Last May was my first time ever in Yorkshire and I fell in love. Hard. Of course it helped that we were there during a long spell of uninterrupted sunshine and that having been an avid fan of the Brontë sisters’ novels and the James Herriot veterinary stories all my life, I knew in my bones before I even got there that I would fall under the spell.
We saw no mansion resembling Wuthering Heights and no heather in bloom either (heather flowers in late summer) but we saw plenty of brownish rounded hills, impossibly green wool-tufted meadows and narrow stone-hemmed roads.
We happened to visit the little town of Thirsk (Darrowby in the Herriot books) on market day and even though we saw more goods imported from China than live chickens and bleating lambs, the faces were those of the Yorkshire people Herriot had so lovingly described and the Yorkshire accent was music to my ears. After 24 hours in Yorkshire only one thing was missing: bread. I am talking real bread. Not the kind that passed for bread at the B&B (don’t get me started). But I knew where to go (thank you, instagram!) If you haven’t see baker Philip Clayton’s instagram feed, go check it out. You’d be missing out if you didn’t.
Phil is head baker/owner at Haxby Bakehouse, a few miles north of York. The first thing you see when you enter the bakery is a big loaf sitting on top of the counter, sliced open for samples.
But before you even set your eyes on it, you are already breathing in its fragrance and you know you have found what you were looking for.
Before becoming a baker nine years ago, Phil worked at a Virgin megastore. When I asked him what drew him to bread originally, he said there were no sourdough to be had anywhere when he was young. Determined to make his own, he took a three-day class with Andrew Whitley up in Scotland. And that’s where it all started.
Haxby Bakehouse has been in business for nine years. Before, the premises were occupied by a health food store which operated a small bakery. Phil worked with the old owner for a week but the bread-making process was very quick and not healthful. He took out the dough improvers then introduced pre-ferments. Initially he only made sourdough on Fridays and Saturdays but no one else was making it nearby, so people came from Leeds or Scarborough to buy a month-worth of bread.
Today Phil makes about 4,000 loaves a week with the help of bakers Jim and Alex (Alex used to be a chef).
The bakery’s signature loaf is the levain made with 85% extraction white flour from Yorkshire Organic Millers.
The process is beautifully streamlined: the dough bulk ferments for 45 minutes at ambient temperature then goes into the fridge overnight.
In the morning, there is no degassing, the dough is divided and cut into baskets, the edges are brought together to form loaves and that’s all there is to it. The final proof is 90 minutes.
The rye is local, and so is the wheat, both grown within a 25-miles radius.
On weekends, Haxby Bakehouse makes rye bread and a lot more variety, working in small batches: sunflower seeds with local fermented honey and malted wheat; when in season, wild garlic and cheese; wheat, emmer, einkorn with rye starter. It keeps two starters: a wheat (50% whole wheat) and a rye.
Phil sent me home with a levain loaf. The fragrance filled our rental car. We ate the bread sparingly in order to make it last. And last it did… It became smaller and smaller but it never lost its freshness. If anything the flavor became even stronger.
We were taking with us a little piece of Yorkshire.