Mick’s rising stars
- Credit: Archant
Anyone can make a loaf of bread but very few will taste as good as those produced by traditional bakers, as Sheena Grant found out when she went to meet a man who goes by the name of Mick the Baker.
I’m not your usual baker, Mick Eldridge tells me during a phone call to set up an interview as part of this year’s National Craft Bakers’ week. “I’m a bit off the wall.”
Mick, I soon discover, is not exaggerating. For a start, he dresses not in the traditional white uniform of most bakers but in multi-coloured T-shirts and shorts, decorated with flowers and sporting the words Rockin’ and Rollin’, along with a blue baseball cap emblazoned with his moniker of choice, Mick the Baker.
The reason for this unusual garb is quite simple, Mick tells me.
“I like bright colours and music.”
That’s an understatement. He loves music, principally jazz, funk and soul.
His bakery, at Hillcrest Nurseries, Stanton, sells mostly bread (and some cakes) but also a few of his CDs alongside details of any forthcoming gigs he and his group – the Mick the Baker Band – are playing.
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He would love to have made his living as a musician but it wasn’t to be. So he stuck to baking instead – alongside a bit of truck driving.
It’s a busy life and consequently Mick doesn’t have much time for sleep. He gets a maximum of four hours a night and on his busiest day of the week, Saturday, will go more than 24 hours without so much as a nap.
“You’ll have to talk to me as I work,” he says as he half walks, half runs around the bakery, talking to customers, re-stocking the shelves as loaves are purchased and even taking delivery of a CD from a friend.
He starts work at 3.45am on weekdays and 1am on Saturdays in order to have bread on the shelves by 8am.
“The great thing about the set-up here is that people can see the bread being made,” he says. “Sometimes it’s so fresh it’s too hot for them to pick it up. People like it like that.”
Mick may be a one-off but he’s also one of a dying breed - a craft baker. These are people who bake in their own premises on the high street, in the same way as generations stretching back hundreds, if not thousands, of years. It’s not an easy way to earn a living in the 21st Century, squeezed by competition both from industrial-scale plant bakers and supermarket in-store bakeries.
Mick is unusual in another way too. He is one of an even smaller number of bakers who genuinely bake from scratch, working entirely by hand (except for the mixing) without the use of factory pre-mixes, additives and other things that sound like they might be more at home in a chemistry lab than a kitchen.
“I’d be the first to admit I’m not a typical baker, either in the way I dress or the way I bake,” says Mick.
To prove his point he offers me one of his caramel biscuits - topped with real chocolate, he says, not the inferior baking variety. The biscuit base has a buttery flavour and the caramel and chocolate topping is rich and creamy, giving a totally different taste experience to that of more mass-produced counterparts.
This “old-fashioned” hand baking, without the use of additive shortcuts, may be a more labour-intensive way to work but Mick believes it’s worth it for the superior taste and quality it produces.
“My average day is 16 hours,” he says. “But I don’t mind because I enjoy my job and get to meet a lot of people. I’m a people person. When I’ve finished here I go out and do a few deliveries to people’s homes, mostly older people who can’t get to the shop. It cheers them up and is all part of the service. I know all my customers and have a good rapport with them. I make a few bad jokes and they sometimes laugh. It’s part of my social life, meeting people I have known for years. I’ve got customers I’ve had for more than 20 years.
“I usually finish work at about 8 or 9pm, then I have a cup of tea and a couple of hours’ shut-eye. I’m not very good at relaxing and I only sleep for three or four hours a night, whatever.”
Mick learned his craft as a teenager in his native East End, serving a four-year apprenticeship in the early 1970s when there were far more small bakeries than there are now.
“I left school at 15,” he says. “I had always wanted to be a truck driver but couldn’t do that until I was 21 so I got a job in an east London bakery and learned how to bake. I saved my money and when I got to 21 took a course to get my HGV licence. I’ve gone between baking and trucking ever since - but always alongside the music.
“I’ll be 56 this year - I’ve been baking for 40 years - but with my age now I am beginning to feel the strain of the work more than I used to. At Christmas I work three days non-stop - mostly making mince pies. It can get very stressful but you don’t want to let people down.”
Unlike with his music, where Mick plays as part of a group of musicians, in the bakery he is very much a one-man band.
The personal service he offers often extends to a hand-written message on the paper the bread is wrapped in (‘happy daze’ is a common one) or a smiley face on a cellophane cake covering.
He mostly produces white crusty, granary and wholemeal loaves, rolls and sticks alongside a small selection of cakes, including London cheesecakes, Eccles cakes, Bakewell tarts and caramel biscuits.
“I have three doughs on the go at a time, leaving it to prove and knocking it back two or three times,” he says. “Some loaves bake in a tin but the bloomers are moulded by hand.
“With baking, you’re always working a day in advance. I work out what I need and weigh the stuff the night before so that in the morning I’ve only got to add water and yeast. I keep it basic but always with no additives and flour improvers, which they often use in supermarket bread because it saves time.
“I don’t do it that way. I’d rather make a smaller amount and use no additives. Most of the larger bakers use additives and even some of the smaller ones. There are some people who still do it like me but not as many as there used to be. There used to be 30,000 small bakers but now there are no more than 4,000 nationally.
“My bread is pricier. If I tried to charge the same as supermarkets I couldn’t do it. I wouldn’t be charging the true value of what I am worth. My bread is pretty unique.
“Not too many bakers do it like this and people notice the difference. It’s a slightly longer process and I make fairly small batches as a result.
“I’m not particularly adventurous in my baking, not what you’d call entrepreneurial or technical. I learned everything by watching others do it and I know what works, what would happen if you left the yeast or the salt out, but not the science of why it works. I work intuitively.”
Mick has been in East Anglia since 1991, when he left east London for a change of scenery. He first ran a bed and breakfast in Garboldisham, which he later turned into a bakery before selling up and going back to driving for a while and baking at a local mill. He’s been at Hillcrest Nurseries for five or six years now, renting the bakery space and selling his wares in the shop there.
Music’s taken a bit of a back seat of late, he says. Times are hard and people are cutting back on live music. It’s cheaper for pubs and clubs to stage karaoke nights. And besides, late nights playing music aren’t really a good fit with early morning starts in the bakery.
“Rock and roll and baking don’t go together as far as working hours are concerned, especially now I’m getting older,” he says. “Years ago I could go two or three days without sleep but not any more.”
Mick is rightly proud of his bread and, as someone who doesn’t have time to watch television, slightly bemused by the requests he sometimes gets for novelty breads and sourdoughs by people who’ve been watching celebrity bakers such as Paul Hollywood on the small screen.
“I don’t know who Paul Hollywood is,” he says. “I don’t watch TV. People sometimes ask me to make olive bread and other types of loaf but I stick to what I know, which is good old crusty bread. I could tell my bread from any other just by looking at it.
“People get these bread-making machines and try it at home but they’ll never get a loaf like mine. Mine goes into the oven at 550 degrees and gets its crustiness from a fine water spray I give it. The steam gives it a crust. You just couldn’t get a loaf like that in a home oven.
“My bread will last up to five days. It lasts as long as supermarket bread but you can’t beat eating it on the same day. Often people will come back and say a loaf was so nice they ate it all at once. You can’t beat just cutting off a slice and eating it with a bit of butter.”
By 11.30am Mick has already been working for about eight hours, baked his last loaf of the day and cleaned his mixing machine so that it sparkles like new.
“I keep it all scrupulously clean even I may look like a scruffy old git,” he laughs. “Each day I have a clean up after baking, pack up my delivery stuff and work out what I need for the next day.”
His beloved floral decorations aren’t confined to his clothing either. Even his vehicle has flowers on.
“I used to help out at Quidenham hospice and the kids there would call me the sunflower man,” he says. “The flowers cheer people up.”
He has one day off a week and will often drive down to London and spend a few hours on the South Bank, his favourite place in the country. “I just love it there,” he says. “There’s always something going on.”
His unease with the technical side of things extends from his baking to music - he still prefers cassettes to CDs.
“Most people think I’m nuts,” he says. “I don’t like those iPod things. I prefer doing things the hard way. I like to work hard for things, whether it’s baking or music.”
Just as he believes cassettes have merit over CDs so, he believes, does his way of baking over more industrial techniques, something he would like more people to appreciate.
“In this country people will think about price when it comes to their food far more than they will in somewhere like France. I know money’s tight but I would rather have a really good loaf of bread and perhaps eat a bit less of it than cheaper bread of an inferior kind. Supermarkets have their place but they don’t always help you to save money. You might go in just for a loaf of bread but actually come out with a load of other stuff you didn’t intend to buy as well. That is how they get you.
“My customers come to me because they want quality food and good service. It makes a difference. You can get bread anywhere but no-one will make a loaf like I make it. I am one of an old breed. We may not be here forever, which would be a shame.”
Mick’s bakery at Hillcrest Nurseries, Barningham Road, Stanton, is open from Tuesday to Saturday. To find out more about his bread and his music visit www.mickthebaker.com. For more information about National Craft Bakers’ week, visit www.craftbakersweek.co.uk.