Real Bread Week 2019: Meet the Steeple Morden ‘bread lady’ on a mission
There are few things more delicious than a freshly baked loaf hot from the oven.
So when I was given the chance of a breadmaking basics masterclass with Frances Reid, known as ‘the bread lady’ of Steeple Morden, I jumped at the chance.
Tucked away in the village, Frances runs The Bakery at Number 55 and shares her baking knowhow with enthusiasts of all levels.
She began kindly teaching me how to make a fougasse – a French sharing bread shaped like a leaf – and told me how it all began.
Frances said: “It was a hobby that got out of control. I used to bake cakes, but my daughter did as well so we had too many cakes and I was given a present of a day course in breadmaking – and it took off from there.
“From that date to this we’ve only ever bought two loaves of bread and that was four-and-a-half years ago.
“I co-founded and worked for a charity called Target Ovarian Cancer, where I was director of public affairs and communications. “Then I quit working in London, so I had more time and I thought I want to get back to enjoying myself. I had a friend in Holland who had bake days one day a week and I thought I could do that.
“I had a tasting day, and 30 people came initially. I was making 30 loaves on Fridays and then it got to 100 loaves.
“It’s the flavour that is the buzz – people said before they felt bread was completely boring, so they came and tasted my bread and said ‘this is how bread used to taste’.
“They got so excited by the flavours of yeasted bread, I built by word of mouth and did a couple of farmers markets in Sandon, and the Ashwell Show.”
Frances became known as the bread lady in the village, with people coming from across Herts and Cambs to collect fresh loaves. You would be forgiven for thinking such a keen baker would benefit from the fruits of her labour, but Frances is unable to eat many of her creations.
“I’m gluten intolerant,” she said. “But if sourdough is made properly and allowed to ferment for seven to eight hours, I can eat that.
“A lot of people who are gluten sensitive can tolerate sourdough if it’s made properly.”
Frances had to give up the bake days due to health reasons. She has a form of inflammatory arthiritis which is triggered by overexertion, as well as gluten.
“I was really sad to give up the bake days. I’d start at 4am and by 7pm there would still be cleaning up – eventually it was taking me two days to recover from the bakes.
“I kept trying to do the odd one here and there, but in the end I had to stop.
“But I can carry on teaching and getting others enthusiastic about bread. Full-day courses still take it out of me, but not as much as the bake days did.”
Frances met the owner of Bury Lane Farm Shop in Melbourn in August last year and now works with the bakers who supply the shop from their base on the outskirts of Steeple Morden.
She said: “I had a chance meeting with the Bury Lane Farm Shop owner, who said do you want to come in and teach us about bread,
“We developed a range of recipes and they enjoy it.”
Frances has signed up to Real Bread Week 2019, which is an international celebration of additive-free bread and the people who make it – run by The Real Bread Campaign.
She said: “It does wrangle with me what passes as real bread in supermarkets is not real bread. I have been known to ask for an allergy list and it’s clear that there’s all sorts of E-numbers in the bakes.
“I had been aware of Real Bread Week for a couple of years and signed up, and now the bakery has joined up as well.”
Around 15 minutes after the rosemary and sea salt fougasse went in the oven, it is golden brown and smells wonderful.
We then headed over to the bakery in Wyndmere Park to meet bakers China Simpson, Shirley McDonald and manager Debbie Hardingham.
The 13-strong team make products from shortbread to loaf cakes, and since August last year they have added seven yeasted breads and five sourdoughs to their range.
Debbie said: “Real Bread Week will help us in showing people what real breads are about.
“I’m passionate about what we do. It is a niche market to make things from scratch, but it is very rewarding.
“We do get some lovely comments from our customers.”
China is working hard shaping pecan and stilton loaves ready for the oven.
She said: “There is a big sense of pride in what we do – food is a way to express my creativity.
“I don’t actually like cakes.. I love making them but not eating them – but I do love bread!”
Real Bread Week 2019 started today (Saturday) and runs until March 3. To find out more about Frances’ work go to www.thebakeryatnumber55.co.uk and for more on the Bury Lane Bakery go to burylanebakery.co.uk.