By Ros Dodd
“Making bread is in my blood,” says Tom Baker. The 28-year-old’s great great-grandfather sailed from his native Canada to England in the 1830s and started a business making ovens for bakeries.
Nearly 200 years on, Tom – armed with the appropriate surname – also makes bread ovens! Or, to be precise, one bread oven: he’s constructed a wood-fired clay version in the back garden of his terraced Victorian home in Cotteridge.
Using that and a conventional oven in the kitchen, Tom runs a community bakery – making 50 loaves every Friday and selling them to neighbours and local shops.
“It’s a 14-hour shift,” he says. “I start on Thursday evening at about 10pm and work through until midnight. I have five hours’ sleep, then start again at 5am and bake until about 1pm. After that I deliver the loaves on the Number 11 bus!”
The wood-fired oven allows him to bake four loaves at a time – so within two hours he has 16 loaves.
“My customers love having wood-fired bread and you can’t get it anywhere else in Birmingham.”
Tom built the oven last summer after going on a course in Herefordshire. At the time, he intended it only for personal use (he’s had a passion for bread making since he was a teenager) but from it grew what is now a fast-rising social enterprise business called Loaf.
Loaf, which also features a cookery school run from Tom’s kitchen and a local food directory, aims to promote real food and healthy living in Birmingham and build community through food. These will all come together next Tuesday when a new venture, Stirchley Community Market – the first of its kind in the city –sets up shop on the car park of the local working men’s club on the Pershore Road. Among the locally-sourced and ethically produced foods on offer will be Tom’s loaves and wood-fired pizzas.
Tom, a former NHS nutritionist, started baking bread after he was given a copy of a Jamie Oliver cook book.
“I tried out his bread recipes and that was it. As soon as I was living on my own I really got into it and discovered sourdough, which uses wild yeast instead of baker’s yeast. I got hooked on it – it tastes so much better than bread made from baker’s yeast – and started trying to make the perfect sourdough loaf.”
Tom now makes white, granary and 100 per cent rye sourdough loaves, which are almost impossible to get elsewhere in Birmingham – and also ciabatta loaves for local delis.
“In London, sourdough is widely available, but in Birmingham it’s difficult to find. I know of only one other bakery that makes it. I’ve nothing against using baker’s yeast, but it’s a more modern practice than using wild yeast. And sourdough bread lasts a lot longer – a loaf without preservatives using baker’s yeast will be stale within two days, but a sourdough loaf will keep for five to seven days.”
Loaf, like its products, has grown organically. Its roots were laid when Tom was directed to the School of Everything website, which aims to put people of all ages in touch with others who can teach them what they want to learn – from yoga to knitting.
“Someone suggested that as I made bread I might become a teacher, so I registered and started doing that. And then it evolved into me launching a full-blown cookery school.”
Tom ran his first course last October and in April this year gave up his job with the NHS to concentrate full-time on Loaf.
The cookery courses, which cater for a maximum of six people (because Tom can’t squeeze any more into his kitchen in one go!), are aimed at teaching people forgotten culinary skills. As well as bread-making, they cover how to forage for food, make pasta, pickles and cup cakes and get to grips with butchery techniques under the supervision of local master butcher Steve Rossiter.
Tom, who lives with his photographer wife, Jane, and two chickens, is as passionate about encouraging people to get back to the basics of cooking real food as he is about sourdough bread.
“Unfortunately, many people have forgotten how to cook properly and how to make use of the produce we have around us that we can get for free by foraging. Just because you live in a city like Birmingham doesn’t mean you don’t have access to natural foodstuffs and ethically and locally-produced ingredients.
“I also believe that food – real food – is a great way to build a sense of community. The launch of Stirchley Community Market is a great example of this, because it’s the result of different organisations – Loaf, arts group Stirchley Happenings, South Birmingham Food Co-op and Birmingham City Council’s Town Centre Partnerships – coming together to create something that the community can get involved with.”
Although Tom’s earnings have dropped by half since leaving his NHS job, he is a happy man. He is doing what he loves – cooking – and helping to reintroduce an appreciation of back-to-basics food to the wider public at the same time.
“I’m not paying myself much; I’m keeping money in the business so we can invest in it and eventually move it out of the house. The next job is to find a way of doing that whilst retaining its homely feel.”
For more information about Loaf visit www.loafonline.co.uk.