Manifestdough

Manifestdough: A Little History of Bara Menyn, by Owner & Baker Jack Smylie Wild

The seed that would eventually become Bara Menyn was sown years ago, when I had plenty of time on my hands, few job prospects in rural West Wales, and poor local bread. There wasn’t much to do all day apart from drinking tea and eating toast, but even that was becoming increasingly difficult: “I can’t eat this stuff anymore,” I said to Seren, “shall we start buying something nicer?” I was referring to the thinly-sliced, yeasty white loaves we had both got into the habit of picking up from the village shop. To be fair, it was the best stuff available: at least it was independent, Welsh bread, which was fresher and less carbon-guilty than well-known, branded supermarket loaves. Still, it contained additives, dissolved instantly in the mouth, and was made as quickly and cheaply as possible, without love, by machines.

“There isn’t anything better around. Why don’t you learn to make your own?” came her reply. I thought about it for a second. “Actually,” I said, “you’re right – why don’t I know how to make bread? Surely everyone should know how to make bread?” It was a moment of realisation: this most basic of foodstuffs, the staff of life, made in myriad ways every moment across the globe –  yet I had no real idea of how it was made; or rather, how I myself might go about making it at home. So the challenge was on.

I got a bread book, read up on the theory of yeast and gluten, and made some disastrous loaves. But after a while they became edible, and actually improved until the point came when Seren spoke her wise words again: “You’re getting good at this, you could start selling your bread, and start a small business.”

I was sceptical at first – making money from bread is notoriously difficult, and I lacked the kit to make it on any sort of larger scale. The idea, however, of being my own boss; of working with this mysterious, living substance that gave the fingertips such pleasure as it became steadily silkier and smoother on the workbench; the idea of the satisfaction to be found in nourishing people with honest, healthy, delicious bread; the idea, as well, after years of abstract academia (I studied philosophy at Cardiff), of shifting focus from the head to the hands, turning from the matters of the mind to the matter of the soil and the seasons, its fruits and its seeds – all these ideas germinated and began to take hold.

So I started a small micro-bakery from home, which was ultimately unprofitable, but nonetheless satisfying and educational. During that time I got my hands on a copy of Tartine Bread and began experimenting with sourdough, which soon became an obsession. These experiences of slow-fermentation breads and artisan processes soon got me a job in a brand-new bakery further up the Teifi valley in Lampeter, where the owners of The Organic Fresh Food Company – Ben and Lucy – had bitten the bullet and built a small bakehouse, in a spare room attached to their farm shop. They had developed a couple of good sourdough recipes – all they needed now to get the business off the ground was someone passionate about sourdough. After six months of searching for such a baker, a moment of serendipity brought me to their doorstep, and for half a year I toiled away in a flurry of flour, wild yeasts and scorching ovens, earning a few mandatory burns and blisters along the way. Under the guidance of Ben and Lucy, I cut my teeth, and my passion grew; but the 2am awakenings were never going to become natural or easy, and besides, seeing a young couple running a successful businesses inspired me, and gave me more dangerous ideas.

So in the late summer of 2014 I was again jobless, and wondering what might become of me. I was writing lots, and getting some things published here and there, but my wallet was (literally) empty, and as most of us know, that gets pretty boring. It seemed natural then – with this newly acquired dough addiction – to try and go it alone and start a bakery of my own – maybe not on the scale of Ben and Lucy’s – but certainly comprising a more professional outfit than my previous micro-bakery, which really was more of a nano-bakery (or even more accurately: someone making bread in their kitchen and selling it).

A few things came together at once – I heard of some funding available, not much, but enough to entice me again into dreaming dangerous things (which meant dreaming of deck ovens, and big mixers, and burnished loaves fashioned by my own hands); and then one day I was talking to someone about my vague, nebulous plans to set something up when they said “I know a woman in Cardigan who’s got an amazing crafty art gallery, spread over two adjacent buildings, who’s been keen for a while for someone to set up a food business in one of them.”

I drove into Cardigan that same day. The shop and gallery she was talking about was Custom House, and the woman was Karina. I introduced myself, mentioned my discussion with our mutual friend, and she led me through to the building next door – number 45 – where she housed her larger items of art and furniture. I stared up at the amazingly high ceiling, at the old stone walls and wooden floor; at the huge glass windows. I instantly began to dream – although this time it was more of a vision – I could see the potential, I could picture the bakery, I could almost smell the bread and see the customers coming in through the big wooden doors to collect it. Driving home I knew that it had been a dangerous imagining – and a dangerous encounter – because a seed had not only been planted – more than that, it was already growing and branching out into the field of actuality – the ball was rolling; and I was terrified. The space was too large for just a bakery; too large for me alone; it would have to house something beyond my humble bread, beyond my own capabilities and imagination.

So I was walking into the unknown from day one. I had to trust…..And the people who leant me money had to trust me….And Karina had to trust me…..And Seren had to trust me….And I had to trust in myself. But also from day one came support, in abundance; everyone was willing to help in whatever way they could. My dad came down to decorate; my mum made signage and fliers and artwork for the walls; my best friends came to wash up; other friends lent bits of cash in the face of my naïve budgeting plan; Anna, a friend and waitress, persuaded her brother Tom to come and be our chef; Seren ‘washed my pants’ – a term we’ve come to consider as a metaphor for keeping everything flowing smoothly behind the scenes; Karina was endlessly supportive in endless ways; my mother-in-law took on managing front of house; friendly, lovely people arrived asking for work…..And out of the chaos a business slowly began to emerge and find its feet. Seren said I’d laid an egg – well, the chick has hatched, and now we’ve got a whole family of wonderful people – staff, customers, suppliers – who keep it alive and kicking and flourishing…..and people really do come through those big wooden doors to collect our bread, drink our coffee and eat our food….

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