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Farnley Focaccia named the world's best flatbread

PUBLISHED: 00:00 08 January 2016 | UPDATED: 10:28 08 January 2016

Tomato, onion and gruyere focaccia

Tomato, onion and gruyere focaccia

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World Bread Award-winner Stephen Harrison on why life is sweeter with sourdough. Words by Jo Haywood. Photographs by Andy Bulmer

Farnley Market not just a welcoming cafe but home to an artisan bakehouse tooFarnley Market not just a welcoming cafe but home to an artisan bakehouse too

Where does the best focaccia come from? Milan, Florence, Rome or Nice are all obvious choices, but they’re about 1,350 miles away from the truth. No, if you really want to taste the most fabulous flatbread in the world, you have to make your way down a pot-holed dirt track to what looks like a breeze-block shed in the little known West Yorkshire village of Farnley Tyas.

This is the unassuming home of Farnley Market and the innovative artisan bakehouse of Stephen Harrison, who launched his business a little over a year ago but is already a multiple World Bread Award winner.

His Farnley Focaccia scooped the top prize in the flatbread category at the prestigious London awards, stunning the judges with its open, pillowy texture (for a flatbread, it’s anything but flat) and delicious salty crust.

But it wasn’t his only winner on the night. His Butt’s Bloomer and Chocolate Orange Sourdough – invented by his junior baker Jake Partridge – took the runner-up position in their category, while his Golden Ciabatta, Roydhouse Blonde, Seeded Dartmouth, Earl Toft Light Rye and Woodsome Plum Fruit Teacake achieved gold, silver or bronze awards in their respective sections.

So, it was quite a good night then?

‘We thought we were only in with a chance in one category, and when that came up first we thought we were in for a long night of clapping everyone else,’ said Stephen over coffee in The Bakehouse café, which banishes all thoughts of its breeze-block roots with its contemporary, welcoming interior styling.

‘I admit our heads went down a bit and we thought ‘we’ve come a long way for that’, but then Jake realised they were saying our name again. It was the best sort of surprise.’

The world-beating focaccia was made with potato, pancetta and a few sprigs of rosemary, blowing away the judges with its depth of flavour and lively texture.

‘It’s a bread I developed after tasting one too many soggy, sad focaccia,’ said Stephen. ‘It’s a real beast – but a beautiful beast.’

Winning a world-class bread award in your first full year of business is pretty impressive, especially if you’re an engineer by training and only began baking as a hobby.

Stephen sold his engineering business in 2008 and, after struggling to find another similar project, decided it was time to put his newfound baking skills to the ultimate test.

‘I read book after book that said, basically, don’t do it because the hours are too long and there’s no money to be made,’ he said. ‘But I thought I was being clever by choosing sourdough because you can prepare it the day before and don’t have to begin the baking process at the crack of dawn. I’ve learned since that people don’t just want sourdough though, so now I start work at 3am.’

His initial plan was to set up a bakehouse to supply bread wholesale to retailers and restaurants, but then a joiner casually mentioned that he ‘could put in a couple of tables’, and then a couple became a couple more and a couple more.

Farnley Market now offers a counter and café service with extra goodies on offer – including cheeses, pickles and charcuterie – from other trusted suppliers.

‘People come from all over for our bread and pastries,’ said Stephen. ‘We work with a lot of local restaurants who are happy to put my name on their menu, so people try our bread then seek us out.
We had a couple from Halifax who’d eaten our sourdough at Tim Bilton’s restaurant The Spiced Pear and then set out to find us three times before finally getting here.’

That level of persistence in search of a simple loaf might seem above and beyond the call of duty, but what it actually shows is the effort people are willing to put in for tasty, nourishing bread that’s the polar opposite of the bland Chorleywood process.

‘I’ve never been a fan of what you might call supermarket bread,’ said Stephen. ‘It doesn’t taste of anything and the list of additives, frankly, makes my stomach turn. That’s why I started baking in the first place to get away from that stuff.

‘Sourdough takes time; something the supermarkets simply don’t have, which means some of them resort to spraying their bread with vinegar so it tastes sour instead of letting the flavour develop over time.’

He’s the first to admit that some people struggled with the whole concept of sourdough when Farnley Market opened in September 2014.

‘They were suspicious because sour is such a negative word,’ he explained. ‘But the whole bread market has changed in the last year and people are actively seeking out sourdough because they’ve eaten it in a restaurant or seen it on TV. Now, I’d say about 90 per cent of everything we produce is sourdough.’

Stephen describes himself as ‘a bit of a bread bore’. While he can undoubtedly talk about his favourite subject until the bakers come home (which is long after the cows), he’s obviously more interested in firing up a fascinating conversation than delivering a lecture. Which is probably why his in-house baking courses are already proving so successful.

‘My wife, Simone, sometimes accuses me of being on a bit of an ego trip, but it’s genuinely not about me, it’s all about the bread,’ he said. w

To find out more about Farnley Market and to keep up-to-date with the baking course on offer, visit www.farnleymarket.co.uk

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