A man walks in to the bakery with a tray of eggs, newly laid by his hens. He’s ‘paid’ in bread. A woman comes with a bag of rosemary from her garden: she too receives bread, still warm from the oven. Over there, at the back, another woman is steadily getting an enormous batch of scones ready for the oven, while in another corner, someone else is weighing out the ingredients to make biscuits.
We’re in the market town of Bedale (population four and a half thousand). More specifically, we’re at Bedale Community Bakery (or ‘Bread Actually’), tucked away behind the railway bridge next to the Big Cow Little Sheep educational farm. This is no ordinary baker’s shop. For a start, though there’s a busy team at work throughout the day, there are few paid staff. This is a not-for-profit community venture.
The bakers are paid – they’re the ‘bread and butter’ of the organisation after all. Then there’s hands-on Chairman Carol, and Sarah who seems to be involved in everything. But all the biscuits, cakes, scones – the non-bread items – are made by a willing team of volunteers managed by retired baker Alan. From today, Malcolm and I are part of that team.
It was a wonderful experience. From the first moment, we were expected to roll our sleeves up and turn to. But the friendly welcome, the team spirit, the willingness to share and help each other, the generosity of spirit shown by everyone there made for an unforgettable first morning. Malcolm washed up and sliced cakes into even portions, and I helped Margaret ( ‘Not another Margaret, there’s three of you now’) make an entire batch of about 210 Anzac biscuits, bake them, cool them, and package them for sale in cellophane sacks of 6, closed with yellow ribbon. There was focaccia to part-prepare for the just-about-to-start Bedale BAMfest. There was more washing up, and sweeping and cleaning. And time for a coffee-stop of course.
They’re seeking to build up the customer base. There’s a country house, a high-end hotel or so, and various other outlets who like the quality and range that the bakery offers. There are locals of course, who know a good thing when they find it, because there are always samples of the bread to taste, people around to discuss ingredients and recipes, and a constantly changing repertoire. Today there was multi-seeded bread; cheese, chilli and – oh, crumbs, I’ve forgotten what else – sourdough; rosemary and black pepper; cheese, chive and onion bread; harvester loaves….. and so on and so on. This is Slow Food at its best, made with locally sourced flour from Crakehall Watermill with not a single flour improver, and proved gently over several hours to develop the flavour. Recipes are carefully tested and recorded, and every opportunity is taken to use seasonal flavours and ingredients offered from the community: a glut of fruits or herbs, as well as those eggs and that rosemary.
I hope there’s plenty more to tell about this place. We think it’s worth the 16 mile round trip to volunteer here (and be ‘paid’ in bread), but others come from much further afield: Redcar, the home of one of the team, is nearly 40 miles away, and Saltburn, where another lives, 50 miles. We all appreciate good bread, and recognise a worthwhile project which offers the chance to learn new skills in a supportive and ‘can-do’ environment.