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The art of making bread with Bettys of Harrogate

00:00 07 October 2015

Bettys craft bakery in Harrogate

Bettys craft bakery in Harrogate

©JustinSleePhotography2015

Jo Haywood joins the dawn shift at Bettys’ bakery to find out what makes them such early risers (and it’s not just the yeast)

Bettys craft bakery in HarrogateBettys craft bakery in Harrogate

Master baker Mark Raine will begin his shift tomorrow while most of us are still winding down from today’s toils. He clocks on at Bettys craft bakery in Harrogate at 12.30am – a time so unfathomably early it seems to have more in common with yesterday than today.

‘It never feels like a chore,’ he says, as I slope in at a slovenly 4am to watch him slide the sourdoughs into the depths of the wood-fired oven. ‘It’s easy to get out of bed when you’re doing something you love. I don’t think twice about it anymore. We’re like a family here in the bread room so it really is my home from home.’

Mark didn’t actually set out to be a baker. He wanted to join the army but was six weeks too young to sign on the dotted line.

‘A job came up in the bakery and I thought I might as well take it while I waited,’ he says. ‘That was 37 years ago and I still haven’t joined up.’

Bettys craft bakery in HarrogateBettys craft bakery in Harrogate

That’s 37 years of morning shifts so early the dawn chorus are still tucked under their twiggy blankets when you clock on. But Mark is not alone in his long-standing commitment to the hard-working bread department. Despite the punishing schedule, they’re the longest serving team in the company.

‘Ten people have more than 200 years of experience between them,’ says Gemma Pickup, bread and pastry team leader, whose mother Denise also works at Bettys (as did her mum before that). ‘One man has been with us for 40 years.

‘At the end of the day, you’ve just got to really like your job – and we do. You get used to the hours; they just become part of your routine. And if your working day is from 1am to 9.30am (Mark comes in half an hour early), well, you just build your life around it.’

There’s a real sense of excitement in the bread room on the day of our visit. We’d like to think it’s in anticipation of our sparkling wit and charming company, but it’s not. It’s test day for a new range of artisan breads and the wood-fired oven – a cross between an Aga and a steam train – is fired up and ready for action.

‘We work with four key ingredients: flour, water, salt and fat,’ says Mark. ‘That’s it. But the possibilities of what you can create are endless.

‘We’ve done the same range of bread for a very long time and our customers all have their favourites, so it’s exciting but also a bit nerve-wracking to be launching new products.’

Staff from across Bettys were invited to take part in a salon culinaire, where new ideas are discussed and tested. Members of the food and drink innovation team knew they wanted exciting new artisan breads, healthier breads with less salt and breads made from traditional grains like spelt and rye, which are naturally lower in gluten and therefore easier to digest, but they were otherwise open to imaginative and innovative ideas.

In the end, six new breads got the green light. Craft baker Andrew Peckham’s fruited tea loaf, infused with Taylor’s Yorkshire Gold, leads the way, followed by a soft, buttery brioche de Nanterre; a wholesome seeded rye, packed with pumpkin, millet, sesame, linseed and sunflower seeds; a moreish multi-grain made with spelt, a nutritious, nutty grain grown in Europe since the bronze age; a sourdough, blasted in the wood-fired oven for an even deeper flavour profile; and a soft, malty Yorkshire millers’ loaf made with flour milled in Driffield.

Four of the six new products have been created by Julie Ward, who trained at Thomas Danby College in Leeds and travelled the culinary world, from America to Spain and Bermuda, before joining Bettys’ research and development team.

‘We have to walk a fine line between giving the customers what they traditionally want and giving them something new,’ she says as she waits – visibly nervous – for the test batch of sourdoughs to come out of the oven. ‘It’s wonderful that our customers are so loyal, but it also makes it all the more important that we get it right. People don’t necessarily like change, but we’re confident our customers will find new favourites in our artisan range.’

Julie, Mark and Gemma are joined by the wood-fired oven by young apprentice Jordan Jacques, who wields a comically large wooden peel – a traditional long-handled paddle used for moving loaves around in the oven – under the watchful eyes of the bread room’s elder statesmen and women.

They’re keeping an eye on the sourdoughs to ensure they bloom and split at just the right height, but the capacious wood-fired oven also has something of a camp fire quality that makes everyone want to gather round.

It was installed in 2002 – the builder embedded a coin in the brickwork so there’s no excuse for forgetting its birthday – but it looks like it could have been there for a century or more. The metalwork is muted matt black, the interior is sooty and dark with use and there’s a charming sign above the range that reads ‘Bid my bread feed and my fire warm me’, a quote from Fate by 19th century poet, essayist and lecturer Ralph Waldo Emerson.

The oven is a beautiful beast, virtually pulsating with heat and emitting the distinctive warm, malty smell of sourdough on the rise.

‘Sours are perfect for the wood-fired oven because they can take a very high temperature,’ says Mark. ‘It’s completely surrounded internally by sand to ensure it stays at a constant, steady heat. You could leave it for two weeks or so before it started to cool down.’

We leave the oven in Jordan’s capable young hands for a while so that Mark can show me the shaping table, where each loaf is hand-crafted. I roll out a lopsided breakfast loaf (the marmalade would slide straight off) and do my very best Paul Hollywood impression – minus the stubble – to create two sad little bread rolls while he fills a tray full of perfect specimens, rolling, kneading and shaping using both hands simultaneously.

‘When you start in the bread room, you shape for the first few weeks with your dominant hand behind your back, working only with your weaker hand,’ he says, looking a little baffled as I seem to have two weak hands. ‘After that, you’re expected to use both. This is a business and you’re being paid to make bread with both hands.’

Mark is a knowledgeable, patient teacher, a skill he’s honed in Betty’s neighbouring cookery school, where’s he’s the tutor on numerous bread-making courses.

‘After 37 years, I’m still learning myself,’ he says. ‘I read and read at the weekend to keep up with developments. My research will never end, partly because I’m passionate about what I do and find the whole process fascinating and partly because I don’t ever want to get caught out by a question while I’m teaching.’

His classes have become noticeably fuller in recent years; something he puts down to the unstoppable juggernaut that is the Great British Bake Off and the pulling flour power of the aforementioned Mr Hollywood. So, does that mean he admires old blue eyes?

‘I wouldn’t go that far,’ says Mark with a wry – or should that be rye? – smile. ‘He’s made bread sexy and exciting, which is quite a feat, but he causes me no end of problems. People come on my courses and start throwing the dough around in the Hollywood way. It takes time for me to show them the right way; my way; the Bettys’ way.

‘It might not be as sexy and exciting, but you won’t get better bread.’

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