Seventeen years ago, Peter Cook was a sandwich maker for his in-laws’ bakery in Ludlow. Today, he’s a Rick Stein food hero and he takes the job seriously.
As a director of the Ludlow Marches Food and Drink Festival, chairman of the Chamber of Commerce - which pioneered introducing bakery skills to schoolchildren - and member of the local Slow Food group, Price & Sons’ self-taught master baker occupies a lofty position among the small, local producers whose big reputations spread far beyond the Marches. And this reputation is enhanced every year by the arrival of 20,000 customers over the festival weekend in September.
That’s when all eyes fall on Cook’s range of 20 breads and rolls, which are made using traditional techniques and local ingredients. The flours come from Shipton Mill at Tetbury and Bacheldre Watermill at Churchstoke, while Ludlow Brewery and Duncton Cider also feature in the supplier list.
"When I started in the bakery, we made only three types of bread: white, wholemeal and Granary. Now we’re up to 20," says Cook. A 100% rye sourdough loaf and a French pain au levain, made in a 15-hour process, are the latest additions.
Each year, he steers a competition between the town’s four bakers to find a Festival Loaf - or to be more accurate, loaves, since it’s rare that the public and expert judges agree.
"The public always go for the more exotic and strong-flavoured loaves that make you sit up and take notice, while the experts go for a technically better loaf, like a wholemeal. That’s borne out in the shop. If you have a speciality bread of the month, the ones that sell best are those such as Brie, olive and pine nut, rather than a 100% rye loaf, which may be harder to make well and is more satisfying for the baker. But I’m just glad they’re taking an interest in any bread!"
Cook would like to see similar competitions run nationally. "The way sales are going with speciality breads, I would like to see a major event geared towards craft and artisan bakers."
He is a keen competitor himself, but he’s not sorry to have narrowly missed out on the Waitrose Small Producer gong last year. "It would have been hard to supply Waitrose and for it not to have had a detrimental effect on other things."
He is also not keen to expand beyond Price’s heartland. "People have asked us to open shops in Hereford and Worcester, but it would be hard to expand without some quite large changes in the bakery. I’d be quite happy, though, to encourage somebody else there to open up."
That, after all, is what local food is all about. n