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How ‘The Great British Bake Off’ inspired an appetite for artisan loaves

Since a big white tent and some cheeky pastry puns captured the imagination of TV viewers we've been getting a taste for real bread again. The Big Issue get a slice of the action

Nestled under railway arches in Hackney, E5 Bakehouse is an unlikely success story. Its counter is stacked with loaves bearing mysteriously delicious, earthy names: Hackney Wild, Wholemeal Miche, Gilchester Bun, Walnut Rugbrød. E5 founder Ben MacKinnon ditched his desk job in sustainability in 2010, went exploring and had an epiphany after “stumbling on a bag of flour and a packet of yeast whilst staying in the Alpujarras, Andalucia”. Now, the Bakehouse hosts bread-making classes, runs a satellite project for female refugees and has hosted a masterclass with Paul Hollywood.

“The objective to make good bread stems from this foundation of trying to do it in as sustainable a way as possible – respect for the environment and respect for the people making it,” MacKinnon says. E5’s produce is organic and locally sourced, and real care is kneaded into their dough. The Bakehouse also mills its own flour, producing bread which is “far more nutritious, tastier, better for the farmer financially, better for the environment, and allows bakers to be much more hands-on with our products”.

When MacKinnon opened for business in 2011, E5 was the only artisan bakery in the area; now it’s one of eight. Make no mistake: a generation of flour-dusted home bakers have changed the way we think about bread.

Make ours a Walnut Rugbrød

Independent bakeries are blooming across the country, a restorative yeast that the sagging high streets need..

Research by Simply Business in 2017 showed that the number of independent bakeries opening increased by a showstopping 1,500 per cent between 2012-2016, then a further 20 per cent last year.

This is a pattern seen across the UK. The Great British Bake Off is a key part of that climb. The appetite for the artisan has grown in tandem with the show’s ubiquity.

Bake Off’s impact has been increasingly clear. For an hour each week, social media overflows with photographs of fresh bread, cakes and pastries out of focus in the glare of the TV behind them. Viewers are getting their first taste of high-quality baked goods through the show then want to seek them out. Supermarkets report a huge spike in sales of home baking goods in the run up to each Bake Off season. John Lewis announced that the demand for kitchen equipment and cookbooks skyrocket as much as 50 per cent.

Charles Banks, co-founder of culinary trend experts The Food People, got it right when he predicted that in 2018, bread, with a luxurious edge, would be king. “It’s all about those that are crafted, have heritage and time put in to them. It’s ancient grains and sourdoughs and artisan pastas,” he raved.

We either give way and become ever more spoon-fed by dogma that informs us of our choices, or we take matters into our own hands. Bread really symbolises that

Fiona McSwein, chief customer officer at Simply Business, has recorded the Bake Off impact into start-ups.

“We have witnessed a significant rise in independent bakeries across the UK in recent years,” she says. “As customers turn away from supermarket behemoths in favour of artisanal products from local producers, there has a been an uplift in savvy entrepreneurs using their kitchen skills to meet these changing consumer needs. 

The Great British Bake Off has slowly but surely emerged to become a national institution,” she adds. “It reminds viewers of the variety and versatility of breads, cakes and biscuits, the personality, talent and graft of the bakers behind them and highlights the poorer quality of mass-produced treats. Bakeries seem to be a recipe for success for the nation’s start-ups.”

The collective nature of shared experience that Bake Off promotes has fired another key element. This growing breadbasket of independent bakeries is populated by people with a passion for making a positive difference in communities alongside their desire to make nice bread.

“We’re at quite a big juncture,” MacKinnon says. “We either give way and become ever more spoon-fed by dogma that informs us of our choices, or we take matters into our own hands. Bread really symbolises that. It’s a metaphor for where we are.”

A New Economics Foundation study found that local suppliers of products like bread re-spend 76 per cent of their income locally, external suppliers only 36 per cent.

Eyal Schwartz, E5’s head baker, was a neuroscientist before switching brain power for flour power. Many of the country’s independent bakeries were founded by young adults like MacKinnon who grew tired of corporate careers.

“They’ve seen how that world operates and are ready to strike off on their own into something that allows them a little more creativity,” he says.

This April, bread sales were on the up for the first time in three years

Independent business in general is growing, with data released by the British Independent Retailers Association showing that standalone shops are popping up at an increasing rate, while national chains continue to suffer and downsize (Greggs being one of the only high street exceptions). In the past month, retailers including Homebase and House of Fraser have announced dozens of closures across the UK. Consumer experts Which? say the high street could be saved if it becomes a “social hub” in the future. This, combined with the customers seeking out experiential, community-driven businesses, means independent bakeries are key.

But is that independent spirit enough? A question remains over cost. For example, E5’s home-milled flour costs nearly four times that used by large companies. New bakeries are becoming more widely available and producing high-quality, healthier goods – this is not mass market.

The National Living Wage (NLW) falls short of providing a basic income for working families, austerity continues to push people into poverty and demand for foodbanks is at a record high. A Child Poverty Action Group study revealed that, on average, a single parent working full time for the NLW earns £74 less than would be necessary to provide a basic, no-frills lifestyle to their children. In support of this, a recent report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that low-income families are significantly worse off now than they were 10 years ago. Four-pound loaves are not an option for those living on the breadline.

Bake Off has encouraged people to buy better bread

This April, bread sales were on the up for the first time in three years after slumping under the popularity of carb-free and gluten-free diet trends. With poor families growing poorer, some could be relying more on filling foods like bread. It’s also worth noting that the additives in cheap loaves derided by foodies keep the bread edible for longer.

Jane Beedle, a finalist from Bake Off’s seventh series, is one of the ex-contestants who gives Bake With A Legend classes, allowing amateurs the chance to share a counter with the bakers who inspired them. She believes bread brings people together: “Even if people aren’t necessarily baking it, they really appreciate good bread. Most people aren’t going to be making their own sourdough. But Bake Off has encouraged people to buy better bread – if not all the time then certainly when they want to spoil themselves a bit.

“It really depends which end of the socio-economic spectrum you come from, because people at the lower end are not going to be able to afford to buy sourdough,” she adds. “These artisan breads are not cheap. But on the whole, I think people now know what a sourdough is, whereas five years ago that wouldn’t have been the case.”

Back in the E5 Bakehouse, MacKinnon acknowledges that economic circumstances can put limitations on consumers. “We try to counter that by selling half-price loaves the next day or smaller ones for a pound.” He emphasises that the £4 charged for their Hackney Wild or Wholemeal Miche covers good wages and perks for staff, the higher cost of sustainable energy, and compensates farmers well for the high-quality wheat.

For the booming artisanal bakery business, micro-business also means micro-margins.

The Great British Bake Off is available on Tuesdays at 9pm on Channel 4 and is also available to watch on 4OD