9th January 2013
Ever wondered what it would be like to chuck it all in and take up life as a baker? Well, Robin Weekes did just that.
Having baked as a hobby for years, Robin took the plunge in 2005 and with his wife Clare Kelly set up Wapping Sourdough. He now bakes naturally leavened organic artisan breads full time, selling them at their stalls in St Katharine Docks, Partridges Food Market in Chelsea, and One New Change in the City.
With a high demand for their bread and a loyal customer base that verges on a cult following, it's lucky they have six school-age children to help out on market days...
We wanted to find out how it all works, and get the secrets of sourdough from the master baker.
What’s your breadmaking routine?
I do all the baking and my wife Clare runs our market stall, website, deliveries and books etc. The bakery itself is in our conservatory, which is separate from our domestic kitchen. So as much as possible I try to fit my baking routines around school days and home life.
We always leave Sundays free for our family time and our Mondays are spent shopping, cleaning and bookkeeping. On Tuesdays I will be preparing, roasting and dicing garlic, chopping figs and olives, oiling tins and checking stock. On Wednesdays I begin making the different Rye, Wheat and Spelt starter dough that I will use in my bake. On Thursdays I make more starter dough for later use and use the ones that have been fermenting since Wednesday to prepare the final bread dough that I bake in the early hours of Friday for customer orders. I then make the final dough for our Saturday Market and will not sleep again until Saturday morning, when I will be shaping and baking non-stop.
I grab a few hours’ sleep on Saturday morning while Clare will go to Market with one or two of the kids to help. Saturday afternoons are for taking my youngest kids swimming or to the park, and in the evening when Clare is back from the Market we all collapse in a happy exhausted heap to watch the Food Network (if Clare or I get our way) or X Factor (if the kids do).
What inspired you to focus on sourdough?
It was love at first sight and addiction at first bite! On the last day of a holiday in the south of France about five years ago I came across a bakery selling sourdough that really blew me away. The beautiful colours shapes and textures and craft were like nothing I had ever seen. When I tasted the bread I came across these divine complex textures and flavours that I just wouldn't have believed.
I had been working as a child protection social worker for 20 years, and my two passionate hobbies were bread making and clay sculptures. So the bakery was like finding a missing link. I was enchanted - it probably sounds crazy but I knew instantly that I just had to make bread like that.
Can you give us some bread baking tips or tricks?
Baking sourdough bread in a domestic oven presents some challenges. It will take longer to achieve oven spring (the final rapid increase of the dough’s expansion), which works best at the hottest temperatures.
But if you spend some time getting to know your oven and how the heat is dispersed around it, you can make bread as good as any bakery. You need to maximise the heat retained in the oven and understand when you are losing heat.
What is the most difficult part of your job?
Judging the fermentation and proving time of the bread. As a home bakery I don’t have any temperature control, so have to deal with seasonal and day-to-day British temperature changes. Sourdough requires lengthy and repeated fermentation, and the times can vary by many hours depending on the temperature. I’ve had many disasters of over- and under-risen dough, but experience is helping.
… And the most satisfying?
Customer feedback! Really it’s the pure pleasure that people get from eating and looking at any fantastic food and knowing that you have achieved that. When a customer has the 'wow' reaction to something I’ve made, when they compare my bread favourably with that of German and French bakeries, or simply say how much they like it, it gives you an amazing sense of satisfaction. Also our stall is endlessly photographed by passers-by rather than customers! It’s great to think that it’s worth a picture!
How do you source your ingredients?
I buy our flour from Doves Farm, Sharpham Park, and occasionally from supermarkets when we see some special offers! I always buy organic British whole-wheat rye and spelt flour as they are readily available and produce fantastic tasty bread. This keeps our carbon footprint to a minimum, supports British farming and combats environmental concerns. Buying British organic white bread flour (which I would love to do consistently) is more problematic though, as it’s not always available and in my experience does not make a good sourdough. So I use organic white flour from Canadian wheat that is milled in Britain. A forced compromise. If anyone could correct me on this I would love to hear from them.
I use a range of organic bread enrichments such as figs, sunflower and pumpkin seeds from Queenswood Natural Foods. Unfortunately most of these products are too exotic for our British climate so I simply look for the best quality organic product.
What does the future hold for Wapping Sourdough?
I am writing a book purely about sourdough for home bakers. It will show how anyone can make fantastic sourdough, and the endless range of breads that can be made from it.
We were fortunate to have won two different contracts to supply sourdough bread to the 2012 Olympic Games. We supplied four different types of sourdough to both the Athletes Village and the Hospitality Centre. I baked all of the bread used for the tasting events for the Olympics in my domestic oven and had no specialist equipment so I will share these and other recipes and methods for home bakers that this experience has given me.
So if you know any publishers who may be interested!
In five words, describe a day in your life.
Mix, clean, shape, score and bake!
And finally, can you share some of your favourite local foodie establishments (these can be anything from your favourite local café, to a great baker or food market)
It may be a bit partisan but it’s true nonetheless – Partridge’s farmers market at the Duke of York Square (Kings Road) is most certainly our favourite. The artisan cheeses, salamis, jams, cakes, patisseries and bread, along with the amazing hot food stalls, provide so many world-class products. You can't help but love it if you love good food, and we’re proud to be a part of it.
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