The Big Apple didn’t know what had hit it last year, when 50 of Britain’s best craft bakers piled off a plane and pounded the sidewalks in a mission to visit the city’s finest bakers and retailers.

Part of the British Confectioners’ Association’s (BCA) busy schedule of trips and events for members, the four-day visit was the brainchild of BCA president Robert Ditty, one of Northern Ireland’s best-known craft bakers. As well as walking tours of Manhattan, which took in retailers and producers such as Whole Foods Market, Amy’s Bread and Bouchon Bakery, Ditty also arranged a special dinner with speakers from New York’s thriving baking industry.

One of the most interesting presentations came from a director of artisan bakery chain Panera, which operates over 1,000 bakery-cafés in the US. "He gave our members a lot to think about," says Ditty. "It is a huge operation, but has managed to stay true to artisan roots, with some innovative ideas. The dough for its bread is produced and moulded in central bakeries, then delivered to stores in vans that have been converted into provers. When the bread arrives, the store simply bakes it off."


The fact that Ditty was able to organise such an ambitious trip and persuade leading lights of the US baking scene to give their time is testament to his networking powers. As well as his work for the BCA, Ditty has his hand in numerous other pies, ranging from organising the first-ever Lough Neagh food festival last year, attracting thousands of visitors to his home town of Castledawson, to setting up a community allotment, giving young people the chance to learn about food.

He is also the treasurer of north-east Ireland’s newly launched Slow Food convivium and often visits mainland Britain to give bakery demonstrations at events such as the Ludlow Food Festival.

On top of all these extracurricular activities, Ditty runs a large craft bakery in Castledawson, employing around 40 people and producing artisan breads, cakes and oatcakes for wholesale, export and for his two coffee shops. He also recently set up a deli and chocolate school next door to the bakery.

Just writing about his side-projects is exhausting enough, but Ditty says he relishes his busy lifestyle. "I really enjoy getting involved. Life would be boring without these sorts of activities," he says.

Getting other bakers involved is also a passion for this third-generation baker - hence his involvement with the BCA. "We meet regularly at members’ bakeries, so we can get to know each others’ businesses and discuss important issues facing craft bakers," he says. "We take it in turns to give talks on anything from energy conservation to how to decide your retail price."

Hearing how other bakers set their prices was particularly fascinating, says Ditty. "If you take 20 bakers, they’ll have 20 different ways of coming up with the price of a product, none of which would satisfy an accountant! Some people multiply ingredients costs by three, add a bit extra and see what the main competitor down the road is charging. Others focus more on labour costs, but it’s really difficult to work out how many hours go into a making a product."


Other issues that have been hotly debated at BCA meetings include the role part-baked products play in craft baking and how automation has changed the nature of bread in the UK. "Andrew Whitley’s book, Bread Matters, has really caused a stir among bakers," he says. "I think he has gone a little bit too far in criticising industrial bread production, but he’s right that we should look at how bread is made. Supermarkets are so cut-throat these days, that sometimes it would be cheaper for me to buy a product from the supermarket and repackage it than make it myself!"

Not that Ditty would dream of doing such a thing. He remains dedicated to preserving the traditions and craft of baking - a dedication that led him to set up a collaboration of Irish artisan bakers back in 2001. Originally called the Artisan Bakers of Northern Ireland, the group changed its name recently to the Company of Irish Bakers, to reflect the inclusion of a baker from the Republic. Its five members are: Ditty’s; Corn Dolly Bakery, Newry; Gala Bakery, Ballybofey (Co Donegal); Heatherlea, Bangor; and Hunter’s Bakery, Limavady.

Initially set up as an informal cluster that would meet regularly to discuss business ideas and ways to improve recipes, the collaboration has developed a commercial edge, thanks to support from government organisation Invest Northern Ireland. Five products under the Company of Irish Bakers brand are to be launched in the spring, with mainland Britain and the Republic of Ireland key target markets. Spiced fruit cake, oatmeal biscuits, porter cake, fruit brack and Ditty’s own smoked oatcakes make up the new range, with each member of the group making one of the products.

The range should have launched last year, but Ditty admits there have been problems with finalising the packaging and working out logistics. These stumbling blocks are close to being resolved, with Ditty likely to be the main distribution point for the range. This makes sense because his company has built a profitable export business to Britain and the Republic in recent years, with a range of Irish oatcakes in flavours such as dulse (seaweed) and sesame, celery and pepper, and walnut, as well as plain and a newly launched smoked variety. Around 30% of sales come from exports.

British retailers that stock Ditty’s oatcakes include Fortnum & Mason, Whole Foods Market and Forman and Field, as well as independent retailers via wholesaler Marigold. The firm also won a contract in June to supply 180 Waitrose stores.

Sales of the oatcakes have soared and Ditty has looked at ways of upping production levels. "I visited Bells of Lazonby to see their rotary biscuit moulder, but there’s a high level of buttermilk in our oatcakes and the dough would have stuck to the cutters." Instead, the biscuits are still cut into triangles by hand.

The oatcakes are made with oats smoked by Frank Hederman of Cork-based smoked salmon company Belvelly Smoke House. "Frank came up with a system where the oats are spread over fly screens and slotted into the smoker," says Ditty. "The oats are then cold smoked over beech for up to 24 hours, depending on the weather, and are sent up to us in sacks."

The backbone of the company has traditionally been bread, particularly soda farls, as well as cakes and pastries. But Ditty says the market is becoming increasingly competitive. "The supermarket effect is only just starting in Northern Ireland and many of the small high street bakeries can’t compete, so we’re looking at the wholesale market instead."

The changing situation in Northern Ireland means speciality products for export, such as oatcakes, are likely to grow in importance. Ditty claims to have several new ideas up his sleeve. There’s even talk of exporting to New York. It just goes to show that Ditty’s love of networking brings rewards on many levels.