Fourth annual Windmill Lecture on real bread

Brixton Windmill meeting

Alys Bannister reports on Rising Up: Exploring Real Bread and its Social Importance, the fourth annual Brixton Windmill lecture, held at Brixton Library on Wednesday 25 September 2019.

As one our most common food staples, the importance of bread in our communities is often overlooked. In spite of the fact that more and more individuals reach for a package of white sliced rather than an artisanal sourdough, the process of making bread is still vital for social cohesion, due to its medical, therapeutic, and vocational benefits.

In September, Brixton Windmill welcomed three guests who champion real bread making to speak to an audience of people (some of whom travelled as far as Kettering) to explain why bread can and does change lives.

Building a community

Chris Young, Coordinator of the Real Bread Campaign, claims that there is “no end to how making bread can transform the lives of people in our community”. Whether it is getting children making bread through programmes such as the Royal Academy of Culinary Arts Adopt a School Trust, providing baking apprenticeships to adults distanced from employment due to mental ill-health at organisations such as Better Health Bakery, or just making a simple loaf at the weekend, making and baking bread provides people in our communities with a meaningful activity with an end product which is rewarding, satisfying, and, above all, delicious.

The Real Bread Campaign’s work is multifaceted, including ensuring transparent loaf-labelling in all supermarkets, championing small independent bakeries, and providing accessible resources to help people making real bread at home. However, Chris argued in his talk that the most pivotal work the Campaign does is the ‘Together We Rise’ initiative, which works to “join the dots between all of the different pockets of fantastic, but ultimately under-funded, bread-making projects to make a landscape” so that programmes can share their stories and guidance in order to learn from one another” in a mutually-supportive international network.

In the next phase of the initiative, the Real Bread Campaign plans to use this guidance and training to help more charities, not-for-profit groups, social enterprises and other organisations to include real bread making for the benefit of people facing challenges in life.

Running a real bread bakery

Richard Scroggs, founder and co-owner of the Old Post Office Bakery, spoke to the audience about what was really meant by ‘real bread’, and how that can be used to change our communities. To Richard, real bread is “honest, small-scale craft, as opposed to mass manufacturers who aim to make the most capital out of transactions”. He explained to the audience that the history of bread is just one example of the long, rich, history of how artisanal craft workers have battled against mass industrialisation and automation “from the Luddites, to William Morris, to Sixties counter-culture, to the Squatters Movement on our doorstep in Lambeth in the Seventies and Eighties”.

The history of the Old Post Office Bakery began in 1982, when Karl Heinz Rossbach arrived in London from Berlin to study psychotherapy. He quickly  deduced that it was almost impossible to find the traditional, nutritionally rich breads he had grown up eating on his family farm in southern Germany. Needing to fund his studies and his fill his belly with the bread he so desperately missed, Karl began to make his own loaves and sell them to local shops.

At the time he lived in a squatted building off Acre Lane in Brixton that had once been a Post Office, ultimately inspiring the name for the bakery today. Karl found and repaired an abandoned gas cooker and built himself a proving cabinet from scrap metal and his own mill using a coffee grinder and the motor from a washing machine.

Using freshly milled flour from Neal’s Yard in Covent Garden, he soaked grains and produced his own sourdough to begin making the loaves using an old bathtub as a mixing bowl. Karl’s dense, chewy, flavoursome and nutritionally rich loaves were meals in themselves, and the bakery was a success because what Karl made was virtually unique in 1982.

Within a few years Karl was joined by Richard and his friend John Dungavel (the current owners of the bakery), both of whom were living in Brixton because of the vibrant alternative/squatting scene of the Eighties. Many of the characters from that culture ended up working for or with the bakery, helping John and Richard to build on Karl’s foundation, and add the elements that have created the present day bakery.

Thirty years on and two premises later, the bakery now lives at 76 Landor Road, just off Clapham High Street. Karl still works part time at the bakery using his legendary craftsmanship to keep any and every piece of equipment working. John and Richard hold the spirit of the bakery as crucial to its existence: a belief in community inclusion, both in their employment policy and their support for local activists, festivals and events, by being a “vehicle for change in [the] community”.

Over the years, the bakery has housed a plethora of community groups, including a radical news press, and PAPA’s Park children’s charity.

Richard asserted that “to be in work is a fundamental human right”, and explained that he and John have ensured they keep the bakery to a size and in a location where it can retain its proper artisan ethos and support individuals learn a specialist craft using centuries-old techniques.

Richard finished his talk describing that, to him, there was no better job than his: “Whilst London sleeps, we toil to the crazy cacophony and choreography that is the process of making bread.”

Transforming lives for the better

To close the lecture, Malcolm Cock, Bakery Manager of the Bad Boy’s Bakery’initiative at HMP Brixton, discussed the importance of training the men in his care with baking skills. To Malcolm, the idea of having a bakery in the prison is simple: “One day, the men in our prisons are going to leave us. They are going to move into our communities, and we want them to stay there.”

He sees baking as a natural pathway to provide someone with a vital trade skill so that they can become a valuable member of the community. “After all”, he addressed the crowd, “everyone wants to live next door to a baker!”

Bad Boys Bakery was originally founded by Gordon Ramsay in 2012 for the television series ‘Gordon Behind Bars’. While the show was immensely popular, and even saw the bakers supply baked goods to various Caffe Nero shops across south London, once the camera stopped rolling, funding began to dry up.

Nevertheless, Malcolm fought for the programme to continue. Swapping treacle slices for traditional artisanal baking methods, 12 men still continue work in the bakery, using it as a place for therapy, creation, and rehabilitation. “It is not our bakery,” Malcolm told the audience. “It is their bakery. Baking underpins all of the skills we need to get by in life. We use maths to measure and weigh, English to write and follow recipes, science to understand what is happening in our bakes…the programme does so much to provide our men with a real education they can continue to use when they leave us.”

Through the project, the men are presented with the opportunity to achieve a Level 2 City and Guilds qualification, which is universally recognised by potential employers. The bakery also puts less of an onus on producing bread to meet any demand: customers are known as ‘partners’, and are encouraged to consider employing one of the bakers on release.��

Malcolm told the audience “if it tastes good, that’s great, but what we want is a loaf of bread for a job or training. It’s not the product; it’s the gentleman we care about.”

Malcolm finished his talk discussing how he hopes that the project will continue to break down the social stigma around prisons in our society. “These are gentlemen, not prisoners, and they are the fabric of our community here in Brixton. I always hope to see our gentlemen again, just not inside our walls!”

More information on our speakers


Images below by Douglas Muir and Nick Weedon.


Comments are closed.