When I visited Alex last month in London, he was still operating his bakery, Today Bread, out of his home, the Brexit vote was two days away and everyone I met thought the Remain side would prevail. Today of course Brexit is a done deal and were I still in London I would be interviewing Alex at his bakery’s new abode in Walthamstow Central, a part of East London which, although only within 15-minute biking distance from his home in Clapton, was still a village a few years ago. The new premises is part of a community-oriented creative hub. A wide open space, it features a retail bakery and a café, which finally makes it possible for Alex to move away from the by-subscription-only business model he adopted when he first started.
Born to a Swiss dad and a French mom, Alex grew up in Lausanne, Switzerland, and graduated with a BA in graphic design from ECAL in 2000. He worked as a freelancer for three years before completing a MA in Communication Art and Design in 2005 at the Royal College of Art in London. After graduation, he co-founded a design studio where he worked for seven years, specializing on cultural events (galleries, artists, etc.). All the while he developed an interest in the use of bread as a tool for communication.
In colloquial French, a friend is a copain from the Latin cum panis (with bread), someone you share bread with. Companion in English has the same etymology but a different meaning as does the French word compagnon. Don’t you love the stealthy ways in which words convey layers and layers of meaning? I know I do.
For years Alex ran The Bread Workshops and other creative food events, developing his own recipes and testing them as he went. Then two years ago people started asking about the breads he was baking at home, so he launched an experimental bread club: subscribers received a different bread each week, always rye-based and almost always in a tin (pan). The loaves were delivered directly to their door by bike.
The membership expanded. Today Alex runs four different bread clubs and supplies restaurants and health food stores. All his breads are made with organic flours and leavened with natural starter. There was no room for a mixer in the small room in his house that he used as a lab. All the available space was used by a small deck oven, four stacked fridges along the side wall and a bench underneath the window.
So all doughs were mixed by hand (yes, each and everyone of the four hundred loaves this tiny bakery produced every week.)
On Fridays and Saturdays, that’s eighty-eight kilos of dough (one hundred and ninety four pounds) that got mixed by hand in small buckets. Impressive! Alex typically works twelve to fourteen hours a day, getting up at 3 AM on Saturdays, at 5 AM the rest of the week. At 9 AM, Yann Lamour arrives to help mix, shape and bake.
Incidentally I met Yann last year when he worked at The Bikery (Better Health). Trained at Ferrandi, the famous Parisian culinary school, he holds both pastry and bread-baking degrees and he is waiting impatiently to find his own premises and open a pastry-shop. Hopefully by the time I visit London next it will have happened. Another post in the works for the Meet the Baker series!
I forgot to ask where Alex and Yann met but the world of artisan baking is still small in London and they likely crossed paths in one of the best bakeries there. Alex says that when he first started bread-baking and decided to make a career out of it, he thought it would take him three months at best to learn the trade. It actually took him three years. He worked at several bakeries: Better Health, E5, Brick House Bread. Alex says that there is a sharing spirit in London that doesn’t exist in France to the same degree. For instance in France even for an unpaid internship the applicant has to agree to absorb the risk in case of an accident. For that very reason he had no choice but decline an invitation he received from Maison Kayser. Also in England you don’t have to have a baking degree to open a bakery, in France you do (unless you hire a professional baker to actually do the work). In any case, London is a great place to be for a French baker. While it may not really be the world’s sixth French city, it still counts thousands and thousands of French expatriates, there are half-a-dozen French schools and I can testify after having spent ten days there last month that the streets do indeed resonate with Gallic accents. So, yes, customers abound. Plus the hope is that demand for real bread will continue growing among British customers as well.
Alex keeps an all-rye starter at 200% hydration which he feeds twice a day. From it he makes a young rye levain at 80% hydration which he uses for white bread, feeding at 6 PM, leaving it out all night at 22°C (72°F) and using it in the morning. He likes the convenience of having only one starter and loves the flavor of rye. His Swiss background might have something to do with it. I do remember with nostalgia the rye breads of the Valais area of Switzerland, back when we still lived in Europe and spent most family vacations in the Alps.
Although the new bakery features retail space, the bike deliveries will continue and might in fact be complemented with other equally environmentally friendly delivery systems: Alex is looking into possibly reaching an agreement with a company which is delivering milk in small electric vehicles called milk floats.
Speaking of bread subscriptions, there are four types of clubs. The most popular one is the Table Bread Club : same bread every week (a mixture of whole-wheat, white and rye on rye starter). Alex bakes that bread for restaurants as well in big two-kilo loaves. On the day I visited he was making 22 one-kilo loaves and 12 two-kilo ones.
Another popular one is the Reasonable Rye: Soaked Cracked Rye & Linseeds, Caraway, Pumpkin Seeds & Oats and Plain Rye, each week featuring a different loaf.
If you feel a bit bolder, then the Adventure Bread Club is for you. It features four alternating breads, a different one each week. On the day of my visit, it was Fig & Walnut, the following week was to be Spent Grain (grain from a brewery soaked in hot water for 9 minutes), the next one Black Sesame and finally Sunflower & Pumpkin. All these breads look and smell (or sound) terrific but because I am curious by nature, the club I would join in a heartbeat if I lived in East London is the fourth one: Experimental Bread. Each week brings a surprise. The week I was there, the mystery bread was a Lovage Loaf from a recipe Alex developed in cooperation with Florence Knight, a British chef. For this bread, fresh lovage leaves are steeped in hot water. Once cooled the tea is used in the dough in lieu of regular water.
Other lovage leaves are dehydrated then mixed with salt and used in the final dough.
I didn’t get to taste the lovage loaf as the dough wasn’t even mixed yet when I visited the bakery but the leaves sure had an intriguing fragrance. Past “adventurous” breads have included, among others, coconut & coriander, black pepper, chamomile, ginger, roiboos & sprouted lentils.
Come to think of it, what I’d love best would be to subscribe to all four clubs and share with family and friends! Gluten heaven! One can always dream…
Alex uses flour from Shipton Mill but Shipton Mill does import grain from Canada and Kazakhstan and he’d like to go more local and work exclusively with British flours. He already uses whole-wheat and very creamy hi-extraction flours from Cann Mills to make some of his breads.
For the table bread above, the method is as follows: mixing, three folds (one every 30 minutes), 1 hour rest, scaling and proofing for 30 minutes in bannetons, then slow overnight rise in the fridge. Alex usually bakes straight from the fridge but that may be because his fridges are not very cold (over 11°C/about 52°F). Dough temperature after mixing is usually 24°C (75°F). Room temp is slightly lower at 23°C/73°F.
Having seen how squeezed Alex was for space in his home lab, I can’t wait to see in person what the new space looks like and what he manages to do with it. Alex says the biggest expenses besides the oven (four-deck with three trays per deck, it will be quite a luxury after making do for years with a repurposed pizza oven) will be staff and of course the coffee machine, a must in a self-respecting bakery/café. The café sits 30 to 40 people. Alex plans to use it for events and workshops as well as for music and films at night. At lunch time it will offer (and maybe already does, I don’t know since I haven’t seen it yet) salads, sandwiches and pastries. If you live in or near London or if you travel there, go and have a bite there and let me know. And please say hello for me. I wish I could join you.