“When the Red Cross try to help in war-torn countries one of the things they do is set up a little bakery, because a bakery represents the heart of a community. People will gather around the oven and you rebuild that community,” craft baker and writer Dan Lepard said recently, in a talk on the struggle of the craft baker. “I have a lot of hope that we can rebuild this industry.”
Shoots of recovery
On the home front, small independent bakeries have undergone a war of attrition, with market pressures decimating their number over the past half a century. But shoots of an artisanal revival and renewed public interest in the baker’s craft are signs that the army could be regrouping, Mr Lepard told the autumn meeting of the Kingston Master Bakers Association. We may not be ready to call in the crisis charities quite yet, but much needs to be done to bring in new blood, he added.
Perceptions of the job as being unchallenging, unrewarding and a last resort need to change. A generation of younger recruits is waiting in the wings, he said.
“I get emails from people in big business who have dreams of being a baker. I think part of the appeal is the dirtiness and the graft of it all.”
Mr Lepard believes that the industry needs to showcase excellence through high-profile exhibitions, abandoning blue hair-nets and consigning the ‘humble’ baker to history. This will reduce the number of people who are disenchanted with life in the bakery.
“We need to be boisterous bakers rather than humble bakers. We’re too polite and we need to be a little louder,” urged Mr Lepard. “We need to look at bringing bakers together on a common level – not just lumping the plant baker together with the independent craft baker. I know that a lot of the younger bakers would like to participate in exhibitions because they feel that they could show what they do well.”
A collective pride between craft bakers should be fostered, he continued. “I met a plant baker a while ago who said it was his plan to put every independent baker out of business. That sort of hubris is a kind of evil, and it’s also foolish. Any desire to get rid of the competition is destructive and something we have to watch among ourselves to make sure it doesn’t happen.”
It is the small independent bakeries, not the mega-brands, that inspire people on the high street, he reasoned. “It’s very difficult to get people excited about plant bakeries, but take them into a small bakery, where a baker is working with a single oven, and people get excited. I get excited!
“The Bakers Oven chain mostly bakes on-site. I have said to them why don’t you show your bakers to the public? It’s like watching a kind of athletics. There is a magic in taking raw ingredients and putting them together on the high street – that is a selling point.”
The bakery needs to become a more engaging place to work, he added. “Supermarkets ask me how can we can get more excitement in our in-store bakeries? The answer is give people something to do. Let them mix dough, support them, get them interested in their production. If you take away all the skill then who is going to want to do it?"
Craft bakers could also improve the situation by encouraging younger bakers to see themselves as spokespeople for the company and by getting them to spend five minutes talking to customers, he advised. Small but achievable challenges would also give staff a reason to strive for improvement in the workplace and would allow for all talents to shine in the bakery.
“Each month try to focus on a different skill like a two-minute roll-shaping test with a £10 voucher for the winner,” suggested Mr Lepard. “The next month might be making a wonderful new dough. Then an oven loading speed trial. Get your customers to choose between the best-made trays. Sometimes that can help people who feel undervalued within the bakery structure to feel important.”
And if clothes maketh man (or, indeed, woman), then pride in the workplace could be stimulated through better work-wear, he said. “We need to make people feel like they’re joining a brigade of bakers and uniform plays a part. We could create a good uniform for our bakers to wear with a more masculine cut to make them feel that they’re part of a band of excellent craftsmen.”
With consumers trading up and increasingly seeking out artisanal breads, the future of the trade is up for grabs, he said. Homegrown recipes rather than continental imports could be the next step in reviving British baking traditions, Mr Lepard said. The time is ripe to dust down the library and bring regional specialities, flavours and ingredients to the fore.
Best of British
“I’d like to see wonderful saffron buns and great Eccles cakes – really intensely flavoured products,” he stressed. “Cakes, breads, tarts and pies that tell us something about who we are. Maybe even a dripping cake! I believe over the next few years we will see a resurgence of those things and I’m hearing from younger bakers that they want to rediscover what it is to be a British baker.”
He points to the number of bakeries springing up around the country is a sign of hope for craft bakers. “Ten years ago I barely heard about new bakeries; now I hear about them opening every week. Not all will do well. But as long as we keep adding to that number, small craft bakers will get stronger.”
Dan Lepard on breads and batters appears in The Cook’s Book, alongside chapters on desserts, pastry and sweetdoughs by Pierre Hermé, and cakes by Stephan Franz; edited by Jill Norman, published by Dorling Kindersley. To buy for £25 (rrp £30), call the DK Bookshop on 08700 707 717 quoting reference DK/BB.