(first published in British Baker)
There are only two categories of bakers. The first are scratch bakers, those of us who take flour, water, salt and yeast, and take pleasure from the bread we create. The second are now to be know as sniff bakers, whose profit is from the aroma those part baked frozen loaves impart as they toast in the oven. The issue is now resolved, henceforth everybody line up under one of the two categories.
I can’t think of another trade where so many qualifiers are used. It angers me so much. Some of us sell ‘real’ bread. As opposed to ‘unreal’? Others sell ‘fresh’ bread three days afters it’s been baked, surely a contradiction in terms. Even the dreadful phrase ‘craft’ baker sounds like we should form a partnership with the guild of papier-mâché workers. We’re not craft bakers, we’re simply bakers. Think about it. By using these words to describe ourselves and our loaf, you infer there is something distinctly dodgy about the work we and other bakers do.
Perhaps because our work occurs at night it is tinged with mystery and suspicion. From the moment our civilisation looked to men to bake the daily loaf, taken from the hands of women and the home, the baker has been seen as a threat. Then later our alliance with the church and the monarchy fuelled the public’s fear and loathing. Bakers who achieved the whitest and softest loaves were accused of adulterating with alum, urine and graveyard bones. When Des O’Connor joked at the Baking Industry Awards 2000 that we throw any old rubbish into the mix, his words hinted at a similar suspicion.
Will the customer remember who among us are villains? Of course not. I remember there was a scandal a few years back over anti-freeze in cheap wine. Can’t remember vineyard, distributor, or country. But every time I swig the first glass of the cheap stuff, I think ‘anti-freeze’. But in the aftermath we didn’t see a rush to prefix the term wine with artisanal, craft, or traditional. These winemakers just went back to the task of selling their integrity to the customer.
I long for an industry that is free of ‘crusty national products’, that leaves the notion of ‘dashboard dining’ to the higher minds of chemical conglomerates, and goes back to creating a perfect loaf. Baking excellence, if you like. Creating loaves of bread where the skill and craftsmanship is tangible, loaves that almost sell themselves. You know what I mean. We’ve all made in our time those wonder breads, the sort that make you gasp in astonishment and realise there are not enough words our language.
The skills exist. There are so many good bakers, yet so few good bakeries. Too many nervous frightened bakers who won’t try to rediscover the reason they entered the trade. Apologising for every loaf and the dwindling revenue they make. So let’s make a fresh start, right now. Make our goal as an industry to dispense with the meaningless words, and create a baking industry in Britain that resonates with excellence. I want the spirits of John Kirkland, John Blandy, Owen Simmons and William Jago to look down and say we have created the future they worked for. You give us a decade of work towards excellence, and we will return to our place at the top.