Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Bread of heaven

For many people, the realisation that they’re likely to be made redundant in the not-too-distant future is one of the most unwelcome pieces of news that they can receive.

But for some, it can offer the opportunity for a major change of direction.

Bill King had spent years working in local government in the Cwmbran area of Wales. More than that – he was also a trade union convenor.

But when he realised that his own job was to be rationalised away, he saw a possibility and seized the opportunity with both hands.

“I’ve always cooked,” he explains in his soft burr, which is more West Country than Wales. With a father in the RAF, he was leaving the UK for Suez at three weeks old and only came back when he was 10.

“For my sins, I got a charity scholarship to a public school [he was in the same class as RSC and The Thick of It actor Roger Allam] and you did learn to cook.

“When you’ve eaten at 6 o’clock in the evening, you’re going to be hungry at 8 o’clock, 10 o’clock whatever. One of the first things I did, when I got into it, was set up what I suppose was one of the first ever supper clubs.

“It was a kind of covert dining club. We found a room that wasn’t being used, and I'd cook in one of the very small kitchens upstairs, and then 10 or 20 people would just get together and have food.

"So I always have cooked and was largely self-taught. Always done all the cooking at home."

His partner Janet never learned to cook, he explains, not least because her mother “god love her – couldn’t cook to save her life. She was set in her ways. For example, 1 April was salad season until the 30 October.

“And it went on a strict rotation: cheese, ham, cheese ham, with the immortal question: ‘ow d’ya want yer salad? On a plate or in a saaandwich?’

“And Sunday lunch would go pork, lamb, beef, chicken; pork, lamb, beef, chicken – irrespective of the weather. Friday lunchtime would be fish in plastic bags. Saturday lunch was always pie and chips from the chippy.

“She came and ate with us once and I’d cooked my usual incredibly rare bit of beef, and she said: ‘just how I love my beef!’ and I thought: ‘why do you cook yours like boot leather then?”

“So I’ve always cooked. I’m not artistic, but I put stuff into cooking that I probably couldn’t put into anything else.

“Years back – probably 20 years ago – I was given a voucher for a one-day course at Ballymaloe, and I went and had a great time, and thought: ‘I’ve got to go there; I’ve got to do the three-month course.”

That’s not cheap and, he says, every time he had just got the money together, “some major disaster would come up” and he was back to square one, saving for it.

But eventually, he had enough in the bank. Then, as the end of a lengthy job evaluation neared, which his union duties had seen him heavily involved in, it became “clear that I’d never be going back to my old job after it”.

His employer agreed that, under those circumstances and since it was really rather sensible to be planning for an alternative future, he could use a combination of paid leave and unpaid leave to make up the three months of the course.

“It was the best three months of my life,” he says.

“Extremely intense. People talk about going into the ‘Ballymaloe bubble’ and you do kind of live in one. It’s in the middle of a 100-acre organic farm with 10 acres of organic market garden, and effectively you do a three-year catering college course in 12 weeks.

“The way you do it – the average college course is nine to 3.30, breaks and whatever: at Ballymaloe, you’re in the kitchen from eight to 1.30. You get a short break, then at quarter to two, you’re back into demonstrations until, say, quarter past, half past five, with a tasting at the end.

“Then you get another quick tea break and there’s a lecture of some variety – could be on wine, cheese – so you’re generally finishing seven or eight o’clock at night. You go back, write out your work for the next day, file the recipes for what you’ve been cooking that day – and go to bed.

“And at 7 o'clock in the morning, you have ‘assorted duties’, which may be getting fresh veg out of the field, selecting the herbs from the herb garden ... or milking the cows.”

If those “assorted duties” mean milking the Jerseys, which Bill describes as “the prime job”, students then separate the milk to make butter and cheese, nipping back all morning to stir the curds for the latter.

It’s not difficult to see how three months of 18 to 19-hour days can mount into the equivalent of a three-year course.

And then there are the weekends: all on a ‘voluntary basis’ (Bill’s quotation marks). Students are sent out for a different kind of training – to Cork on a Friday to do a night shift with an artisan baker or to a hotel or restaurant to wait on tables for the evening, for instance.

The Ballymaloe philosophy, he explains, is an holistic one: students need to gain a really wide understanding of food – “where it comes from, how to use it, how to process it, how to serve it”; there are even some basic lessons in business.

The final exam requires students to complete such varied tasks as identifying 20 kinds of salad and drawing a diagram of a table setting, while “the first recipe you get at Ballymaloe is actually for compost”.

Because, he notes, as Ballymaloe founder and slow food doyen “Darina [Allen] says, ‘good food starts with good earth’.”

Bill is a delightful raconteur, and he happily describes things in great detail, seasoned with anecdote and his mimicry.

But after Ballymaloe, what then?

“I’ve always enjoyed making bread, and at Ballymaloe you make bread every day”. But there’s another rather special advantage.

“It’s the easiest way to get past environmental health,” he reveals.

“There’s very little risk in bread. Done properly, it’s flour, it’s water, it’s salt, it’s yeast. It bakes at 230 degrees. That will kill any bacteria.”

Even though he’s currently only got a double oven – there's another oven on order – he’s still able to bake from within his home kitchen.

There are still schedules for cleaning his kitchen and equipment, including deep cleans, but he doesn't have to wash his baking tins (“unless something sticks to them”). Regular use seasons them, and environmental health is happy with that, as long as he stores them upside down so that nothing can get inside.

But baking is “also something you can teach people – and teaching is far more profitable than making bread,” he adds with a wry version of his characteristic laugh.

“The overheads are extremely limited and it only takes four hours!”

Which is probably a good thing. He was given a helpful spreadsheet by the Welsh government when he started the business, and “the last time I looked at it, my hourly rate was 98p!”

On the other hand, he observes that his new career has made a ‘phenomenal’ difference to his quality of life.

“I loved my years in the trade union movement,” he adds, proudly pointing to his UNISON lifetime membership badge, “but I get the same adrenalin rush when I’ve done a really big bake” as after a week at annual conference.

Indeed, he had nipped up to Liverpool for the day to meet old friends and catch up on the gossip at this year's conference.

And he says that it’s an incredible buzz to have people going back, time again, to see him on a market “and saying things like: ‘thank god we’re here early ... you were out of such and such last week and it’s the best I’ve ever had’. And you think: ‘this is nice. This is what I want to do’.

Baking has also opened doors that he never expected, and he’s made many new friends.

He mentions Arun Kapil of Green Saffron Spices – “you will hear a hell of lot more of him” – and enthuses about how the former musician blends his spices, treating his work like music, looking to combine “high notes, low notes, medium notes”.

“I’ll tell you how good he is – he makes bespoke spice mixes for Mark Hix, Richard Corrigan and Gordon Ramsey, and he’s a consultant to some bloke called Blumenthal!”

It’s a friendship that means that, when Arun gives “tutored master classes and tastings” at this summer’s Abergavenny Food Festival, Bill will be baking the breads that he will use.

In September, he’s off to Cork for the Celtic Cook Off. It’s a sort of Ready Steady Cook-style competition, using just local ingredients, and featuring chefs from all across the Celtic world, including Cornwall and Brittany.

They’ll start the event with a big lunch – and Bill is the baker of choice for both the lunch and for the cook off.

Then in October, he’ll be doing a “hands-on session at the Newport Food Festival”.

It is, he says, a bit more “about who you know than how good you are”, but then again, you don't get invited back into that company if you're not good.

Just before Christmas last year, he reveals that Rachel Allen (Darina’s daughter-in-law) was over here and they’d met up, with her introducing him to some influential people as “the best baker we had at Ballymaloe!”

“I’m sure I wasn’t,” says Bill, “but that got me an in with chef and TV presenter Matt Tebbutt!”

He talks about the rising food scene in his part of Wales – not just top chefs, but good producers too.

And it’s clear that his own food philosophy extends way beyond bread.

There are farmers that he knows, and he describes not only how they look after their animals, but also how they slaughter them, in the least stressful manner possible. It’s light years away from the horror stories of industrialised, centralised abattoirs.

Which is a good thing, since (accidentally) he actually managed to take Janet on a visit to an abattoir on a recent wedding anniversary.

In the meantime, of course, the final product of such an approach, in your pan or under your grill, and most certainly on your plate, is so much better for having had such care taken.

“Don’t get me wrong,” he says, after observing that he’s always understood the value of fresh, quality ingredients, but “in many ways, there’s nothing as satisfying as a fishfinger sandwich, with ketchup, on some really thick, sliced industrial white.”

And he then gives another example of how to use a cheap, Chorleywood loaf.

“That bread is so flimsy … take the crusts off, roll it out – you can get it paper thin – dip in melted butter, either side; stick it in a bun tin, bake it off in the oven for 10 minutes, and you have the most amazing, crisp stuff.

“And I’ve had people say: ‘that’s the most amazing pastry we’ve tasted’, and you tell ’em: ‘actually, it’s just really cheap bread!’

He’s been contemplating that busy festival ‘season’ that is approaching, and remembering the festivals that he used to go to. The Jerry Garcia t-shirt gives a hint.

“It’s really worrying,” he muses, “to think that most of the people I went to see are dead.” And then he bursts out into Falstaffian laughter once more.

He remembers seeing “The Doors and Hendrix at the Isle of Wight.

“I first saw the Grateful Dead in ’72 … I love Jerry,” he adds, before noting that the food world has also led him to “a bigger Dead head than myself in James Swift, who runs Trealy Farm, which makes British charcuterie.

The discovery of their mutual love of Grateful Dead came at last year’s Newport Food Festival, where Bill was the “official blogger or something to that effect”.

A completely accidental comment saw James revealing that he’d got recordings of 1,500 live shows.

Such is the way to start a friendship.

And with thoughts of such music, another strand of memory begins to unfurl.

“In those days, I was on a fairly macrobiotic diet – or mung beans 500 ways. The only place you could get them in Aberystwyth was a place called The Happy Stores, which was run by one of these weird and wonderful cults and they were all trying to recruit you if you went in to buy anything.

“‘A pound of balti peas, please’. ‘Would you like to come out to the ashram for a weekend?’ ‘No, just my peas please’.”

In a complete swing around from his admission of a brief period of vegetarianism, Bill has a book that he’s keen to recommend – An Irish Butcher Shop by Pat Whelan.

Pat is a seventh-generation farmer and fifth-generation butcher who now runs James Whelan Butchers in Ireland, and is committed to sustainability, nose-to-tail eating and quality, and Bill describes the book as a “a brilliant treatise on cooking”.

Pat’s philosophy is that ‘knowledge without sharing is merely information’, says Bill, so Pat shares it – and so does Bill himself.

The conversation wanders off into further discussion of the link between compassionate farming and the quality of produce, plus the disconnect in the UK between food and how it is produced, which allows a good laugh about a recent Apprentice competitor who thought that a field of horses was a field of dogs.

Bill would happily talk the hind legs off the proverbial donkey when it comes to matters culinary, but one thing’s clear: for this artisanal baker, finding himself forced into a career change in his mid-50s really has proved to be the bread of heaven.

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