The name of the E5 Bakehouse is deceptive as the bakery is tucked under a brick railway arch near London Fields in the E8 area, but Ben Mckinnon started his business from a domestic kitchen in E5. From this simple start, the word of mouth about Ben’s tangy sourdough breads continues to spread.
Interview with Ben Mckinnon
Ben took me round the Bakehouse, a powerhouse of culinary creativity. Beyond the little café, where you can drink locally roasted coffee and enjoy a cheese and chutney sourdough sandwich or a homemade cake, is the bakery itself. Baking starts at 4am, and periodically throughout the day the workspace thrums with pleasant activity as the dough is stretched, pummelled, kneaded and shaped by hand before being carried shoulder-high on huge trays into the oven.
At the heart of the business is a passion for sourdough bread, which Ben feels is a link to the food of our ancestors. He describes how the Pilgrim Fathers took the culture from which the bread is created, known as a “starter” or “mother”, to the new world, but the origins of sourdough go back to the earliest bread making: it’s thought to have originated with the ancient Egyptians back in 1500 BC. It was the way bread was leavened until the medieval period, when barm from brewing was used, and then yeast took over to leaven the loaves we’re more familiar with now. The sourdough revival came about in 1970s California, and has continued to spread, along with a resurgent interest in the history and production of food.
One of Ben’s own sourdough cultures originated in Lapland around 200 years ago, and was passed to him by a Swedish friend, who in turn was given it by her grandmother. Along with Ben’s three other “starters”, all the ingredients – locally sourced organic flour, water and salt – are simple and natural, and the breadmaking techniques are traditional. There is something satisfyingly primal in the hands-on creation of bread, and the very terminology of the “mother” which creates each new loaf carries a resonance of connectedness, and even of the sacred imagery of bread as a representation of the body. All of which might sound whimsical in a review of a Hackney bakery, but the temple-like arch of the Bakehouse somehow reinforces a spiritual feel to the undertaking.
This is a visibly thriving small business employing 18 staff: bakers, chefs, a barrista, delivery people and an office assistant. The bread is delivered by bicycle – Ben uses no motor transport – door-to-door and to nearby restaurants such as Brawn and Frizzante, as well as to Hackney’s favourite corner shop Palm 2. If you fancy turning your hand to making sourdough yourself, sign up for one of Ben’s courses. You learn how to make four breads with wild sourdough – pain de campagne, ciabatta, 66% rye, and bagels – and you’re sent home with a sourdough starter, perhaps even from Lapland, to launch you on your own breadmaking career.
It’s unlikely that you’ll leave your lovely sourdough loaves hanging around till they’re stale. But if you do, Ruth at the Bakehouse suggests stale bread recipes. And Fergus from the Bakehouse has instructions on how to make one of their most popular cakes: a chocolate and almond torte. As well as being a baker, Fergus writes the Hand to Mouth food blog, from where I’ve taken his ace recipe for Cornish pasties.