Crumbs! Suffolk bakers Palmers are 150 years old this summer
PUBLISHED: 17:34 23 June 2019 | UPDATED: 18:44 24 June 2019
Cherry cake and pound cake still popular in 2019 − and we like doughnuts, blackcurrant sundaes and Viennese fingers
What's Kieron Palmer's earliest memory of the bakery business founded by his somewhat-eccentric great-great-grandfather? Crawling up the steps to the shop at Haughley, the firm's spiritual home since 1869.
Kieron was years later awarded a law qualification (he dovetailed his studies with his involvement with the bakery, "which nearly killed me") but there was no way legal torts would permanently draw him away from freshly-baked tarts.
"No way would I go back to that," he says of the legal sector. "Email has changed the whole world. Everything comes at you a lot quicker. The niceties have gone and you're required to respond instantly."
Mind you, Kieron's career with Palmers (Haughley) Limited was a baptism of fire.
"I had to take over the office when I was 16. My grandfather died suddenly and I was thrown in." That was 1989. Kieron had of course helped in the bakery - called in on some Saturdays to sweep floors, for instance, or do some bagging - but this was the real start.
Today, his official job title is executive director. The 45-year-old runs the business with father Kenneth, who has just turned 74.
Palmers is a team operation, though, with five working in the Haughley bakery itself (a few miles north-west of Stowmarket) and employees staffing the shops.
Complementing Haughley are outlets in Claydon, on Norwich Road and Meredith Road in Ipswich, Needham Market, Stanton, Stowmarket and Woolpit.
Palmers has employed 500 people over the years. Thirty of them have a combined service of more than 1,000 years.
Such traditional businesses aren't thick on the ground, these days - particularly in rural areas. Kieron reels off names (from the bakery trade) that have disappeared. Such as Newsteads.
"We're one of the last left."
They recently received a letter from the Queen, sending best wishes on "this most significant milestone in the history of your family bakery".
Palmers doesn't send bread and cakes to the palace, but in the past it has supplied well-known names, such as composer Benjamin Britten and Lady Balfour - "Auntie Eve" - co-founder of the Soil Association, organic-growing pioneer and a friend of the family.
The bakery also supplied the Queen of Spain in the 1900s. That must have been Victoria Eugenie of Battenberg, granddaughter of Queen Victoria, who went into exile after republicans came to power in Spain. She later separated from Alfonso XIII.
It is, Kieron admits, almost unbelievable that the business is 150 years old - 18million loaves down the line. There's been a commemorative clock installed on the bakehouse, souvenir mugs for schoolchildren, and plans drawn up for a funday.
What the future holds, only time will tell, muses Kieron, "but whatever happens we would not be here today without the support and loyalty of so many generations of people, and for that we are so very grateful".
What do we like?
How have customers' tastes changed over 150 years?
"In 1869, I know the most popular things cakewise would have been sticky buns. We're doing them again in a few weeks!" says Kieron. "Some things don't change. Cherry cakes, pound cake… they're still popular."
What else sells particularly well in 2019? "Granary bread is very popular. Eccles cake and doughnuts. Blackcurrant sundaes and Viennese fingers."
Tastes appear to be changing as far as bread is concerned. "People tend to go more for rolls now."
Low GI multiseed bread is a newer type that's popular today, but very-crusty bread appears not to be in vogue.
There are regional differences.
Kieron's grandmother came from Northern Ireland. "If I go back to Northern Ireland now, you don't see much bread on the shelves. You see potato farls, crumpets, Scotch pancakes. They don't really do loaves of bread. You don't see many whites and browns."
Palmers does revive retro products every now and then. Last year, for instance, it baked the National Loaf (a mix of wholemeal and white). It was for the anniversary of the First World War armistice and raised money for the poppy appeal.
Hot cross buns are still made each year - to a 150-year-old formula. Is it closely guarded, like Coca-Cola's. "It is quite a secret recipe."
The Haughley bakery's brick ovens, made by specialist H Smith & Son of Lambeth, date from about 1750. They're still in daily use, as the main ovens!
They have been looked after, over the decades, of course. The ovens feature Scotch bricks and are heated by flame until the handle is too hot to touch. (They used to be fired by coal and faggots; now it's oil.)
Once the ovens have cooled a bit, bread can be baked by sliding in the mix on a long-handled "paddle" called a peel.
The ovens are always warm. "They mustn't ever cool (right down) because they will collapse: moisture would get into the keystone and it will give way," says Kieron. "You can leave them on Sunday, and they'll be fine, but if we have two or three days off over Christmas, somebody has to come in." On normal days there's a baking shift starting at midnight and working until about 9am. Another one begins at 6am and finishes at about 1pm.
Palmers is headed by Kieron and father Kenneth. How does that work? "We're together a lot, so we just chat about things as they come along." They agree on most matters. "We're quite laid-back."
There have been changes, over the years. The firm's mill closed in the 1980s, and farmland was contracted out. The number of properties amassed over time climbed to 200 or so, but has fallen a little since.
Palmers is the largest stockist of Tiptree jams and conserves in East Anglia. Wilkin & Sons has made some special jars for Palmers, tied with a ribbon. The label honours "150 years of tradition, service & baking".
Palmers does actually have its own orchards - a couple of acres, near enough. It was overwhelmed last year with plums, damsons and greengages, says Kieron - and 200 or so wheelbarrow-loads of walnuts. "If you want to know how to get a bad back, that is the way to do it!"
Part of the community
What's great about working for the business? "Personal satisfaction. It's lovely meeting people; it's nice creating things. It's a good team/family atmosphere," says Kieron.
"We're part of the community and the community is part of us. We like to support things, and everybody keeps an eye on everybody. If someone hasn't come and collected their bread, you'll pop up to check."
There's always something to do, and think about. Kieron's just been talking to his father, who's making more retro delights: pink Swiss rolls, like they used to produce in the 1960s.
It does sound fun, running a bakery - if tiring. "We get very bored at Christmas," Kieron laughs. "You sometimes think the grass is greener, but…
"I couldn't retire. My father, I think, is the same. What would you do?"