• Dusty Days: A day in the life of a baker

    Dusty Days: A day in the life of a baker
    Written by Julia Georgallis / Image by Eleanor Howarth

    To learn how to make bread, I began volunteering at Better Health Bakery at the beginning of 2014.  The bakery is part of the Centre for Better Health, a fifty-something year old Hackney charity and offers training placements for adults in recovery from mental ill health. Whilst volunteering, I fell totally in love with bread, and began working as a baker there until summer 2018. Here is a post, originally written in 2017, about what life as a baker looked like... 


    I open my eyes. It is early, but not too early. I fall out of bed, turn on Radio 4, boil the kettle, jump in the shower, have a cup of tea, notice how late it is, run out the door, just make the bus. I pound up the pavement and see the white flag, BAKERY, jutting out of the warehouse 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 non-milk milks and sometimes eat the mistakes from the day before. A broken cookie or a burnt Danish, perhaps. 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, or when it is particularly cold, to give ourselves and the dough a headstart.  I weigh the flour and the bubbly 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 everything into the spiral mixers, water and leven first, flour follows. I might have company by asking one of the trainees or volunteers to weigh flours, salt, water, or oil the dough-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 mixers, the second day shift starts, slower, at 9 am. Tins are oiled and floured, starters, levens and seed soakers are prepared on the stainless steel tables.  Once everybody - bakers, admin staff, bike shop mechanics from next door, volunteers and trainees - has arrived, we congregate round the tables to divvy up jobs. Sometimes we might even do a pre-baking group stretch, watched by perplexed customers who have popped in to the bakery to get their morning bun and filter coffee.


    And then, we’re off! Mornings buzz, volunteers, trainees and bakers work together to measure, mix and prepare 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. Because our bakery relies so much on people who are not bakers, a main part of my job, unlike in a regular bakery, is to know the dough well enough to see how things can be fixed 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 end our morning by flouring spiral patterned 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. Some lunches are more squashed and rushed as us bakers work to make sure the dough is ready for the post-lunch shaping. Just as how we started our day, we huddle round the steel tops after lunch, but now they are covered in beige wooden boards, scales and white dust - flour.  Music is important now.  It makes or breaks an afternoon. Sometimes we have ‘Power Hour,’ playing something obnoxious to kick us out of our cheese toastie slump, other days it might be Ladies of Disco, or if they are trustworthy enough, we might let our volunteers take to the soundsystem.  Shaping loaves 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 a number of reasons – maybe they need new ideas about what to do next, a different 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 baskets, 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 seem to permanently have bits of dough up my arms and a light coating of flour in my hair, on the tip of my nose, white eyelashes… The shutters go down.  When I first started, I found this to be a workout, twiggy arms not strong enough to pull the heavy steel chains. Now it is easy, as is lifting heavy flour bags.  I will end up looking like Popeye.  The bus takes me home, a paper bag that is about to fall apart bundled into my arms containing the day’s left over bread.


    The time that I scurry through the front door from the Dough Shift is about the time that my eyes flicker open for the Bake Shift, or night shift. This is the magic bit.  The bit where, in the dead of night, we bake our bread.  If I am on this shift, 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 and people march down streets, desperate to make it home. I make myself a feast worthy of a Sumo wrestler and finish some of my normal-life work, answering emails etc. etc.  I arrive at work past midnight, if there is not much to bake, I might bundle myself through the door at 2 am.  The streets are quiet now.  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 climb 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 and usually distasteful.  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 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. By the time I throw open the shutters at 8 am, my eyes are crazy, my skin is parched. And I am very, very, VERY dusty. MORNING, MORNING, MORNING everyone says to me. ‘How was your bake?  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 tired.  It is a tiredness I have never known before - a totally different sort of tired than if I had been working on a computer or in an office. It is the type of tired that gets through to your bones, but also gets right to your heart. It is a content kind of tired, because I know I have achieved something, running around a bakery for hours, in the dead of night, turning flour and water into something of substance.  It is midday now and I fall into bed. I am peaceful. I smell like bread. The smell is everywhere and it sends me into a doughy, dreamless sleep.


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