14 April 2000

BAKING BECAME

ABIG BUSINESS

FROM baking just 17 organic loaves – because he only had 17 tins – Andrew Whitleys Village Bakery at Melmerby in Cumbria now sells £2.7m worth of bread and cakes every year.

Andrew, a former BBC producer who had no formal training in baking, didnt move to Cumbria nearly 25 years ago with the intention of building a food empire.

The move north, at a time when The Good Life concept was regarded as a quirky bolt-hole from the rat-race, was intended to provide Andrew and his young family with a more wholesome way of life. Home-grown vegetables and a few chickens figured somewhere in the plan, but not a food phenomenon that would eventually have national supermarkets clamouring to stock his organic bread on their shelves.

The heart of the Village Bakery business still sits on the edge of the green in the tiny east Cumbria village of Melmerby, just as it did when Andrew first opened his bakers shop in the days when organic food was regarded as left over from the hippy era.

And today, all products are still hand-made and wood-fired ovens are used for baking.

But to accommodate the multi-million £ business, the stone barn has been converted into an award-winning tearoom and restaurant and the adjoining cottage, once the home of the Whitley family, is now the companys offices, although you would never imagine it as you walk up the garden path past the herbaceous borders to the front door.

&#42 Wood-fired ovens

To meet demand in the south, a range of products is now made on contract using wood-fired ovens at a location in Hants, while additional bakery capacity has been provided by leading Cumbria baker Bells of Lazonby, which is now an associate of the Village Bakery.

Pioneers of the organic food movement were driven by a belief and a conviction in naturally produced food, untainted by chemical sprays and artificial additives and underpinned by a holistic approach to food production.

The huge range of organic products now appearing on the market – including toothpaste – is a result of increasing demand for consumables produced to these standards. But is mass marketing trivialising the ethos of organic food?

&#42 Trendiness

"There are some organic products on the market that look as though they have been cynically put together in response to a new trendiness. But what has happened needs to have happened to bring organic food into the mainstream," says Andrew.

"That doesnt mean it hasnt been difficult for companies like ours over the last 18 months. It has been a time when the race was on for the organic baked bean, the organic digestive biscuit and the organic tea bag. And theres no doubt that some major buyers have shown less interest in the type of products we were offering," says Andrew, whose range of more than 70 breads and cakes has won him innumerable awards at the hands of the countrys most respected food gurus.

He has been told on more than one occasion by supermarket buyers that, despite the huge popularity of the Village Bakerys bread and cakes, the range was "not mainstream enough".

"Mainstream to most food retailers means using the cheapest possible ingredients, food additives, colours or whatever it takes to make a product that sells because the price is driven down. I am not interested in being a part of that."

Andrew finds the current trend of replicating every conventional foodstuff in organic form "rather pointless". The aspiration within the organic food movement for quality and nutritional superiority "in the real sense" must never be lost, he says.

"It would be disastrous if organics was trivialised and became no more than the food fad of the 1990s as a result of mainstream mass-marketing.

"The term organic is now used very glibly on a huge range of food products without any explanation of what it actually means. The Soil Association is working on new minimum wording that should appear on all organically produced food.

"This would mean that the big-volume food manufacturers would offer products labelled to provide more information about the principles behind organically produced food."

At last Januarys organic farming conference at Cirencester, Andrew found it heartening to hear at least three farmers admit that while they had switched to organic production purely for financial reasons, they now felt so fascinated by the system that they could never consider farming in any other way.

The Village Bakery hopes to launch a new Organic Centre and to hold organic induction seminars which will be linked to the adjacent 2ha (5 acre) smallholding in Melmerby.

"We hope that farmers who are converting to organic production, and in particular those who are keen to add value to their produce, will find the courses beneficial.

"We are not intending to tell farmers how to farm. The courses will seek to put organic production into context and present an overall view with advice and guidance from experts on a range of topics such as certification, traceability and marketing concepts."

Andrew hopes the Organic Centre will attract a range of people interested in organics and bring together farmers and consumers such as hoteliers and restaurateurs.

"I think the farming community would agree that there is still a lot of opportunity to get closer to consumers. Farmers markets have proved that and we believe organic producers should capitalise on the desire among consumers to come face to face with those who are producing the food they want to buy."

Andrew also runs weekend breadmaking courses for up to 12 people at a time at The Village Bakery. The courses started in the 1990s and take place under the personal supervision of Andrew.

Students – who range from enthusiastic amateur breadmakers to complete novices – begin by making "bench-mark" brown and white loaves to demonstrate the theoretical principles of breadmaking. They bake with yeast and with a natural leaven made from rye or wheat sour dough and later divide into groups for part of the weekend to produce specialist breads of their choice, including Italian, festive and north European breads or croissants and brioches.

"We encourage as much interaction between the groups so everyone learns as much as they can. And everyone leaves with a full set of recipes covering up to 30 different breads."

Despite its huge commercial success, the ethos behind the Village Bakery remains the same today as it did almost 25 years ago when those first 17 loaves were drawn out of the wood-fired oven.

While 14,000 Christmas puddings were produced last year and up to 5000 loaves a week of some of the most popular breads, such as Russian rye, are now being baked, the Village Bakery is not resting on its laurels.

"We are developing breads with strong nutritional profiles based on essential fatty acids and are looking at the value of hemp in some of our recipes," says Andrew.

From the Good Life to good bread – Andrew Whitleys successful bakery still uses traditional wood-fired ovens.