Magazine article Management Today

Where's the Dough in Artisan Bread?

Magazine article Management Today

Where's the Dough in Artisan Bread?

Article excerpt

Long since commoditised into blandness, the run-of-the-mill British loaf is being put to shame by the exotic output of more caring bakers - and their 'gastronaut' customers have stayed loyal throughout the downturn. But are there easier ways to make a crust? Rhymer Rigby reports.

Those who frequent farmers' markets and delicatessens might assume that the long-running food revolution has finally caught up with our daily bread. Visit London's Borough Market and you'll find stalls for outfits like Flour Power City and De Gustibus groaning with lovely looking loaves and toothsome baked treats. Their breads are things of beauty - huge sourdoughs shaped by hand, dense, chewy ryes and focaccias glistening with olive oil and salt. They're about as far from a loaf of industrial sliced white as Parma ham is from Spam.

Of course, beautiful bread costs. A basic supermarket medium white loaf, made using the high-speed, industrial Chorleywood bread process, is about 75p. Its artisanal equivalent is likely to be around pounds 2 - and the more esoteric breads, notably the sourdoughs, are usually a lot more. However, it's a price that the middle-class gastronauts who form the bulk of shoppers at these places seem happy to pay. Perhaps the ultimate in upmarket artisan bread is found at the Hobbs House Bakery in the Cotswolds. Here, Britain's most expensive loaf retails at pounds 21, but it is a 2kg monster and the price includes courier delivery.

But are these upmarket loaves really evidence of a genuine revolution in the bread we eat? Or is talk of large-scale change a case of the metrocentric, middle-class foodies projecting their values on the Mother's Pride-loving masses? And, given the prices these loaves command, is baking artisan bread an easy way to make lots of dough?

If there is a bread revolution, then it's early days. For decades now, Britain's bread market has been one of the most highly industrialised and commoditised. According to the Federation of Bakers, hungry Brits buy pounds 3.4bn worth of bread a year, and nearly 11 million loaves are sold per day. Of these, 78% by value come from large industrial bakers, and 17% from in-store bakeries in supermarkets.

Some 80% of bread eaten in the UK is sold sliced and wrapped. A mere 5% comes from master bakers (independents and craft bakers), and not all of them are commonly considered to be artisan bakers. Although there is little agreement on what constitutes artisan bread (see page 59), the best that can be said is that artisan market commands less than one-twentieth of the market by value (and less than one-thirtieth by volume, given the hefty prices). In some European countries, by contrast, the figures are reversed - 80% of the bread comes from local independents.

Those who like to imagine that artisan bakers spend their nights baking in rustic stone buildings in the shires will be disappointed. On a grey and rainy winter day recently, I went to an industrial estate near Millwall in south-east London to visit Flour Power City. Like most food production facilities, the bakery is all clean, modern hygienic surfaces - steel, a specialised flooring and giant ovens - inside a plain industrial unit. What surprises, though, is how simple it all is: two giant mixers, a prover, where the bread rises, and a couple of ovens There are specialised areas for non-bread products such as croissants (where dough has vast slabs of butter beaten into it), pastries and the company's celebrated brownies.

What sets bakeries such as Flour Power City apart from their market-bestriding industrial brethren, explains founder Matt Jones, is an emphasis on quality ingredients and time rather than quantity, speed and price. It's a labour-intensive business and the breads are allowed to rise naturally, without being hurried along with extra yeast. 'If Flour Power City was an industrial bakery,' he says, 'we'd employ three or four people and it would all be automated. …

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