Feeding the multitude

Categories: Features

What began as a small stall selling breads and pastries transformed into a Borough Market institution when Matt Jones joined forces with baker Justin Gellatly and chef Louise Gellatly and opened Bread Ahead bakery and baking school. Now, four years on, they’re sharing their secrets with the masses, in the form of brand new cookbook Baking School: the Bread Ahead Cookbook. Viel Richardson catches up with the talented trio to find out more

Interview: Viel Richardson
Portrait: Paul Thompson

You don’t have to spend too much time in the vicinity of the Bread Ahead stall near the entrance of Borough Market to hear the phrase “That’s the stall that sells the doughnuts”, whispered with the reverence of David Dimbleby commentating on a royal wedding, or the exuberance of a Usain Bolt victory lap. Such is the fame of these luxurious sugar-dusted offerings, stuffed with fillings like vanilla cream, rich chocolate and salted caramel custard, I suspect had they been around in the ancient world, they would play a central role in various Greek myths as rewards for virtuous demi-gods for heroic deeds, or temptations that mere mortals failed to resist before succumbing to a sticky end.

But a glance at the stall reveals that Bread Ahead is about so much more. There are brownies, custard tarts, baguettes, focaccia, cheesy breadsticks and piles of the sourdough loaves for which they are—justly—famous: made using natural yeasts using a slow fermentation method, the way all bread was made before 20th century, these sourdoughs possess a complexity of flavour simply not possible of bread made in today’s vast industrial bakeries.

From the very early days of Bread Ahead, Matt Jones, Justin Gellatly and Louise Gellatly knew they wanted to share their knowledge and love of baking with the public. Now, the three bakers have got together to write a book. Baking School: The Bread Ahead Cookbook takes the reader on a comprehensive, knowledgeable and, above all, accessible journey into the world of artisan baking.

The contents of the book are closely tied to the activities of the Bread Ahead Bakery School, the initial idea of which was to teach a couple of small courses to a few students a week. However, such was the demand that they now offer more than 20 courses, teaching hundreds of students each month the delights of baking everything from Bath buns and lardy cakes, to Swedish rye bread and focaccia. They even give away the secrets to those legendary doughnuts. And now there is book encouraging us to go ahead and try it at home.

What was your approach to putting this book together?
Matt Jones: We wanted something quite homely and accessible, which is why we based it around our experiences with the baking school. We really want to get people baking, so we wanted a book that would introduce people to the world of artisanal baking in a way that would show them that they could have a go and achieve great results at home.

Justin Gellatly: We are very passionate about what we do and have each made every recipe in this book. We wanted a sense that when you are reading a recipe you are making the thing with us, not just reading a list of instructions. We were trying to create a more immersive experience. 

You mentioned the baking school: what was the original idea behind it. Tell us more…
MJ: I used to spend a lot of time working on a bakery stall at Borough Market and people were forever asking questions. What is a sourdough? What is rye bread? How do you get this crust? What does fermentation do? There was so much hunger for knowledge, so I thought it would be nice to create a small space where we could bring people in and teach things to them properly.

Louise Gellatly: We started off with the bread bakery workshop. The Italian class came very soon afterwards and there has been a natural progression towards teaching other classes, as people asked us how to bake other things.

Baking School: the Bread Ahead Cookbook, front cover

Why is rule one of the ‘five basic rules’ you list “make a cup of tea”?
LG: Enjoying the process is a real part of baking. It is a happy thing, to make your own bread, and you should be relaxed when you start to bake. I get this warm fuzzy feeling when I’m really involved in the baking, it’s lovely.

How did this approach show when you were adapting the recipes for the home baker?
JG: There is a lot of snobbery with baking, about sticking to certain percentages. I was never taught that while I was training—they were not held up as some kind of cage you could not break free from. We base our recipes on flavours. If we think something needs a bit more salt, we will add more salt. If we think a dough needs more fermenting, we will increase the fermentation time.

MJ: In the end, we are just trying to bake something that tastes great and looks good, so we follow where the recipe leads us.

How did you account for the fact that everybody has different ovens?
JG: We baked all the recipes in a knackered old oven we have at home. The shelves don’t fit, the baking trays were propped up with spare bread tins and the oven kept cutting out, so the temperature was unstable—and the recipes all still worked. We wanted to make sure that the recipes would work in whatever oven a person has.

Are there new recipes in the book?
LG: Yes, there are lots of new recipes in the book. We went through our memories of recipes we had discovered on our travels, like the black Russian bagels, or hadn’t baked in years. Others were suggestions and we also came across some new recipes in the research we had to do for the book.

MJ: There are also some originals, like the wild garlic and cheddar scone.We wanted to make something special for St George’s Day and wild garlic was in season at the time so I tried that, and there is always great cheese here at the Market. The result is wonderful. Just remember, for a good cheese scone you have to put in lots of cheese.

Louise, you say the ‘Handsome white tin loaf’ is your favourite. Why?
LG: Firstly, it is the best bread for a great bacon sandwich. Also, people look down on it because it is simple but when cooked well, it has so much flavour and a wonderful texture. I think it sums up our attitude to baking: something simple can be beautiful, if cooked with good ingredients and care.

I see there is also a gluten free section.
JG: We wanted to make sure that there was something there for people who have problems tolerating gluten, that would taste delicious and look great. We approached it like everything else. We bought several types of gluten free flours, put our thinking caps on, and played with recipes until we had ones we liked.

What recipe would each of you suggest people try?
LG: The Greek pitta from the flat breads. It is a very easy recipe, quick to do and every time I make them it is like oh my god, these are just like the ones we have in Greece. There is this wonderful dish Justin and me both love called gyros, which is pitta bread filled with either pork or chicken and some salad. Tasting these immediately takes me back to the places we have eaten them.

MJ: I’d say the amaretti biscuits. They are so easy to do, they come out well every time, and people love them. There is always a chorus of “oohs” and “ahhs” when people see them come out of the oven.

JG: A sexy custard tart, they have a nice little wobble.

What do you love most about baking?
JG: When you bring a sourdough loaf out of the oven it does this thing we call ‘singing’, which is the crackling noise it makes as it cools down. I loved that sound the first time I heard it and have never got tired of it in all my years of baking. I still love it today.

LG: I work a lot in the school, and I love the look on people’s faces when they take their bread out of the oven. They are so overjoyed that they have made such a wonderful loaf, they almost glow. Seeing them enjoying the things they have made and sharing in the success of the other bakers is something I really love.

MJ: I enjoy the process. I like the routine of making the same bread every day. Once you are really at home with the rhythms of baking, it is a wonderfully meditative process.

What would you like people to tell you about this book, six months down the line?
JG: That they are still reaching for it on a regular basis. That it is easy to make their own breads, cakes and doughnuts, and there is so much fun to be had in the process.

MJ: That they have booked some Bread Ahead courses and become part of the movement for baking and eating real bread.

LG: That they are enjoying baking as much as we do, and not putting pressure on themselves to be the perfect baker. So you didn’t fold the dough as many times as you should, because you misread the recipe—that’s fine. You will still get something very tasty out of the oven and have the satisfaction of knowing that if you follow all the steps, it will be even better next time.