Upmarket American bakery brand La Brea – a big hit in the US, with its rustic-style flavours and textures steeped in Europe’s baking traditions – is now making waves in (and to) the UK. Frozen and ferried across the Atlantic to the UK from New Jersey, La Brea Bakery could claim to make some of the best travelled loaves on the planet.
“In the US, I can say with confidence that we are a household name,” asserts the bakery’s founder, baker and author Nancy Silverton. And parent company IAWS is now hoping that success translates to the UK, where there is a perceived gap for a branded, artisan-style, baked-off bagged bread.
Although there are no immediate plans to switch manufacturing to the UK, a growing presence in the major multiples could change that. And the Dublin-based firm, which has operations in Ireland, the UK, Europe, Canada and the US, clearly has faith in the brand’s future, having splashed out $68.5m (£39m) for an 80% stake in La Brea Bakery in 2001, eventually taking full ownership in 2005.
Following a year trialling the bread, La Brea is now being rolled out nationally in the UK and the number of outlets listing the bread is anticipated to double within the next 18 months (British Baker, Oct 28, pg 6). At present, the brand is in over 150 stores, primarily in the south of England, with Tesco and Sainsbury’s also stocking the range in Manchester and a small number of stores in Scotland and Ireland. IAWS also sells the bread wholesale into bakeries, cafés, restaurants and sandwich bars.
La Brea’s reach in the US has spread beyond the cosmopolitan east and west coasts to gain a national presence. This will have encouraged the UK’s multiples that, despite a hefty price tag, the brand has wide appeal. The breads retail at between £2.99 and £3.49 for an 800g loaf – a far cry from the days of below-cost bread promotion.
The range in the UK includes a selection of rustic-style French and Italian style breads with an American twist. The bakery was the brainchild of Ms Silverton, a Cordon Bleu and French pastry chef, who launched La Brea Bakery in 1989 to supply her Los Angeles
A feverish six-month study of the scientific properties of sourdough, with advice from bakery consultants, oven manufacturers, and some dusty 19th century recipe books, spawned a sourdough that was quickly in hot demand. The bakery soon evolved into a local wholesale and retail operation.
“It was a product that was so well embraced that it just grew and grew,” recalls Ms Silverton, who has since taken up an ambassadorial role with the company, promoting the brand as well as developing new products. Demand was such that a wider market beckoned. “People kept asking me to set up a franchise and other bakeries around the country. I was very reluctant to do that because it is a type of bread and a type of process that is absolutely hands-on.”
All of its recipes are based on an organic grape, water and flour sourdough starter dating from the original sourdough baguette – the very first La Brea product.
But how do you replicate the ‘artisanal’ process on an industrial scale without cutting corners? Despite initial worries about loss of control over the baking process by upscaling to industrial production, the breakthrough came with some bespoke machinery and the realisation that part-baking would not compromise product quality, claims Ms Silverton. It now has two bakeries in Los Angeles and New Jersey producing 80% part-baked breads, as well as its original bakery supplying fresh breads daily.
“We’ve proved that it can be done,” claims Ms Silverton. “We have actually helped to manufacture equipment that mimics the exact techniques that we use when we’re hands-on baking. That has never been achieved before.”
La Brea came up with a process that is very gentle on the dough, she explains. “Most machines were high speed and they beat up the dough.” Secondly, its doughs are hydrated more than others, she adds. Thirdly, proving systems were needed capable of accommodating a very long, cool prove.
Such is the time-sensitivity and temperament of a sourdough starter, separate tanks are designated for different times of the day, staggered to a schedule for the production of different lines. The starter is agitated or fed continually throughout the day to keep the yeast alive and healthy. Then the dough undergoes a shorter than average mixing time to avoid oxidising, before fermenting for two to six hours. It continues to ferment as it goes along the line, passing through the proving system for four to six hours before baking in a tunnel oven.
“The net result is a bread as good as if baked by hand, with a thick crust, a chewy crumb and complex flavours,” she claims. The breads are baked-off to demand in-store, providing a loaf to consumers that is, at most, four hours old, says Nancy. This is one reason why the product lends itself so well to the supermarkets, she believes.
La Brea Bakery is now the dominant premium artisan brand in the US, selling to around 7,000 customers in retail and foodservice. It produces 40 lines, including patisserie, which are being considered for the UK market.
“I would love it if we could introduce our patisserie here,” says Ms Silverton. “I think our branded pastries would work in the UK and Ireland because they are made using French techniques with American sensibilities. There are also a lot of other items that are indigenous to America. It would be very fresh to the UK market.”
One such product is La Brea’s Apple Tarte. Another good seller is its Morning Bun, which is a rolled out croissant dough, spread with cinnamon, rolled, twisted and baked. “We take doughs, such as a croissant or Danish, and personalise some of the shapes, fillings and names,” she says.
“The pastries are rustic in taste and look. I think it would be an odd combination to see our rustic breads with dark crusts alongside pristine pastries. When you have a retail store you want to create an atmosphere and a sensibility. The pastries are all room temperature and in brown tones – there are no heavily glazed pastries with fruits on top.”
Although there are no plans at present for the UK and Ireland, another route for expansion could be branded La Brea café/bakery outlets as seen, of all places, in Disneyland, California. “Bakery makes theme park attraction” – now that is a story in itself.
PROFILE: NANCY SILVERTON
La Brea’s founder Nancy Silverton has written six books on baking, pastry, sandwiches and cooking. Her regular ‘sandwich nights’, launched 10 years ago at her restaurant, Campanile, and now in two other restaurants in Los Angeles, have become a fixture for the city’s food aficionados. “Because of Nancy Silverton’s background as a chef, she has developed a large number of sandwich recipes specific to different La Brea Bakery bread types,” says Sarah Murphy, marketing manager at La Brea Bakery. “In the US, we sell sandwiches at our original bakery and, although we have no current plans, we haven’t ruled out the possibility of making La Brea Bakery sandwiches in the future.” Here are two of La Brea’s premium gourmet sandwich recipes:
Roast beef sandwich on Wholegrain Loaf bread (makes one sandwich)
2 slices wholegrain loaf
3.5oz roast beef
1oz balsamic onions
0.5oz horseradish spread
Mix together 2oz horseradish sauce and 10oz sour cream
Red onions (peeled and sliced 1/4 inch) - 80oz
Balsamic vinegar - 24oz
Olive oil - 8oz
Maldon sea salt - 0.5oz
Fresh ground black pepper - 0.5oz
Mix the onions with the other ingredients in a bowl. Spread evenly on a tray and bake in a pre-heated oven at 160ºC for 20-25 minutes, tossing occasionally
To assemble the sandwich
Spread horseradish mixture on both slices. On one slice place roast beef, onions and rocket. Place the other slice of bread on top and cut in half diagonally.
Classic grilled cheese with marinated onions and wholegrain mustard on Country White Sourdough Oval
8 slices Country White Sourdough Oval bread
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
2-3 tablespoons white wine vinegar
2 tablespoons Maldon sea salt
1 tablespoon freshly cracked black pepper
2 medium yellow onions, sliced 1/8-inch thick
1/4 cup wholegrain mustard
8oz Swiss cheese, sliced 1/16-inch thick
To prepare the marinated onions
Combine the oil, vinegar, salt and pepper in a bowl. Add the onions, toss to coat them, and marinate for 15-20 minutes at room temperature. Season with more vinegar, salt, and pepper
To assemble the sandwiches
Set half of the slices of bread buttered side down. Spread an even layer of mustard over the bread and cover with half the cheese slices, folding them back in toward the middle if they extend past the edges of the bread. Scatter the marinated onions on top and place the remaining cheese slices over the onions. Put the top slices of bread over the cheese, buttered side up. Grill the sandwiches using a panini press. Cut each sandwich in half diagonally