representing the UK in the Bakery World Cup.

"With the bakery course, we don’t just say, ’You have to be organic, what you’re doing is wrong, what we’re doing is right’," says Hadjindreou. "We’ve [taken students] to the Hovis test bakery; we’ve worked with Fermex doing things with improvers. It’s about open-mindedness and seeing different points of view. We get different people in to spend a day with the students those who do use those kind of ingredients and those who don’t. It’s about getting a debate going. The end focus is to turn people into bakers, who understand the process from beginning to end and also understand what a good and a bad product is."

While the cost of the diploma course may seem prohibitively expensive for many at £14,000 for the year bursaries are available and the school is set to develop over time to become a potentially great resource for short courses aimed at the trade. The site has a fully functioning commercial bakery, the Welbeck Bakehouse, which lends use of its equipment (including wood-fired, rack and deck ovens) to the school. For some time, it has offered short courses to home bakers, which has inspired some to take up baking professionally.

"I’ve had some people come on my pastry course, learning croissants and puff pastry," says Hadjindreou. "One gentleman phoned me up saying ’I’m having some problems’. I thought, ’Ok, he’s making small amounts’. In fact, he’s producing 700 croissants a week and wants to push that up to 1,400. That’s after coming on a simple short course, which is amazing and makes me incredibly proud."

The school became a registered charity this year and is self-funding, receiving no government support. Hadjindreou says the aim is to build a structure of professional short courses, but that the school will need to attract more teachers to make this possible. Another plan could be to draw in international students. In the meantime, diploma students are spending over 40 hours a week learning straight doughs, sourdoughs, French/German/Italian, flavoured, gluten-free, with gluten and decorative breads. Not only that, but the dirtier side of running a business, from management to logistics and HACCP.

The course is already reaping rewards, with two students shortly to open their own bakery in Sheffield. And the school is well-positioned for a revival in artisanal food production. "High wheat prices are not going to come down, they’re going to keep going up," says Hadjindreou. "In the next 10 years bread will become a luxury product. So the people producing good bread should be really appreciative of what they do. You need a lot of skills to become a baker and that’s what I’m trying to build on."

Case studies: the student experience

Vanessa Holloway is a former marketing manager for Miele ovens, who had never made a loaf of bread in her life. By her final assessment she could make a full production of 80 loaves and plans to open her own bakery school.
"I was on the lookout [for a food business course] and found it really difficult to find one. I didn’t want a posh cookery school. And I didn’t want an NVQ in baking. I needed a career-change type of course one that is flexible and one with which I could enjoy the journey. I see it as a smart investment.
"I’m from a sales and marketing background at Miele, Bosch and Indesit, and I wanted to do something different. I got interested in food, and the lack of skills needed to produce good food in this country. So if I was to have a business, I needed a knowledge of food production. For me, this course was about immersing myself in artisan food and really learning from the producers who create the food. I’m now confident that I can bake, and I’d never baked a loaf before I started the course.
"I’ve had a great career and I want to do something for myself now. I’ve invested in this year to make sure that I could produce, so that I could understand the whole food system, from food security to provenance, and all of the topical issues have really opened my eyes.
"I’m planning to create a destination for bread, so I would like to have a bakery and bread school, but slightly unconventionally. I’m looking for a rustic environment where I can have a multi-faceted business where people can come in and enjoy breakfast and lunch with a selection of breads as the hero product, with seasonal matching. I understand bread in this country is seen as a low-value product. The cost of production (for artisan breads) is high. So it’s important for me to offer other areas of the business that can support the access to good bread."
David Carter is a retired barrister, who was inspired by a two-day sourdough baking course at the school. He has since been taken on as a bakery technician there.
"I’m probably too old to set up my own bakery, but I’d like to go more into the educational side of it. Three years ago I was made redundant and, the following year, my wife bought me a two-day baking course here for my birthday. I enjoyed it so much that I wanted to take it further.
"I hadn’t enjoyed the work I did. It was all cerebral. I never actually produced something tangible. Bread is such a lovely tactile product to work with. So I decided I would do the course and take a great step into the unknown.
"The first part of the course was getting to know the various disciplines dairy and butchery, of which we did a week of each. Eventually, we concentrated on our individual disciples, taking us through simple breads to complicated breads. We did three days of practical work a week and they were by far and away our favourite days. I think it’s fair to say that the bakers work the hardest. We’re usually the first to arrive and last to leave.
"I don’t think we have any illusions that, as a product, it takes a lot to learn how to make it properly. The retail price doesn’t reflect the work that goes into artisan, hand-moulded bread. It gets into you and you get passionate about it it becomes an obsession. My wife says I have become totally fixated.
"We went around the Hovis test bakery a few weeks ago and they couldn’t have been more welcoming; they were open and happy to discuss anything. They monitor very carefully what they are producing. But what they are monitoring is how their product compares with competitors in terms of texture and colour. They’re obsessed with specification when, for me, taste is the most important thing."