An interview with Helen of White Cottage Bakery
BeeBee Wraps welcomed The White Cottage Bakery as a stockist this year and a few weeks ago headed to Helen's microbakery to learn more about sourdough and her passion for artisanal food.
From where did your love of bread originate?
My family were dairy farmers for many generations and my earliest memories all stem from the constant action in my grandparents’ farmhouse kitchen. As a small child I would be invisible as my burly uncles marched in and out, grabbing a bite as they went about their busy days. There would be a crusty farmhouse loaf on a well-worn bread board, which would be cut in thick slices and slathered in butter. No matter what the meal, the bread would be there. A constant. A comfort. And in the cool of the evening, I would sit and watch in fascination as my grandfather shaped the butter pats with wooden paddles at the kitchen table.
How did enjoying your own bread turn into a micro-bakery?
It was a moment. A chance alignment. I was looking to return to work as my children had grown older and I was determined to make sure my next venture would be something I was passionate about. I felt sure it would involve food, although my background - as a science graduate, advertising executive and then owner of a small consultancy - could not have been further from the field I was about to enter. My passion for food has been life-long, probably from those early days at the farmhouse kitchen or collecting the eggs for my grandmother, and friends and family were encouraging me to work with food. But where, at my age and with no professional experience would I start?
Then two things happened: first, I heard a Radio 4 programme talking about a successful microbakery business, run from home premises, and secondly, I bought a loaf of sourdough from an upmarket supermarket. A really bad loaf of sourdough. That was my lightbulb moment. I knew I made great bread – bread that just wasn’t available locally – so, just maybe, I could produce it on a micro basis and see if there was a market for it. I thought I’d have a hard sell on my hands with local shops and businesses, but, in fact, I have had to turn down far more business than I can possibly cope with. It turns out, everybody else loves good bread too. It’s a craft we lost after the war and now, throughout the country, people are turning back to hand made products, keen to know the provenance of their food.
What is your favourite aspect of the business, what keeps you getting up for the day?
These days I mix the baking with teaching others to bake. And I love it! I’m extraordinarily lucky to have the nicest clients in the world. Bread always seems to put a smile on people’s faces. Whether they’re buying it, eating it or making it. In fact, if it’s still warm, they’ll often subconsciously cradle it like a baby. The word companion literally means ‘with bread’ - the person one breaks bread with. It’s been so fundamental to human life for thousands of years, I think it’s ingrained in us all, atavistically, to take comfort from a loaf of bread: no matter what else is going on in the world, that loaf sitting there means all will be well.
How important do you think artisanal food, in particular, sourdough bread, is to our culture, health, and education?
I’m so delighted with the growth of artisanal food. Across the country cottage industries are popping up, producing fabulous hand made products such as cheeses, charcuterie, cordials, jams, and pickles. Britain was long derided, not unfairly, for its food industry and we lost many of the skills to make our own food. Even the smallest village in France will have its own bakery. If not two! Now we are relearning these skills and, in many cases, improving on tradition with new innovations that make our products give those on the continent a good run for their money!
Knowing where our food comes from is so important. Look what happened to our diet and skill-pool when, for the last 30 years, there has been a huge decline in home cooking. If children aren’t taught at home or at school how to make things from first principles, we will have generations of people reliant on what the supermarkets prepare for them. Supermarkets, not you, will ultimately decide what goes into your bodies. An additive-free diet from simple ingredients should be accessible to all. And if we can keep the skills alive, it can be.
Artisanal food is expensive. It has been handmade and the maker’s time is obviously key in the pricing. But, take a loaf of sourdough, costing anywhere from £2.50 to £3.50, depending on its ingredients. That loaf will last a week, every last crumb will be savoured and not a crust will be thrown away. Compare that to the endless waste of supermarket sliced bread – we’ve all been there! The UK throws away around 24 million slices of bread a day. It’s also substantial enough to be incorporated into your meals, rather than the dissatisfaction of a cotton-wool slice of sandwich bread that seems to add nothing to your life or your stomach. Not worth the calories, as Prue Leith would say!
Sourdough is also a godsend to people whose gluten intolerance has severely curtailed their eating habits. It’s known as ‘slow dough’ for good reason. A loaf typically has been fermenting for anywhere from 18 to 48 hours. During that time, the gluten in the bread undergoes changes which mean it is far more digestible, nutritious and easy on the stomach than your rapid-bake, high yeast supermarket bread. The fermentation is complex, but the principles are not. Good bread is made from these 4 ingredients: flour, water, salt & yeast (whether wild, in the case of sourdough, or commercial).
I’d love everybody to learn how to make their own bread. To know where the food they eat comes from. It should start at home, in the kitchen, but it feels as if we have a missing generation. So, it needs to start at school. Teach the children and they’ll teach their parents. Let’s all make time for food and for sharing food. We all need com-panions.
What is your favourite baked good to make and eat?
Unfair question! And can only ever be answered really as ‘favourite of the moment’. One of the things I love about my job is I get to research and write new recipes all the time. It’s a tough life. At this moment in time, though, it has to be babka. I’ve been researching it for a new series of short mid-week workshops I’m running from September on ‘How to Make the Perfect…’. Babka is a divine, butter-enriched dough, flavoured typically with chocolate or cinnamon, plaited, twisted and baked to a meltingly light and delicious loaf. To get the perfect loaf, I had to make and eat several. And then a few more. Just to be sure.
Where is White Cottage Bakery going next?
Exciting times ahead! From September, our mid-week short workshops will be up and running as well as our weekend full-day workshops. We’re also running a sourdough workshop at the beautiful Sacrewell farm and mill, near Peterborough (location for BBC’s Victorian Bakers series), for Sourdough September. I can’t wait to lay my hands on that original working wood-fired oven! And in 2019, we’re working in collaboration with author, chef, teacher and fellow sourdough enthusiast, Hilary Cacchio, to run a residential baking & cookery course in France, taking in local markets and grain mills to make the most of their wonderful seasonal ingredients.
We’ve had to drop some of the long-standing outlets for our bread as there are only so many hours in a day. But we have plans to open our farmhouse up as a monthly pop-up weekend bakery so local people can still buy their favourite loaves and bakery treats from us. We here to share the love – our love for baking, our love for local food and most of all, our love for bread!
Helen's courses can be booked online here but you'd better be quick because they fill up super fast, and on the course, you can stock up on BeeBee Wraps at The White Cottage Bakery shop and take your fresh bread home in the most sustainable way possible!