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Archive for the ‘Purveyors’ Category

The bakery at North Elmham baked its last loaf yesterday, the deep old huge bread oven will gradually go cold over the next few days and then, someday fairly soon, it will be broken up and removed. I know that oven well. For several years we baked our pork pies at North Elmham and, because of Norman’s generosity, we made the sweet-smelling bakery a home from home. That bakery got our business off the ground. We would go in in the afternoon when the bread and cakes were finished for the day and we gradually learned to master the huge wooden paddle that bakers call a peel until we could slide heavy trays of pies right from the back of the three-tray-deep darkness.

And how that oven baked. It had personality. We knew that the bottom oven of the three decks baked coolest and the back and right hand side of each oven were warmest. So part way through baking we’d pull all the trays of pies out and swap them around. For a big bake, this would involve putting in 28 trays, when the pies started to colour taking them all out and replacing them in a different order and then gradually pulling each tray out as it was ready. We learned, with Norman’s help, to do it all by eye, with a bit of checking with a thermometer probe to be certain. We never baked by time, the oven just didn’t want us to work that way,  so if a customer ever asks me how long a pie takes to cook I never feel equipped to give a straight answer.

Although a modern oven is easier to use, we never resented its idiosyncracies. We respected and loved that oven. We learned our craft from it. There was no rushing it, we worked at the pace that it wanted us to. It was quietly in charge. Much like the baker.

Norman always said that he wasn’t going to do it for us, we had to learn how to bake ourselves. He taught us  how to use the 10 foot peels without loosing pies from the trays or hitting anyone standing behind us (mostly!) and  also showed us how to lift a big, heavy  tray of pies, holding it diagonally, so that it is perfectly balanced and, despite some awfully near-misses, we’ve never yet dropped a tray in the three years we’ve been baking.

The oven was brick with heavy blue painted cast iron doors, it stayed hot 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and had a beautiful slow, dry heat which meant that the pies have always came out of it golden and crisp.

Some afternoons groups of nursery children and their teachers would come in and utter chaos would reign. Norman would show them how he made bread dough, getting them to join in and then they would make strange and fancifully shaped loaves of bread and they would crowd round the big blue oven and, wide-eyed, watch their own bread slide out. All the time Norman would be gently telling them about old fashioned food and traditions. Generations of Norfolk people will tell you about their visits as children. And Norfolk is really going to miss the fantastic old-fashioned bread, the hot cross buns at Easter and the thousands of mince pies he and his confectioner Sharon made at Christmas.

On high days and holidays a whole pig would arrive to be baked in the bottom of the oven. If no bakery staff were about we would be left a note “Pig in at 2.30” and we would heave it off its trolley, tail first, into the depths.

Norman would always say he was doing nothing special, he was just doing what hundreds of small bakers were doing fifty years ago. In a way it’s true, North Elmham always reminded me of the bakeries you see in every village in France, serving wonderful but simple bread across a wood and glass counter. But in 21st century Britain finding that was much more than special.

Norman, right from the start, told us we were welcome to stay and bake for as long as we needed to be there. But that it was important to work towards becoming independent. Maybe we stayed longer than was strictly sensible, the half hour treck between our kitchen on a ridge above the sea where we make the pies and North Elmham was increasingly eating into our busy week.  And we slowly began to realise that the bakery might not be there forever.  So last year we finally bought our own oven. It’s not like the big blue brick oven and never will be, but that old oven had taught us to be very fussy about what we wanted and we like it. And when we left, Norman packed us off with the 28 trays that we had slid in and out of his oven.  

But yesterday morning we were back at North Elmham for Norman’s last bake. I’m glad we were there. We made tea as customers came in with presents, cards and flowers. Some in tears. And Norman was as charming, funny and wise as ever. Still telling people how important old fashioned food is. He’s shutting the bakery door at the right time but I know it was breaking his heart.

We’ll go back next week to pick up a few things that we are going to buy from the bakery. So we’ll say our last , very sad, goodbye to the big old blue oven.  Of course it’ll be quite cold by then.

You can see a lovely video of the oven and Norman (with us buzzing annoyingly round in the background) by clicking here

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