(first published in British Baker)
Thought I’d test a recipe for a Christmas cake, and vary it a bit using mead to soak the fruit in. Mead. You remember, that rather sweet honey-based alcohol that became the stuff of our history. I thought its sweetness and honey notes would be good in a fruitcake, but as the recipe was for a consumer magazine it made sense to check where it’s available. Tried the local supermarkets, but no luck. The assistants at the old local wine store, with its dusty old bottles and young staff, were puzzled. “Ever heard of a wine called Mead?” one shouted out the back. I tried to explain that it was more of liquor, but that made matters worse. “Ever heard of a wine called Liquor”. At this point I left the store quickly.
It seems to happen every seven years or so. The ingredients I’m used to, the equipment I know, the familiar faces in my world have moved on. The flours are different, better I’m told, and spare parts are no longer available for the cherished equipment in the bakery. Obsolete, the reps say. Everyone’s moved on. Our consumer’s diet has become more promiscuous and flighty. As soon as a product becomes very successful and imitated, the decline quickly sets in. At that point you’re left with products that don’t sell, made with ingredients no longer required, made from kit no longer suited to the fashionable demands of the market.
Add to that list skills no longer of use, and you have an accurate picture of the bind food manufacturers and their employees are in. Yet, we do have a use. Though it feels sometimes that our place on the national dinner table has been taken by other foods, our somewhat shrunken form still contributes greatly to the economy. Though venture capital is scarce for baking companies whose livelihood depends on the fickle buying procedures of the multiples, there must be those who look beyond our old-fashioned demeanour. And see that we draw from past knowledge to sustain our growth.
Without investment, how will we create the brand heroes in the bakery sector, to focus the gaze of the city, and its politicians on us? Perhaps you think only the consumer is swayed by the whims of fashion? Just reflect on the last few years, the Internet and mobile phone ‘revolutions’, and compare that to our industry. Perhaps we’re not sexy; maybe we’re old-fashioned and seasoned with experience, but unlike some we produce a dependable and growing income for a consumer who will turn increasingly to us as the winds of recession begin to blow. I will happily go again and again to meetings, demanding interest rather than dismissal for our bakery sector. Most of the time I get looked at like the nutter asking for mead at the wine store. But eventually those outside our industry will grasp the notion that the success we have as our goal is achievable and just ahead of us.