A Day in the Life of a Phoenix Baker
Recently, Aidan Chapman, master baker and joint owner with his wife, Lisa, of the Phoenix Bakery in Weymouth invited me to come along and spend a Saturday on his Apprentice Course to experience his one-man artisan bakery at first hand. It's a compact bakery with the shop-front split between sales and baking, all on full display to passing trade. Above the shop and bakery, Aidan has a café through which there is a steady stream of customers munching on the pick of the day's quiche, bruschetta and cake with a fresh coffee.
During my student days, I worked in large bakery where the term artisan didn't apply, so this would be an eye-opener for me...starting with bakers' hours. I had to be at Aidan's bakery at 3am on the Saturday morning so leave home at about 1:45am...not something that I am designed for. When I arrived, a little late as usual, Aidan looked to have been pottering about for some time and was taking a quick break in the bakery doorway, enjoying the silent street and sea air.
Aidan's relaxed manner belies something of a baking automaton. I didn't understand why he kept checking his phone and clicking away, thinking it an odd time to be tweeting until enough haze cleared for me to realise that this was his time-keeper allowing him to keep checking on his progress. He kindly let slip that having a "helper" adds about 2 hours to his schedule, perhaps more in my case, especially as I managed to cut myself within 2 minutes of picking up the first tool. Poor Aidan did well to keep his sighing to himself.
Already prepared the previous day were quantities of sourdough and poolish along with the croissant and Eccles cake doughs and a batch of rye and cranberry sourdough that had been quietly proving in cane proving baskets and were ready to head for the oven. The first job was to tip the bannetons out onto the trays - my first lesson: I started to tenderly tip them out, but in a bakery, this is all wrong - it can be done much more quickly and effectively by giving the banneton a sharp tap on its side, causing the dough to pop out - two at a time. It is harder on the bannetons, but is faster and when done properly, the dough and bannetons are fine - important if they are to be used three times a day.
I thought I knew about croissants. I've rolled hundreds of them before and tasted almost as many. More to learn from Aidan though: he rolled them more precisely (and quickly) than I have ever done - and, although I am sure he would deny it, he has something of the fervent perfectionist about him. My creations were all adjusted to make them just-so - and with good reason - he really cares about the food he produces, down to the detail of the curve of the sourdough croissant and the slit he cuts in the dough to make them curve more. I can honestly say that I have never tasted croissants like these - the treat of the morning was a croissant with a blob of jam - absolutely delicious and miles away from the greasy-paper, overcooked supermarket versions.
The bakery really started to get going with the first bread coming out of the oven, to be taken through to the shop. At this point I realised that Aidan has hands made of asbestos, or, has burned away his nerve endings...and that I have not. Carrying a baking tray through to the shop gave me that anxious moment between the bakery and the shop where my delicate hands felt as though they were about to combust - going back was too far and the counter seemed to be a mile away so I had to step up the pace to the counter and try to forget the (imagined) smell of burning flesh. Aidan took the next tray with only one pair of gloves, rather than my two, as if they were an unnecessary inconvenience.
Next came some white bloomers. The dough was divided up and then rolled ready to be shaped. A Generation Game moment and Aidan took a ball of dough, flattened it out and rolled it up to make a mini, unproven bloomer, perfectly evenly shaped and in a blur. My go - I thought I was pretty good at this but the difference was stark, a "dog bone", Aidan called it before taking it from me and doing it properly. I ought to be able to do this so had another go. Same thing. It became a little embarrassing but after some more patient tuition, I got it right, well, sort of.
Some more loaves ready to be tipped from the proving baskets, ready for slashing and baking. Aidan's tip for the correct use of a grignette is speed - the faster the cut, the better. These loaves went in and we had a coffee. Not long after these came out, and shortly after first light, the first of Aidan's staff came in. She looks after the shop and her first job is to gather some of the freshly baked bread for the delivery driver to collect and distribute to the shops around the region that sell it. Next she organises the shop front ready for the first of the day's customers. Aidan, meanwhile, kept baking while the first passers-by looked in through the condensation-covered windows to glimpse the baker at work.
I made up the Eccles cakes using pastry that Aidan had made the previous evening, with a huge quantity of butter and currants - not the dry and hard things that my experience lead me to expect: these were delicious, buttery and indulgent.
The shop started to become busy at around 10:30am with a continuous queue and the sound of people popping upstairs for a quick snack and having a look into the bakery. I helped Aidan to make a couple of trays of a delightful quiche, based on a yeasted dough to line the cases and then filled with sun-dried tomatoes and olives, or rocket.
At around midday I started to flag somewhat although Aidan was still going strong, starting some brownies in the mixer and starting to juggle his time keeping his student-cleaner busy and managing the shop counter while keeping the ovens and bakery busy. Quite a feat! He said that he'd keep going, making more cakes and working in the shop until closing time, then he'd go home, have a quick shower and then make a dinner for his family - the shower, apparently, gives him a second wind, like a new day. I drove home switching open and closed eyes, had a shower and then went to bed!
This was a really wonderful day and Aidan is an exceptionally patient teacher - especially at 5am. The day demonstrated just how organised an artisan baker needs to be in order to squeeze as much out of the facilities and labour available to try to make a successful business. The skill and care taken with everything that is made is really impressive and I came away having honed a few techniques and having learned some others.
Most bakers are just too busy to allow anyone into their bakeries on the most busy time of the week, so it really felt like a special treat to experience it. As Aidan says, if you are not prepared to teach your craft, it will die with you. I'm not sure how good a learner I was, but for anyone wanting to see what an independent bakery is like to work it, should try it!