Flourish, a world-class London bakery, and a supplier to a number of companies in the sandwich sector, is setting a high benchmark. Nellie Nichols went to visit this artisan shrine.
It’s that time again and I’m excited. The Poetry Society’s 32nd National Poetry Competition is now open until October. In 1983 it was won by a relatively unknown poet; Carol Ann Duffy; twenty six years later she’s the Poet Laureate.
This competition attracts entries from all over the world – Nantwich to Nairobi, literally. Perhaps this year I’ll enter a poem about sandwiches as I’ve always loved poetry, especially if it’s about food. My absolute favourite was written in 1689 and is entitled ‘The Bread Knife Ballard’. The first two verses go like this:
A little child was sitting upon her mother’s knee And down her cheeks the bitter tears did flow; And as I sadly listened, I heard this tender plea ‘twas uttered in a voice so soft and low……
Please Mother don’t stab Father with the bread knife. Remember t’was a gift when you were wed. But if you must stab Father with the bread knife, Please Mother use another for the bread.
One can only deduce from this that bread knives in the 1600’s were multi-purpose, but I’m struggling to think of what to do with all of mine since I’ve just discovered I have seven in total, which seems a little excessive, not to mention weird, to say the least. I’ve no idea how I’ve collected quite so many but I’ll put it down to frequenting second-hand kitchen equipment stalls at Car Boot sales over the years.
I have always cut bread from a loaf and can remember being taught how to cut a straight slice by my grandfather when I was dangerously too short to see over the edge of the work surface in the first place to see what it was I was doing. If it turned out straight enough in his eyes I was rewarded by being allowed to have a generous spoonful of his homemade Damson Jam on it. If not I had to wait to try again another day.
I would never think to buy my bread already sliced but, sadly, I think I’m in the minority on this one. The convenience of the sliced loaf in our busy modern lives is a standard supermarket attraction, not to mention the lack of mess in just being able to pull a slice out of the cellophane packet and bob it straight into the toaster.
I, on the other hand, am out with the bread board and the bread knife and crumbs and seeds cascade everywhere, which is just part of the ritual to me. I then have the strange habit of scooping up all the seeds that might have fallen off in the process and putting them on top when the butter’s melted.
Another pitfall in all this is being able to track down a decent loaf in the first place. Bread is one of the spiritual and nutritional staples of the global diet in some form or other. Dark, light, leavened or unleavened it has been feeding the world for millennia. It is without doubt one of the greatest losses that the village or local bakery has all but disappeared since the Second World War.
Walking into a working bakery is like entering a warm and homely kitchen, yet unless you’re lucky enough to have one near you that smell and sense of comfort will be missing from your life. The closest you may ever get to it is in the ‘aroma’ of the baked-off baguette on the high street, a sort of artificial simulation like people who are afraid of flying getting into those capsules that move about madly but don’t actually go anywhere.
Modern commercial baking now seems to be all about making bread as quickly and cheaply as possible. The result is acceptable in a commercially driven mass market way but the Chorleywood process of using lower protein wheats and chemical improvers, then intensely working the dough violently with high speed mixers, resulting in a flour to packed loaf in three and a half hours, has a lot to answer to in my book in undermining the purity of the loaf.
This cost, time and above all quality cutting method is now responsible for 80% of the UK produced bread market. Look, don’t get me wrong, I understand the need for it especially in our industry but there must be a good balance in all things we eat.
Happily, there are a few that fly in the face of progress and stick to traditional laborious methods of producing bread. Bread that is a far cry from the mass-produced fluffy sliced stuff that fill the shelves of nearly every food shop in the land.
Flourish started life as a dream shared between two bakers: Edmund Soliva and Paul O’Donnell. Between them they had worked in most of London’s prestigious hotels and restaurants. While they worked through the early hours they talked about starting a bakery of their own, producing the breads they always wanted to.
Paul came to baking via an abandoned apprenticeship in plumbing, then graphic design. He didn’t like either. Taking up an apprenticeship at the Pont de la Tour restaurant he moved on to Conran’s Bluebird where he met Edmund. By now he had fallen in love with bread and the process and techniques of traditional baking. Edmund moved on to the St Martins Lane Hotel and after six months Paul followed on the promise of a new bakery opening in their sister hotel The Sanderson; it never happened.
Then fate took hold in 2000 when Paul found a run down bagel factory inside the former Tottenham Brewery in North London by chance in Loot magazine.
By day he and Edmund continued their jobs, by night they renovated the bakery, until seven months later they were ready to open. With just one customer, Tom’s (Conran) Deli.
Wasn’t this all very scary, I ask him as we sit together in his micro-office in the bakery, pressed up and personal to the girls taking orders on the phone? The office is crammed and the walls are adorned with awards, many very crooked, demonstrating that more important day to day occurrences have taken precedence than straightened frames. There are no egos here.
I’m expecting Paul to look elderly, rotund and dusted in flour, but he’s gorgeous and very young looking with a wonderful calmness. In fact, he looks far more like a contestant on The X Factor than a baker. What strikes me as he talks is his absolute normalness, and his complete lack of the pretention I’ve come across so often in baking.
He is happy to admit he was scared when they opened, but he says there was excitement too because they believed in what they were doing and knew they would grow customers.
I’ve always loved people who have the courage of their convictions and I know from tasting his breads in the sandwiches at Farm Collective his product is an outstanding one that is easily recognisable as being world class. He recognises we are in the 21st century but wants to utilise modern technology without sacrificing traditional values and techniques while providing consistency, never an easy task with bread.
Two years ago Edmund retired but Flourish still goes from strength to strength. Now with over 150 customers, the portfolio of products is as simple today as it’s always been. 3,000 sq ft producing up to 300 products, 24 hrs a day, with 20 doughs made from a variety of wild starters. Only four main ingredients are used: flour, salt, yeast and water, yet by changing the percentages and the fermentation process this gives dramatically different results. Danish pastries and croissants that melt in the mouth, breads with crusts that crack like icy snow when you first walk on it. No weird inclusions, no mad ingredients, nothing short of plain and simple.
Paul walks me round the bakery and everyone is cheerfully making pastries and rolls by hand. I watch a three metre roll of pain au raisin being made like an art form; one of those things that looks absurdly easy but impossible if you try it without the wealth of experience these bakers have.
I see miniature brioche burger buns, English muffins, sheets of croissant dough being made with massive slabs of butter the size of street paving stones, racks of delicious breads everywhere I look, made from the selection of ten flours from four countries: English, Canadian, Polish and French. Everyone busy rolling and cutting and egg washing doughs.
Paul drives me to the tube in one of the delivery vans and by my side I have a big bag of warm bread. I have a yeast free Pain Rustique, known for its long fermentation and open texture, a wonderful classic white bloomer and a granary bloomer, with what I later find out has a malty, buttery taste as it’s made with black treacle for a richer flavour. Then there are the fruit Danishes made with apricots and pears and apple.
On the way I have to ask him what he thinks is the secret of his success, what is his USP when his product portfolio is so plain and simple? He answers immediately, without the slightest hesitation. What he does he does ‘well, properly, with flexibility, reliability, quality, and good service’. Now doesn’t that sound insanely easy to copy. And I’m off down the escalator like a rabbit into the tube to start eating my pastries on the way home.