These sketches were churned out between 1am-7am at St John’s Bread & Wine on Thursday. They’re barely finished so I am reluctant to share them all were I not keen to show the whole record of mixing, kneading, weighing, shaping and loading and unloading the oven before dawn. I’ve not yet sampled B&W Spitalfields’ food, but for the last two years I’ve had the lovely job of buying two loaves of bread once a month from the Smithfield restaurant. I was chuffed to be allowed behind the scenes into the bakery where all their bread is made.
The experience was really quite surreal. I sat myself on a wooden chair as waves of heat, flour and bread dust rolling over me, as Classic FM played Mozart, Brahms and Karl Jenkins through the night. Under artificial light, behind the darkened empty restaurant space, Luca and Cau the bakers churned out hundreds of loaves at a speed that made it all but impossible to draw. It was mesmerising to watch their hands and arms at work, their almost robotic movements shaping and moving unbaked dough. I’ll attempt to narrate.
These are the bakers weighing and shaping small lumps from a huge, bulbous pile of churned dough. These portions go into the round lined wooden bowls you see in other pictures: they wait and rise, before being turned out and entering the oven. The wooden bowls imprint lines across the edges of the loaves that survive through baking to give a bumpy crust, offset by score lines across the top that open into wide cracks and flaked crusts in the oven.
Luca measures ingredients into tubs, these join the flour from huge sacks in the foreground, and all are combined in the large caged-top mixers you see. I love the ‘N. R Stoat &Sons –Shaftesbury’ bags, which with ornate cartouches and wheat-sheaf motifs look like they’ve not changed since the Victorian age.
These moving workbenches house racks of long loaves and baguettes waiting to be baked. Here, Cau gets them out and gives them a good dusting of flour before they are loaded, using the long plank-like device to his left, into the oven in rows.
The bakery takes over immediately after the restaurant has packed up: this is a view from the flour-bag strewn space through to the empty kitchen.
This a view from the dark restaurant, as Cau unloads bread from the ovens. The trays up front are packed with fresh bread ready to be delivered elsewhere –these are the round loaves I mentioned earlier. The stainless steel worktop and shelves above are loaded with bread for sale: white, brown, sour dough, currant, baguette… This is where St John’s simple interior design works its magic. There is nothing better than white walls, steel, wood and clean white linen to show off their bread. And it is perfect, every loaf is as beautiful as the rustic loaves you see perfected in seventeenth-century Dutch realist paintings.
Lastly, the bakery is meticulously cleaned and swept. After Luca and Cau are done, the pastry chefs start making puddings and cakes from 8am. The restaurant chefs come in, lunch works through to dinner, packed away, and the cycle starts all over again. I’m amazed that so many people operate so efficiently in such small spaces.
I left as summer sun crept through the windows, my clothes thick with the smell of bread, and feeling very hungry. A big thank you to St John’s, especially Luca and Cau for answering all my questions and keeping me supplied with coffee in the small hours!