From Community to Fusion: London Baking Trends

9 August, 2013

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It’s one of life’s simplest pleasures, but nothing quite beats freshly made bread. Making it is therapeutic and rewarding in itself, and the taste, when made well, is utterly unbeatable.

Bakeries aren’t championed in this country like they are in France, Portugal or elsewhere around the world. Where you can find a bespoke little bakery around every corner and get a chunky loaf of wholemeal spelt freshly rubbed in flour, or a croissant aux amandes with real flakiness and buttery depth on your way to work.

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That’s not to say London doesn’t have its gems, as Ben Mackinnon, owner of E5 Bakehouse in London Fields tells us, ‘there really is a bread revolution happening, it has been simmering for quite some time, about 15 to 20 years.’ But Ben, sitting in the oddly beautiful backyard of his Bakehouse, tell us he prefers less organised forms of baking empowerment, ‘I love people getting into it, it is so rewarding…I love the fact that I can get some flour and water, mix it together and then get paid for it.’

This honest, bare bones attitude towards bread is perhaps why E5 has seen such success. Ben and his team are passionate about traditional baking techniques, particular with sourdough, in which adhering to the leaven’s demands can be quite a challenge.

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E5 screams locality (in a very cool, Earth-Mother kind of way). One of their most popular breads is the Hackney Wild; their own invention, the bread is a delicious combination of organic unbleached white flour, organic stoneground wholemeal flour, organic rye flour, water and sea salt. Every wholesale loaf is delivered by the very special E5 bike, and Ben says that even the name “Bakehouse” indicates this ethos of community.

Ben and the Bakehouse will commission local art projects if it seems they will work, and the backyard of the Bakehouse recently became the space for The E5 Bakehouse and Burnt Enz Food and Music Festival, which showcased local bands and foodie movers and shakers as well as allowing entry for free.

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Jumping worlds away to bustling Bloomsbury, Bea’s embraces modern baking in an entirely distinct respect; swapping urban farmhouse vibes and framed photos of local gypsy children for giant piping bags filled with coloured icing and lights glowing from within dangling teapots.

Bea Vo, owner of Bea’s of Bloomsbury and three other Bea’s shops in London, is a trained pastry chef who worked at some of London’s top restaurants before creating a business of her own – and it shows. Her cakes are immaculate and inventive, alive with character and a slightly American identity (Bea is a US native), with treats such as snickerdoodles and a peanut butter and jelly concoction, her famous cupcakes and the now-more-famous “Townie”.

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In good food-journalist-type fun, Victoria Stewart of the Evening Standard challenged Bea to create a dessert to counter the staggering success of the New York “Cronut” (croissant + donut). Following a few duds, including the “Muffle” (muffin + waffle), the “Townie” (tart + brownie) was formed.

Then, after an exuberantly positive review from Victoria at the Standard, the world seemed to go a little bit mental for them, ‘it has been quite a nice surprise,’ says Helena Fletcher, Marketing Manager at Bea’s of Bloomsbury, ‘We weren’t even sure when we sent them off what would happen. We were sort of like, “oh well, I don’t know if they will be successful”, but it has been really successful and in store they sell out very, very quickly.’

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The dessert itself is a ridiculously sinful delight. Encased in a buttery pastry case, the brownie inside is utter rich, fudgy gooiness. Crazy, naughty, good. And Bea’s penchant for pastry fusions does not stop there; she is rumoured to be penning a book purely devoted to the subject soon. Arteries, be warned.

Leaping back East-ward, there is another rather remarkable bakery worth dropping into if you find yourself anywhere near Haggerston. With a very basic, stripped-back shop front and amazing rustic breads, inside The Better Health Bakery’s open kitchen, they are doing things a little differently.

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Created by The Centre for Better Health, a community-based charity in Hackney that supports wellbeing and recovery from mental distress, The Better Health Bakery has people with mental illness work as trainees and learn skills such as bread-making, numeracy and customer relations, to ultimately aid those trying to enter the job market.

Project Manager Tabitha Kleinart says that most of the trainees haven’t worked for years and come from a variety of backgrounds, ‘we have had a few who have come to us with learning disabilities rather than strictly mental health issues, some of our trainees are still at hospital and it’s not a really intensive situation, some have recently left hospital and are dealing with living on their own, while some are quite independent and come here on their own.’

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Only a few have completed the three-month traineeship so far (the retail space opened just two months ago), one going on to study catering at Hackney Community College and another continuing to volunteer at a local café where she will help to prepare the pastries.

Though, externally, their unique traineeship model may be what The Better Health Bakery is known for, but in the bakery, bread-making is where the focus lies. Their country sourdough is a bestseller, and if you’re just nipping in for a flat white and cinnamon swirl, you won’t be disappointed.

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