Robin Coles is in good form. He is showing me round his Baker Boys stall at the Wednesday food market in Winchester, and I am thoroughly impressed. This is only one of six market stops for the trio that created the company just over a year ago. If it’s Monday then you will find them in Christchurch, Tuesday in Romsey and Alton, Wednesday it’s Winchester, Thursday Solent University, Friday it’s back to Winchester and Romsey and on a Saturday it’s Winchester, Romsey and Lymington.
Robin and his two business partners Paul Govey (standing next to him on the stall) and Paul Hill (the baker back at base camp in Hook, Hampshire), started the Baker Boys business as an offshoot of The Town Mill Bakery, and now have two vans that supply Riverford Organic, farm shops and cafes, both in Hampshire and in Surrey.
All their breads, scones, cakes and buns are produced the old fashioned way: long fermentation, organic flour (from Shipton Mill and Cann Mill), hand kneading, cutting and rolling. Every single piece on their table is moulded by Paul Hill, and such is the volume of their trade that they are now looking to recruit a second baker.
During the current busy season, coming up to Easter, they make around 800 hot cross buns every single day, and each one is overseen to the level of perfection that is now in front of me. The fragrance of sweet cinnamon and warm yeast is inviting shoppers in, and they mill around the stall with purses in hand, mentally devouring the goods.
The inspiration behind the whole venture lies with Robin’s wife, Cathy, who was a keen village baker. She started a small cottage industry from home, and from watching her skill and talent at selling classical, British breads and treats from a bygone era, Robin thought that this was a very special kind of business. “Being a baker, and selling bread to people, makes you happy, it makes other people happy. You just cannot beat properly made breads and buns. We make people smile, that’s what we do”, enthuses Robin. And I can believe it, as the hunger starts to strip away at the energy I need to write his words down in my notebook.
Spread in front of me are rye breads, caraway and molasses round loaves, poppy seed and sesame seeded bloomers, walnut and cheese breads, focaccia with olives and tomatoes, fig and hazelnut breads, apple and date scones and savoury Danish pastries, to name but a few. I want one of everything, in every colour. Each has a solid crust, individually cut and sprinkled with flour, caramel nutty brown with the tell-tale sign of being lifted out of the baker’s oven just a couple of hours ago.
One of their sourdough labels, praising their starter ferment dough (called Harry) catches my eye:
“One of our most important employees is Harry, Hampshire born and bred going on 41 and one of our bubbliest characters, he is at work 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Dedicated and focussed. Keep it up Harry!”
What about being a stall holder in winter though, it must be the most trying of all jobs? Paul Govey smiles a broad grin, and tells me that the hours are extremely long in the bakery business, up to 100 hours a week, and the winters can be perishingly cold. The pair once had to shovel all the snow off the street and pavement in order to erect their stall and enable customers to reach them, as a bitter wind blew all around them.
Most of the bread is sold out completely by the end of the day, and positioned strategically at the very head of the market, facing the affluent high street foot fall, means that the Baker Boys frequently sell out before the day is done. If there are left overs they take them to the night shelter for homeless people across the road.
What is next on their list of ambitions, now that they have cemented their reputation as excellent artisanal bakers? Robin agrees that they need to get a website up and running, and they would dearly love to set up a café in Winchester, with a bakery at one section and refectory tables at the other, where families could sit and enjoy a leisurely breakfast, lunch and tea, relaxing in the homely atmosphere of an old-fashioned bakery. They may even be able to set up bakery classes, to teach their craft and knowledge.
As I walk away, my wheelie trolley shopper filled with two loaves, one baguette, three scones and several buns, the crowds and queues have started to lengthen, Robin and Paul are chatting and laughing with their regular customers and handing out little samples of their breads. The Baker Boys are doing what they know best: spreading happiness.
To contact The Baker Boys, ring Robin Coles on 07917 088860.