Skip to Content

Labour of love

Clare Finney visits Olivier’s Bakery to find out why the art of baking real bread demands skill, focus, feel and – perhaps above all else – love


Images: Orlando Gili

“There’s no love in a roll,” proclaims Olivier Favrel, over the steady thwump-thwump of the mixer turning fat folds of dough. At first, I don’t understand him. Olivier is a baker: surely a bread roll inspires as much love in him as one of his large pain de campagne loaves? “Bread is for sharing. Break bread around a table, and you will feel a connection that’s quite different to sharing a salad or a chicken,” he explains simply. “Pay close attention, and you will see there is a difference between people passing bread to one another, and passing the salt.”

That’s the first reason you won’t find bread rolls on the Olivier’s Bakery stall at Borough Market. The second is more technical. “Good bread comes from slow fermentation. If you want to make good bread, don’t make 2,000 little rolls of it. It doesn’t work so well,” he says, the weight of 30-odd years’ baking experience resting comfortably beneath his assertion. You can make bread without slow fermentation – bread that’s not sourdough, that is – but “sourdough is the most beautiful way to make bread, and the most natural”. Of course, by sourdough Olivier strictly means bread that takes a full day to prove, using the bakery’s own starter culture, not the so-called sourdoughs you’ll find in certain supermarkets, produced at an industrial speed and quantity. “This is terrible,” he says, French rs rolling dramatically. “It is totally inappropriate and commercial. Sourdough is a slow process. You have to care, you have to focus – and there has to be a great connection between the baker and the bread.”

Olivier Favrel

The production of sourdough, he says, is not something you can control at scale. In fact, it’s not something you can control at all – even at Olivier’s level of operation, which he has deliberately confined to selling through markets. “You’re in control of your ingredients and your method, but no one’s in control once the process has started. You do it together: you and your dough.” Working with organic flour from Shipton Mill in the Cotswolds, Olivier finds that every week tells a different story. “Every batch is unique. One week it’s strong, the next it’s weak, the next we have to add more or less water.” To stick to the same recipe week in week out and do everything by machine would be “a complete disaster. You need to get to know the flour, and it changes each week because they mill in small batches.”

This means that each Monday demands a careful renegotiation of the relationship between the bakers and their dough. “You see the colour, you see how it is going to absorb the water, you see how it reacts in the mixer and how it relaxes.” Only once an understanding between a baker and his dough has been established can he set out with confidence on the “small journey” that is baking sourdough.

This connection is all important. The effects of mood on the creative process have often been expounded upon, but rarely as starkly as when Olivier observes that “a happy baker will make good bread. An unhappy baker will struggle.” A chef can feel love for their ingredients, he says, “like a nice carrot, a leg of lamb or beef – but I don’t think they have the same relationship as bakers do. It is a living thing, dough. It is beautiful.”

Olivier’s starter is now 10 years old. “We feed it twice a day, every day. If you go on holiday, someone has to feed it. If you don’t, you won’t have the life to give to your bread.” It’s like a pet, I observe. “No, it’s like a partner,” Olivier laughs. “If you look after it, it will give you the best bit. If you don’t, then you will get trouble.” Sitting in a large plastic tub, the beige and gloopy starter culture that underpins Olivier’s may not be a looker, but it smells rich and full of life. The mixture is malty and warm, bubbling and fizzing as the yeasts and bacteria work their magic. Its potency is palpable. This is a potion that can undermine even the most precise instructions. “I often contrast baking to the work of a pastry chef. With pastry, you follow the recipe and it is fine. If you need to take a break, or stop and change something in the middle, you can easily do it. With the baker, things will never be that precise – and you cannot leave it and then come back to it. Once you start, you have pressed the button and started this living thing, which you have to stay with. You have to keep focused all the time.”

In fact, Olivier was aged just 13 when he started his own career as a pastry chef in his hometown of Saint-Malo, Brittany. “I didn’t like school. My uncle was a pastry chef and every Sunday he would arrive after his shift, at the end of our family lunch, bearing a cake he had made for us. It was always beautiful – and it always tasted amazing,” Olivier smilingly recalls. “My uncle usually went straight to bed after presenting it, but when I saw the faces of everyone eating it, I thought, this man is making all of us happy. It is better than the Lotto,” he continues. “When you win the Lotto, people fight, but people are happy sharing cake together.” He left school at the earliest opportunity and started as an unpaid assistant at a patisserie down the road.

The following year, he was diagnosed with a wheat allergy – “which is why I wear gloves,” he says, holding up his flour-dusted gloved hands. Needless to say, this didn’t faze him and his eyes light up as he describes his subsequent apprenticeship at a patisserie and bakery a short cycle away from his home town. “Every morning I would stop at the port on my way into work and listen to the masts clinking and the waves sounding. It was very poetic. I loved the silence of being the only one awake at that hour. Then as I approached the bakery and smelt the bread and started making pastries – it just took me.” Fast forward a few years and he was working in Greenwich, his London-based chef brother having convinced him to take a job at Didier’s Patisserie, official supplier of fine cakes and pastries to no less a customer than the Queen.

“We made her a birthday cake, and patisserie for her garden parties and other events, like Wimbledon,” recalls Olivier. “My brother went back home after a few years, but I remained in London.” In France, a pastry chef can only ascend through strict hierarchies – “if you are number three, you can only be promoted to number two. If you are number eight, you can only go up to number seven” – but in London Olivier found that, in the world of macarons and madeleines at least, meritocracy reigned. “If you have the talent, you can rise up to the top very quickly, and I preferred the culture here,” he says. “Coming from a small town where everyone knows everyone, it was so nice to be somewhere where you can be what you want to be and wear what you want to wear.” He’d fallen for his wife, a lovely Bulgarian called Valentina; and he’d fallen for the city he now proudly calls home.

Olivier’s eponymous bakery was born out of a curious coincidence of good fortune and good principle: the latter on the part of Olivier and Jan McCourt of Northfield Farm, a now fellow trader. “I’d left my previous job as head baker because the company had been sold and things were changing. They started using pre-mix,” Olivier whispers with the appalled tone of a man describing a crime. “It was not for me. I left with no job to go to – but in a few months, an events company that Valentina and I were in touch with asked us to do a market in Nottingham, and we agreed.” He had no oven. He had no mixer. But he knew Matt Jones, now of Bread Ahead, and he knew that at the time Matt was doing some work with Northfield Farm, which is in Nottinghamshire. “I asked Matt to see if Jan would let us borrow his oven and mixer, and he welcomed us. So, there we started. For the next four days of the market, I think I slept less than six hours. In total.”

Olivier loves his adopted country, but if there is one aspect in which he remains resolutely French, it is in his attitude toward baking. “I must say it was a bit of a shock to me when I arrived 20 or so years ago. I came here with £50, and all I could afford was a 24p sliced white loaf from Safeway,” he shudders. By the time Olivier’s Bakery launched, changes were already afoot, with small artisans spreading sourdough across the urban peripheries. But the bread culture in Britain was still nothing compared to that of a country built and powered by boulangeries. “The French eat bread every day, with every meal. There is not one flat, house or restaurant where you will not see bread on the table,” says Olivier. He had come here as a pastry chef, and could have made more money by remaining so, “but I got back to bread because I felt I needed to help create change here, a little. I felt people deserved better bread, bread that was good for them, not full of additives and preservatives and other rubbish.”

The feedback from British customers was remarkable. “They came back. They supported us. Even today we still have many of the same customers.” Selling good bread in London has never been too hard – “there are plenty of Spanish, Italian and French people living here” – but it was when the Brits started coming that Olivier knew that something was starting to change. “I don’t know why the food was so bad for so long. I am not a historian, I am a simple baker. But I have seen it change. London is the best place in the world for food now.” He still gets the odd complaint about the price of bread – “only the other week I was in a pub and a guy was complaining. I asked him how much he’d paid for his pint, and he said a fiver. I pointed out that a loaf of my bread was £3.50 and would feed him for a week” – but the majority of Olivier’s conversations with customers centre on how much they enjoy his produce. Besides, as far as quality sourdough bread goes, Oliver’s is not expensive, not by any means. He respects his bread and the colleagues who make it with him, but he wants good food to be as accessible as possible. “I am not looking to steal money from people. I didn’t go into baking to get rich. I am a rich man already,” he smiles, taking out his phone. He swipes through his photos until he arrives at a picture of two young twins, their heads together, grinning at the camera. “See? I am done. I can’t get richer than Oscar and Ophelia. Valentina and I live humbly, we pay the bills, we spend time with the kids and we bake for people. I am a rich man indeed.”