Alan Stuart is MD of Stuarts of Buckhaven and president of Scottish Bakers
A ’midden’ tour is one of life’s pleasures. Being a baker I can walk down any street, pop into the baker’s shop, introduce myself as a fellow baker and almost always a rapport will be struck. If I have timed it well, I will be invited behind the counter into the back. Or I can phone and ask if I can come to visit. Of course it’s not wise to ring up your nearest rival, but separation by distance brings its own comfort zone and we are all flattered when someone says they would like to visit our business.
Venturing further afield, language never seems to be a barrier. A pointing finger, an arsenal of gestures and a smile will get round almost every communication problem. All you need is "je suis boulanger" or "ich bin ein Bäcker" and you will earn the keys to the kingdom. And if you can manage "Ecossais, pas Anglais!" or "aus Schottland", the world’s your oyster. (This works surprisingly well in Cornwall or Cumbria as well as all of Wales.)
So what can you learn by visiting other people’s ’middens’?
1 Look at the product in the window. If it depresses you with its excellence, do something about it when you get home. If it makes you feel smug, look in your window when you get home and see if you’re still smug.
2 Look out for big sellers. They might not work back in Middle Wallop, but you never know.
3 Be inspired when you find excellence. Be happy for your fellow craftsmen. Try to understand the reasons for their success and take them home with you.
4 Always buy something. Take pleasure in the diversity of our craft. I couldn’t resist a Dorset Knob recently and, although I still don’t get them, I wish I could sell them up here in Scotland.
Try these tips and you will benefit. I used to get depressed after these wanderings. I always seemed to see exhibition standard products at unobtainable prices. I wanted to have been born into a Parisian baking family with my own patisserie. But gradually I understood that you have to look at the wider spectrum and realise that, while we in Britain are part of the grand family of bakers, there are all sorts of characters in that family. British baking is no better or worse than anywhere else. It’s different, unique and special. So rejoice in that diversity. And look out, because that diversity is about to expand.
I remember visiting a village baker near Paris. After suffering 30 Scots round his tiny premises, he was overwhelmed by our modest gifts and invited us into his home for Champagne and almond tuiles, the perfect embodiment of the fellowship of bakers. Including that gentleman under the heading of ’middens’ may seem grotesque, but you know what I mean. I just love being a baker.