Freedom!
An Interview with Matt Fountain
20.04.17

1492719195-smaller-freedom.jpg

Above photo: Baking out at Freedom Bakery...

It’s one thing to work for a social enterprise that uses bread as a rehabilitating force – I go to work, I feel good about what I’m doing then I go home. It’s easy for me to romanticise about my job because I see the nice sides to it. But when you’re the person running an enterprise like this, I suppose things are very different. Things are hard. You don’t get to see the rehabilitating bits because your head’s in the books and you’re pushing the thing onwards. It was interesting for me to hear about this side of operations from Matt Fountain, the very inspiring founder of Freedom Bakery in Glasgow. I have heard rumblings of Freedom for the last few years – a bakery inside a prison that teachers ex offenders how to bake. And so I caught up with him over the phone whilst he was stuck in traffic one early Spring evening to ask him a few questions about what it’s been like to get a thing this good off the ground…

TBC: Thanks for interviewing with me, Matt. I suppose the first thing I would like to ask you is, how did you end up in the business of baking and how did you come to run a charity?

MF: I’d never baked. I’d picked Emmanuel Hadjiandreou’s book (How to Make Bread) but I was rubbish at it - I’m not a master baker at all. I had a post graduate degree and was going to do a Phd at the end of 2012 at Oxford but I’d never wanted to be an academic and wanted to do something with food and people, but didn’t have any way of knowing how to get there. So I ended up deferring my Phd for a year and did some charity work - I got a feel of how the charity sector work and, also, an impression of how bad things were for small charities – so I decided that there was a lot in it. I was always very interested in how the 3rd sector funds itself – there are huge inconsistencies in funding. Quite often for the people relying on charities, the thing that goes wrong is lack of continuity. So I thought the only way consistency could come about was if people had the space to take charge of their own destiny (without relying on funding). I’d heard about something called San Patriagno – a charity in Italy that owns loads of co-ops where people who have lost their way train up in a trade like baking, so those in recovery get an opportunity to learn skills and build self-esteem. I actually read about them in a food review about their bread and thought, ‘that’s flipping amazing because it’s all about the food at heart,’ not the fact that it was a charity.

TBC: So why team bread and prisons together?

MF: A prisoner is someone in prison. But a group of prisoners embody a lot of other social problems that are treated individually but not as a group. 80% of people in Scottish prisons are of low-level education, 80% have had addiction problem in the last year and 80% are suffering from mental health problems. Baking is a good activity for general wellbeing - the every day quality of bread transcends all these social boundaries and problems and unifies people. If I was going to be working with people who might not have experience of work or education I knew that they would know what bread is. And it would be quick to teach them and to get early success means they’re more vested in carrying on and moving forward. Aside from the start up costs, bread is also quite cheap – for example, last week we lost 75 kg of sourdough because the guys over salted it but it’s ok, it doesn’t cost that much.

TBC: What was the beginning like?

MF: It took me a while to get Freedom set up - we didn’t have funding but the difference is that we sell what we produce and so our business is a cushioned business. But at first, I couldn’t get anyone to believe in me because there wasn’t anything like it. I put the idea forward and it didn’t work out and I left the country for a while, but when I was away, a Scottish prison got in touch with me and said ‘we have this small prison kitchen – could we work together?’ Once we got going, having a kitchen in a prison helped me convince funders that I had something tangible – all I needed to do was to prove that I could survive. We didn’t make any money and we were at capacity within one year, but with more capacity we could do bigger things and eventually I got quarter of a million pounds of investment and have just opened a second bakery. This allows me to offer more jobs to people as they leave prison and at the same time we can focus on wholesale demands and build enough work and money.

TBC: Have there been any stand out moments or success stories with the ex offenders going through your programme?

MF: So what’s been quite interesting for me is that I don’t get too hung up on the romance of all this. Though we’ve probably had 15 people through the programme, most of my day is working on my own or attending meetings so I don’t necessarily see the process… We did have a guy who was around 40 years old and had been in prison since 15 – he gets out with no job prospects and is put up in a halfway house for people in recovery and he starts baking croissants for everyone at the hostel because that’s the thing that makes him happy – he’s not just taking what he learned as a skill that’s going to help him get work, it's also about contributing and doing something productive. We’ve had 5 people on the programme who have left prison and 4 of them have jobs. The thing for me is to make people feel like people – there’s a fine line at Freedom in the distinction between prisoner and bakers because they’re all bakers really.

TBC: What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced so far and how have you worked through them?

MF:My biggest challenge is that we exist within a prison, which makes it really labour intensive and costly and adds a level of complexity. It’s hard to be an entrepreneur – I’d never really had staff before, I’d never really had a proper job before! That’s baking though, there are a lot of people who come into it from other careers. Artisan baking is also not sustainable financially, so we’ve had to think outside the box. We’ve looked at bakeries in Australia and the US – how do we create a model that’s bigger and can survive better? We already do some wholesale now – we have 18 customers on the books and we’re going to expand to about 80 which we feel confident that we can do. With more space we can do more variety and build our rep, but it’s quite difficult because though what we do is really good, we don’t get exposure – we’re all the way up in Scotland! It’s difficult for us to generate social and media and photos because of the nature of working in a prison and the press do see us as a bit novelty. We want to show what we can do and the creativity of what we do – it’s not just that we work with prisoners, we want to be a well respected bakery for its bread and what I’d like to do is let Freedom get seen as reviving Scottish bread making traditions - I’d love to get a cookbook deal.

TBC: Scottish bread making traditions sound wonderful - that leads me to the question, tell us a bit about your bread, then!

MF: We do a standard rye, a white sourdough, bloomers, rolls, baguettes BUT we’ve been looking at Scottish bread. Struan, for example, which is like a seeded wholemeal with heather honey to help the yeast – it’s quite a dense bread. People go nuts for it. We also do something like a bear bannock – bear is a grain that is a grandfather of barley but with six chambers. It’s an incredibly earthy flavoured, deep ochre coloured bread - incredibly healthy and, again, quite dense like a soda bread. No one’s ever heard of it and we have to get the flour sent from Orkney but when we get someone who likes it they’re hooked!

Mega thanks to Matt for chatting to me! If you want to find out more about Freedom, who are based in the wonderful Glasgow, you can visit their website: www.freedombakery.org

Photographs courtesy of Freedom Bakery

Dusty Days - A day in the life of a baker
25.02.17

1488034058-25.02.17.jpg

When I’m not running The Bread Companion, I work as a baker for Better Health Bakery in East London. The Centre for Better Health is a 50 year old plus Hackney charity, offering training placements at the Better Health Bakery and Bikery for adults in recovery from mental ill health. There are also opportunities to volunteer for those who want to learn how to make bread or fix bikes (this is how I started baking). This is a brief overview of what my shifts feel like...

I open my eyes. It is early, but not too early. I fall out of bed, turn Radio 4 on, boil the kettle, jump in the shower, have a cup of tea, notice how late it is and run out the door onto the bus. I pound up the pavement and see the white flag, BAKERY, jutting out of the bricks and I steam through the double doors. Depending on who has been baking, classical music generally blares from the sound system, coaxing us all to be industrious. MORNING, MORNING, MORNING we all say to each other. I change out of my real life clothes that are progressively becoming more like pyjamas and change into my uniform, which is basically a set of pyjamas. Then I make another cup of tea with the variety of alternative milks that have arrived in the fridge since Veganuary and sometimes eat the mistakes from the day before; a broken cookie, a burnt Danish. I think, wouldn’t it be nice if we could eat all of our mistakes.

There are two Dough Shifts, or day shifts. The early shift and the not so early shift. The early starts at 8 am and is for days when there is a lot of dough to be made. I weigh the flour and the leven, which changes in smell all the time – sometimes it is fruity, sometimes it smells of champagne. I work out what the water temperature should be and pour the ingredients into the mixers. I might have company by asking one of the trainees or volunteers to weigh flours, salt, water, oil tubs and act as my arms. We fold the dough, together checking the temperature to make sure everything is proving at a right speed. If I am not on the big mixes, the second day shift starts, slower, at 9 am. I oil and flour tins, make sure all the starters, levens, soakers and mixes are on the table ready for our volunteers and trainees. Once everybody has arrived, we congregate round two steel tables to divvy up jobs. And then we’re off! Mornings buzz, volunteers, trainees and bakers work together to measure, mix and prep the handmade loaves. Sometimes this process is smooth. Sometimes it is not. But if things do go wrong, making mistakes turns into lessons about dough. Bread is forgiving. If we go wrong, nobody dies, nothing bad will happen. It is simply, bread. A main part of my job, therefore, is to know the dough well enough to see how things can be fixed if it does go pear shaped and still have a saleable product.

It is always the mornings that fly by, that never relent and never let me have a moment to think or to worry. We stop for lunch by flouring bannetons and toasting cheese and chutney sandwiches. On Fridays we have pizza. Surprise pizza - pear, celery and rosemary potatoes all having made guest appearances as toppings. Some lunches are calm and we munch on carbohydrates and chat, others rushed as us bakers work to make sure our dough is ready.

Just as how we started our day, we huddle round the steel tops for post lunch shaping. But now the tables are covered in beige wooden boards, scales and flour. Music is important. It makes or breaks an afternoon. Sometimes we have ‘Power Hour,’ playing something obnoxious to kick us out of our cheese toastie slump. Shaping is the glue of the day. We all do the same task, looking directly into each other’s faces and we talk about things. All sorts. It is the thing that is the most like therapy. If I have noticed people open up, calm down, brighten or gain confidence, this is the bit that I see it in. And not just from those in recovery, either. I see the same thing happen with volunteers who have joined the bakery for many different reasons other than baking – maybe they are seeking direction or a change. I even see it sometimes in customers – smiling at us as they wait for their sandwiches, watching us pull the dough into little balls and stick them, seam side up into paper pulp shapes, telling their children ‘will you watch the bakers make bread?’ This is the bit I like best. After shaping, cleaning. But I always forget to clean myself properly, and I still have bits of dough up my arms and a light coating of flour in my hair, on the tip of my nose or white eyelashes as I stand on the bus on the way home. The shutters go down. When I first started, this was hard, pulling the heavy steel chains. Now I can do this easily, as well as lift flour bags and boards of dough, with no problem. I will end up looking like Popeye. I wind up the street off home, a paper bag which is always about to fall apart bundled into my arms containing the day’s left over bread.

The time that I scurry through my front door from a Dough Shift is about the time that my eyes flicker open for a Bake Shift, or night shift. This is the magic bit. The bit where we bake. In this case I wake up between 6 and 7 pm. In the summer, the sky is pastel. In the winter, it is dark, illuminated by orange streetlights. I make myself a feast worthy of a Sumo wrestler and finish some of my normal-life work. I arrive at work past midnight, when the streets are quiet. I turn the key, there is always a beep, a creek and a buzz that greets me as I open the door – the bakery is saying good morning. I grab the step-ladder because I am too short to reach anything without it, switch on all the lights and put very loud music on – something upbeat, often frantic and sometimes embarrassing that I would never play during the day when there are other people listening. With the lights on and the music terrible, I forget about the ghosts that I know live in the bakery. ‘Have a good bake’ is usually scrawled on the bottom of the production sheet – I find this sentence always feels like a hand shake or a pat on the back. Sometimes I find it almost monastic, like we are part of some baking religion – I imagine bakers, dressed like friars bowing their heads and saying things like ‘May your bake be merry.’ I start by shaping bread sticks then I begin baking, taking the dough out of the cold store, tapping it onto boards, scoring it with a razor and loading it into the hot, hot oven, over and over again until it is 5 am and until I have baked it all. Then, cleaning, slicing, packing, setting up shop. 8 hours alone, with the bakery ghosts and the bread that sings to you as it comes out of the oven. Crackle, crackle, crackle, it says. By the time I throw open the shutters at 8 am, my eyes are red, my skin is parched. And I am very, very dusty, as if I myself am a floured bit of dough, waiting to go into a banneton. MORNING, MORNING, MORNING everyone says to me. ‘How was your bake,’ is the first question everyone asks. Another secret-handshake-baker question and I imagine the baking friars again. I drag myself home, flourier than ever. I eye up the ‘Baby on Board’ badges that pregnant ladies are wearing, I wish that Transport for London would offer a badge that said ‘I’ve just been baking all night and would really like to sit down please’ as the trains and busses are still full of commuters.

I am tiered.

It is a totally different sort of tiered than had I been working on a laptop or in an office. It is the type of tiered that gets through to your bones, but it also gets right through to your heart. It is a content kind of tiered, a tiered that I don’t get bored of because I know I have achieved something, running around a bakery at silly o'clock, turning flour and water into something of substance. It is midday now and I fall into bed, peaceful. I smell like bread. The smell is everywhere and it sends me into a doughy, dreamless sleep.

Written by Julia Georgallis

The Pickliest of Pickles: Why I started baking...
15.02.17

1487198424-maiden-voyage.jpg

(Above: The first ever prototype of The Bread Companion, on its maiden voyage, having a slight pickle with a lorry)

As TBC turns 3 years old this month, I’ve been thinking a lot about the beginning of it all. I am often asked how the project started and I always seem to give different answers, not because I’m making it up or I can’t remember, but because it wasn’t really a straightforward beginning. 3 years ago. What was I up to? Well. I was a grumpy, wobbly design student in my final year at the Royal College of Art with no real direction... with my school work or otherwise. I was in an almighty pickle - a pickle experiencing an existential pickling crisis. Luckily, my tutors could see me floundering and threw me a rope, setting me a project to 'become an expert' in something – I had 3 weeks to learn a new skill without any pressure as to what the end goal would be. This is possibly the best piece of advice anyone has ever given me ever – to just do something.

I was immediately drawn to bread. Why? I suppose the simple reason was it was something that I didn’t know how to do yet and food and design seemed linked in many ways. But on another level, at a time when I was feeling negative and lethargic, bread struck me as positive and industrious – within a few hours I could make something tangible and useful and this felt good when so many things take and were taking so much longer to come to fruition. In those three weeks, mastering baking was something that gave me confidence and some much needed direction – it made me see that I could do things on my own steam. After the project ended, I started volunteering in a bakery on Saturdays, continued researching bread and baked in my spare time until the whole thing turned into my graduation project in June 2014. After I finished university, I left the first prototype of TBC in my mum’s garage for a while and went back to being a designer, but found myself back in a jam six months later. So. for the second time, I decided it was about time to commit myself to The Companion and I went almost full time on the project in January 2015 - bread, it seemed to me was my little, doughy lifeboat.

You may have noticed a pattern, just in the those two short paragraphs - I would get myself into pickles often and never quite manage to get myself out of them. But baking lifted me from foggy thoughts. As much as my project was about solving the problem of bad bread (mass produced, damp wonder white), The Bread Companion project also sought to spread the word that homemade bread isn’t just good for your stomach, but that making bread is also very good for your brain and your heart. Being able to provide for ourselves, as I found out, is empowering. But many of us don’t have the time or the space to grow our own veggies or farm animals or go fishing. Knocking up a loaf, however, is totally doable. I wanted to make people feel as elated as I felt when I started making my first loaves – it’s a nice feeling to pass on.

And so TBC is a light-hearted project that aims to encourage people to take control over their own food a little bit more. It was designed to solve the problem of terrible bread and make good bread accessible to everyone (by making it in their own homes.) But, in the process of setting this project up, I’ve also discovered the healing properties of flour and water. Learning how to make bread, for me, was the pickle to end all pickles, and I haven’t found myself in one since.