My paper of choice is The Observer, my favourite section of which is Food Monthly, an institution in the foodie world. Today I experienced the surreal sensation of lying in the bath reading a six-page article in the supplement about the bakery my daughter and I run together and the book we are just about to have published.
So how have we ended up here? I’ll give you the short version first and then move on to the less obvious (but very significant) tale that made everything possible.
In 2018 our life as a family was turned upside down. Kitty, the youngest of our three children, who was just 14 at the time, was poleaxed by depression so bad that she couldn’t go to school and barely function at all. It took us utterly by surprise and we tried everything we could to find something, anything, that would pull her out of the abyss she found herself in. Nothing seemed to work until, one day, she saw me make a loaf and asked if she could have a go.
I had baked for years and years but, somehow, I seem to be the exception to Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘10,000 hours’ theory of how long it takes for genius to show itself. I put the time in but my loaves rarely made it past the grey breeze block stage. Okay, so they were delicious when fresh with melted butter but then, what isn’t? Then I discovered the magic of no-knead method (popularised by Suzanne Dunnaway and Jim Lahey) and suddenly my loaves became edible and strangely beautiful. Essentially, this was a private passion, though. My family were staunch advocates of sliced, white, plastic supermarket loaves and, like a sad fairy tale, my Cinderella bread was left neglected in the bread bin only to be appreciated by me.
Kitty lifted the lid from the casserole dish in which we baked that first loaf together and saw how the shaggy mulch of wallpaper paste dough had transformed into a buttery-smelling shiny orb of bread. For the first time in months there was a glimpse of something other than despair.
Just like a fairy tale, we baked together again and again and again. We were soon making more bread than even our carb-obsessed family of five could consume. We began to give our bread to neighbours, who came back asking for more. That led to a subscription service which, in (a rather short amount of) time led to a pop-up shop and then, bizarrely, to a high street shop. The whole journey from never baking a loaf to opening the door on The Orange Bakery on Watlington high street took little more than eight months.
In the process Kitty got better, I said goodbye to my teaching career, we became bakers and business owners, and the shop has become a community hub of our lovely town.
Real Bread community
That brings me to the less obvious story. None of this would have been possible without the support and encouragement of the Real Bread and wider baking community. I can’t begin to overstate this; we only exist because of the kindness and generosity of other bakers.
From the very earliest visits to Real Bread bakeries (October 26 in Shepherd’s Bush, you were the first) bakers treated Kitty as an equal. She wasn’t a teenaged girl, she was a baker with the same passion, enthusiasm and energy as them. Brilliant bakers like Laura, owner of Hart’s Bakery in Bristol and Kate, founder of Hamblin Bread in Oxford, provided Kitty with work experience in their bakeries. Ditto Little Bread Pedlar and The Snapery in London. Pophams Bakery, also in London, gave us an old mixer and Campbell MacFarlane, of Rackmaster fame, gave us an old dough table. Mr Beam (as we call Beam Baking Systems) somehow managed to squeeze a refurbished deck oven into our low-ceilinged house.
The whole, fabulous world of professional and part-time bakers on Instagram gave us ideas, advice and encouragement. Being made an ambassador for the Real Bread Campaign was an extraordinary privilege for Kitty. We owe so much to all of you.
I’m not sure what it is about Real Bread bakers that generates this kind of community. Maybe it’s because what we do is fundamentally very simple; we’re basically working with just flour, water, salt and yeast. Perhaps that makes for less of an ego than you can find elsewhere in the food world. Maybe it’s because so many of us are self-taught. Maybe we just love bread and everything that goes with it. Whatever it is, it’s something unique.
We love being a part of it, so thank you. I’ll go back to my bath now.
Kitty and Al Tait’s first book, Breadsong: How baking changed our lives, is published by Bloomsbury on 28 April 2022