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

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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