An Interview with Dan Schickentanz, The Founder of Degustibus Bread

A flat, soulless trading estate, housing a corner Tesco Express shop, a car mechanic’s garage and a central heating engineering company just outside Abingdon, near Oxford, is possibly the last place you would expect to find an artisan bread making business. The only giveaway sign that food is produced in Dan Schickentanz’s Degustibus Bread corner of the estate is a baker, sat covered with flour, taking his break on a bench outside the door of an unmarked building.

One foot through the threshold and paletts of Shipton and Wessex Mill flours reassure me that I have come to the right place: from the corridor in front of me I can hear the whirring of mixers and the banter of men at work, turning bread dough and scraping worktops. The lights are neon white and the atmosphere inside the building is laden with particles of flour, the residue aromas of yeast, sugar and heat clinging to the afternoon air, as music plays on a distant radio.

It is twenty two years now since Degustibus Bread {“De gustibus non est disputandum” – Latin for “There is no disputing about tastes”}, was established, one of the very first artisanal bakeries in Britain, started from home by an immigrant man who is, to this day, completely self-taught.

Yet if you were to ask even knowledgeable foodies who Dan Schickentanz was, most would shrug their shoulders – unlike the recognition of the many who followed him, who, through commercial expansion and branding ambitions, have become self-styled celebrities, appearing on regional food festival bandwagons, rolling out a new baking book and DVD a year, faces beaming from the pages of glossy recipe magazines.

Although he does not bake bread personally at Degustibus any more, Dan still tracks each stage of the production process, which is now so extensive that his business supplies an enormous range of food halls, delicatessens, restaurants and shops with two delivery vans that leave in the very early hours to drop off freshly baked bread around London, Oxfordshire, Reading and Birmingham. Large, coloured framed maps on the office walls are dotted with pins denoting delivery targets. There is also a Degustibus café and bakery in each of Carter Lane, St.Paul’s and Southwark Street’s Borough Market.

We sit in one of Dan’s offices to get away from the noise of conversation and ringing telephones and he tells me that this part of the building is normally occupied by his wife Annette, who handles the financial and administrative side of the business.

I ask him how, from his home town of Baden-Baden, at the foothills of the Black Forest in south-western Germany, this journey into the world of baking and bread production started. In his still distinct German accent he told me,

“It started early – I remember I started cooking as a teenager, even as young as fifteen years of age. Other boys wanted to go and play football, but I wanted to be in the kitchen making food! I used to go to cookery school in the summer holidays, and when I saw the fresh produce at farmers’ markets when I went shopping with my parents I realised that I wanted food to be my life.”

The realities of having to earn a living meant that, with Germanic common sense, academic attainment was a priority first and foremost. Having studied law and business, Dan embarked on a first career in America, but in order to finance his courses he also worked in bars and restaurants, both in front-of-house positions as well as cooking in the kitchens. In one particular establishment, often frequented by Walter Mondale, 42nd Vice President of America, and some of the band members of Pink Floyd, the Iranian owner was to have a profound influence on the then thirty-something year old Dan.

“I learned so much there, for example how to look at every single tiny detail. There was a special salad on the Menu, a cos salad, with a simple sweet and sour dressing, but it was served in a chilled bowl. It was the chilled bowl that made that dish – without it the dish would have lost half the kick. I learned early on how, in the food business, it is the attention to small details that really matters in the quest for perfection. I learned to go from the very front of the restaurant to the very back and I could tell from the expression on the customers’ faces, or the body language, whether something needed doing.”

Hungry for knowledge, Dan went to various bookshops to look at their cookery book sections, but he had very little money to spend. When Harold McGee’s first book, “On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of The Kitchen” was first published by Scribner in 1984, long before the days of mass-discounting by Amazon, it was a hard-backed edition and Dan did not have the money to buy it.

“So I used to go to the bookshop, and in a corner of the shop I used to sit and flick through the pages, reading the words, studying the detail. I used to go quite frequently, reading one page at a time. Eventually the book came out in paperback, so then I could buy it.”

With his wife Annette and his little daughter Daphne, then just six years of age, Dan decided he wanted to move back to Europe. The decision was made not to go back to Germany because Daphne had already started school in America, and the family felt Britain offered a similar education system to the States, instead of returning to Germany, where she would have been re-classed in a younger age-group.

In the beginning of their new life in Britain the family faced many struggles and challenges to get a baking business up and running from scratch: with very little money and a not too reliable car, Dan and Annette would drive hundreds of miles each day to sell batches of cookies and brownies firstly at an indoor market in Solihull and then in an outdoor market in northern Buckinghamshire.

One day, at home, Dan decided he really wanted to make some fresh bread to sell at the market. So he began kneading dough by hand, and leaving it to prove in baskets, baking the loaves in a normal domestic oven.

“With all the kneading I soon had the muscles of Arnold Schwarzenegger as well as his accent!” he laughed.

One of his first customers at the market was a Jewish gentleman by the name of Paul Schwartz, who had learned baking in the concentration camps at Dachau, Poland, during the Second World War. He had been rescued by the Quakers and had learned to make scones – whose sticky dough baffled Dan and his enormous hands. Paul was the first of a long line of customers who told Dan he thought his bread rolls were really something special. This first compliment gave him the confidence he needed to develop the idea of baking bread commercially further.

“I knew that I was onto something because the market used to open by 7.20am and by 8.00 am I nearly sold out of everything as the traders used to come and buy my bread, even before the customers arrived. Some of them would buy several days’ worth of bread in one go. I learned early on that in the market there was always a hierarchy of traders: the most important traders got the best pitches and then, as you went further down the scale, the strategic position of your pitch deteriorated. Well, originally my pitch was tucked far away from the entrance and the main walkway. One day, the owner of the market came and bought some of my bread rolls. A couple of weeks later I was told my pitch had changed, and I was put in a really strategic aisle.”

Despite his obvious talents the road ahead was still one of long working hours and scarce financial reward. Little Daphne would sleep beneath the bread counter as her parents worked 18 hour shifts to make a living.

“It was really tough, we had no money, but we just had to keep on going. I remember one very stormy, wet day I woke up and was not sure whether I should still go to the market. If you did not turn up, you could risk losing your pitch. So I just got on with it: when I turned up, I opened the boot of the car and the smell of freshly baked bread filled the car park. Well, it so happened I sold out. And that taught me a very important lesson: in business you just have to show up because if you don’t show up you’ll miss out!”

To make ends meet Dan also worked as a delivery driver and bagged scraps from restaurant kitchens he worked in, in order to feed his family.

“You do what you have to do. We were living on the edge, but we just got on with it. We cut back.”

One day, as he made a bread delivery in Oxford, he was told that the lease of a unit was coming available in a trading estate near Abingdon, and in it there was a 30 quart {26 litre} electric mixing machine belonging to a caterer that wanted to leave the business.

“With a 30 quart electric mixing machine I thought I could conquer the world! I started making bagels, sourdoughs, croissants, I was selling a lot to businesses. Now I rent four units in total, and even then I think I need more space,” Dan told me.

From this base a huge range of breads is made to order, tonnes of loaves with grain, seed, flour and flavour influences from all over the world: from American style breads {including San Francisco Sourdough and Quinoa Bread}, to Eastern European breads {including Polish, Latvian and Ukrainan Rye}, Continental style breads {including Campaillou, Ficelle, Paysan and Fougasse}, British breads {including Cotswold Cobbler and Eight Grain bread} and Italian breads {including Focaccia, Calzone, Cortino and Pugliese}.

We leave the office to look at the breads being made: there are four bakers rolling and cutting different doughs – some the colour of chocolate brown putty are made from rye and treacle, others are malted and rolled in poppy seeds. Stainless steel racks are lined in rows against the walls, some with bread tins blackened and dented from years of service in the stack ovens. In one section sit huge, round sourdough loaves, Dan’s speciality and pride. Their thick, crusty leathery skins sit warm, floury and cracked like earthy crevasses on the cooling racks, a woody fragrance rising in the air and surrounding me on this hot summer afternoon. The temperature in this room is scalding, yet the men keep going, the bread tins edged into the ovens with wooden paletts flicking into the steel, dark interior, the metal doors shutting with a loud clank. The mixers whirr, scrapers scrape, hands knead and the heat rises, the stillness of the afternoon unflinchingly warm.

“You see the taste of sourdough is complex,” Dan tells me holding up a loaf for me to smell. “There are many layers to it, it’s like a chamber orchestra, there are many different notes. It’s all a case of perception: a bread that I find really flavoursome and delicious may not be to someone else’s taste. To be really successful at making sourdough you do need temperature control, but although it is a skill to make good sourdough bread much of the process is actually left to chance, to nature as well as to seasonal variations. The long, natural fermentation is more in tune with Mother Nature and with what our bodies want and need,” he explained.

The taste of his sourdough is quite different from teeth-brakingly crusty French breads: a masticating assault-course of the palate, their deeply fermenting, pungent smells are quite off-putting. The Degustibus bread is lighter in structure, the crust more digestible, the crumb finer and the fragrance less sour and acidic. If you have never tried sourdough bread before, this is a gentler, subtler nursery-run into the genre.

Over the last two decades Dan has seen a great change in consumer attitude towards bread consumption. From pappy white bread rolls to supermarket sliced, plastic wrapped, Chorleywood loaves, we may have ridden the trajectory to another extreme now and in danger of benchmark debasement, with every other Sainsbury, Tesco and Greggs store claiming they too offer the customer the “artisanal bread experience”.

“We now have a devaluation of the word “artisan” because in fact artisan means that food is made by hand, with care and it is democratic, it is part of history, of national identity. It does not mean it has to be expensive or just for a small, rich elite. Food does not need to be hyped or constantly changed either – it is part of the richness of culture. There is so much to be said for producing just one type of food, doing it really well and not changing it. In Baden-Baden, for example, there is a confectionery business that has been in business since 1878, the recipes are still the same and it is the greatest treat to go there, you can buy a few slices of delicious cake and serve them to your guests at a dinner party. The perception there is one of real quality and worth. We need to value really well made, more traditional foods. The supermarkets want to manipulate perceptions by faking artisanship. Making good bread commercially is a complex craft – you cannot fake it.”

He cites Andrew Whitley of Bread Matters and Sally Clarke as two stalwarts who have always lived by their principles and with quiet, determined integrity, stuck to their roots, transcending fashion and fads to continue producing exemplary bread.

The media and awards have come Dan’s way: he won best baker and best bread awards from The British Baking Industry and Foodlovers’ Britain in concurrent years as well as individual breads being accoladed by Christopher Hirst in The Economist’s Intelligent Life Magazine and Peter Bazalgette of the Financial Times newspaper, the latter proclaiming Dan’s walnut bread the best ever and the baker “a bread artist”. Although winning prizes and raving reviews are, of course, every artisan food producer’s dream, for Dan it is the placing of his breads to be ranked and judged alongside the best bakers in the world, particularly the Poilane bakery, that provides a sense of fulfilment and peer recognition.

He taught bread making at Le Manoir Aux Quat’ Saisons for four years, the only outside, freelance teacher ever to have done so, as well as tutoring with Valentina Harris at her cookery school in Tuscany and he has also featured in many television and radio programmes.

Then the unthinkable happened: with unforeseeable sleight of hand, cruel fate dealt a heavy blow. None of the personal success and business growth that occurred within the walls of Units 7-10 on the Wootton Road Industrial Estate since the turn of the century could have shielded Dan from the trauma that ensued one fateful day, four years ago.

The baking shift had just ended and the last of the bakers left the building, locked up and went home. A terrible fire broke out within the bakery, its cause still unexplained and unknown, flames and smoke destroying the Degustibus Bread bakery. The next day, bewildered and shocked, Dan stood in the black, burned out shell of his business not knowing whether he would be able to find the strength within himself to carry on.

“And my mouth started speaking, and without my knowing where the voice came from I told everyone there exactly what we were going to do, even though I had not really planned what we were going to do. I was in shock, everything was gutted and ruined, but I knew that we had to find a way to carry on. So we rented a temporary bakery in Battersea and my bakers drove backwards and forwards there every day, so that we could carry on making bread for our customers. You can only give up the once, I thought. And so we just kept on going.”

The same Teutonic discipline, courage and work ethic that carried him through the struggles of the early years prevailed to bolster him in his darkest moment, but the tragedy has taken its toll, financially as well as psychologically. His face tired and wan, he told me he has also faced break-ins and burglaries in his shop and café in London. Beset with ever-spiralling rises in wheat, raw ingredient and fuel costs it seems both Trojan and Stoic not to have walked away.

His daughter, Daphne, who is now 32 years old, and has a daughter of her own, told her father recently that she would like to become a Pastry Chef.

“She told me she really loves this baking thing, she grew up with it. I still love it too you know. I am creative, I love this business. I love doing something extraordinary.”

After many bleak moments, hard work and sacrifice, four years on, the bakery is pristine and polished back to its former glory, no trace of the catastrophe that nearly brought Dan and his family down. I ask him whether he has ever considered moving to a nice little house in Oxford, with an apartment on the first floor and a café-bakery on the ground, to live in peaceful semi-retirement. he could be rolling out the bread doughs he loves the most, teaching a few home-baking courses at the weekends and maybe leisurely writing the best-seller baking manual that is, no doubt, inside his head already: precise, technical, didactic and passionate, just like its author.

He laughs and tells me that maybe that would not be such a bad idea. But before we have time to discuss this retirement plan he whips out his I-Pad and scrolls his fingers across its shiny surface to show me the bread photographs he plans to upload on the new Degustibus Bread website he is plotting.

“Who shot those photos?” I asked, pointing at the screen, admiring the talent of the food photographer.

“I did,” replied Dan. “I taught myself photography.”

“And who made your new website?” I asked, noting its orderly, contemporary, clean design.

“I did,” replied Dan, as if it was the simplest thing in the world to design your own company website. “I know it’s not perfect yet, there is still more to be done to it before I launch it. There is still so much to learn, you know. Every day I am still learning. Even when it comes to bread – every day I learn something I did not know the day before!”

Further Information

Degustibus Bread:

Follow Dan on Twitter: @degustibusbread

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