It’s 10am and Mark’s Bread in Southville is already a hive of activity. Loaves of sourdough are piled high, cakes are lined up on the counter and the queue is almost out of the door. The smell is sensational.
Every generation is represented here, from young parents and their babies to octogenarians who have all come for their daily bread or a coffee.
“I love it when you get a variety of locals coming in for a coffee” says Mark Newman, owner and founder of the bakery, “That’s one of the reasons I wanted to set this up. I wanted to do something where I lived and engaged with the local community.”
Mark opened his bakery in 2009, at a time when artisan bakeries were scarce and sourdough was virtually unheard of. “It all started with a bit of a midlife crisis. I was working in IT and had had enough.” Mark explains. “I wanted to do something else that involved making and that I would have some passion for.”
Mark was given a bread making course for his 50th birthday from his wife, which turned out to be a pivotal moment in his career. “I was taking a sourdough out of a wood fired oven with a paddle and the inspiration hit me, like a eureka moment. I thought, this is what I want to do.”
Soon after Mark ditched the day job after noticing a gap in the market. “It was really hard to get good bread in this country and I didn’t know why” recalls Mark. “If you went to France or Germany the bread was really lovely and it’s not exactly rocked science. I could see that Bristol was crying out for it”.
So Mark started baking and Mark’s Bread was born, introducing Bristol to the wonders of sourdough.
Mark’s Bread is now a café and bakery at the north end of North Street, housed in an old car repair shop and next to the Bristol Beer Factory.
Even if you don’t live in Southville you might recognise the name – all of their bread is delivered around town by an electric cargo bike and has been since the beginning.
“At the start I borrowed an oven once a week in the Southbank Centre and would then drop bread off to neighbours – that’s where the bike comes in” says Mark. “After that I had a small space here. I had a handwritten sign on the door saying ‘Back in 5 minutes’ because I had to drop bread off on the bike to wholesale customers”.
The bike is now an essential part of the Mark’s Bread identity, as well as being environmentally friendly and a much faster way to get around town.
Sourdough and artisan bread are now commonplace in Bristol, as they are across the country, but back in 2009 Mark was a bit of a maverick.
“The tradition of craft baking had disappeared because of the introduction of industrialised bread making in the 60’s using the Chorleywood method” Mark explains. “When I started I wanted to use natural ingredients and organic flour. We don’t exclusively make sourdough but we make a lot of it and that was quite novel. In fact, at the time people weren’t familiar with the flavour and found the name sourdough a bit off-putting.”
The Chorleywood method that Mark mentions is the bread making process in fast forward, and is how the sliced white loaves that line supermarket shelves are made. By using enzyme-based improvers, preservatives and much more baker’s yeast the bread takes as little as three and a half hours to make and lasts for weeks. It also costs less than a pound.
In contrast, bread done Mark’s way is made and shaped by hand and has a slow ferment, meaning it’s proved for 24 hours before it goes in the oven. If it’s a sourdough then the only ingredients used are flour, water and salt. Instead of baker’s yeast a starter of flour and water is used. This starter has been fermented over a few days to activate the wild yeasts found in the environment and wheat, and bacteria or lactobilli that grows in the starter culture.
These key elements are what gives sourdough it’s springy, holey form and unique flavour. “When you look at the raw ingredients it always amazes me that it can make something so incredible” says Mark. “It’s alchemy, magic really”.
Over the last 10 years there has been an explosion in artisan bakeries, with Mark at the helm in Bristol. Yet bread has also developed a bad name, with wheat intolerances on the rise.
“When people come in and say I can’t eat bread I suggest they try sourdough because of the slower prove” says Mark. This slow prove means it is digested more easily. The bacteria present can break down carbohydrate and gluten properly which are believed to be the cause of these relatively new gluten intolerances.
“Plus, in lots of bread there are all these additives and you don’t really know what you’re getting.” Mark points out. “I remember buying a sandwich from the supermarket which had 22 ingredients in the bread, most of which were chemical formulas. That’s a lot more than flour, water and salt!”
It’s this simplicity that drew Mark to making bread in the first place. “There’s something special about bread. I can’t quite put it into words. It’s so comforting, and somehow empowers a link to the community.”
It’s clear that the way bread can connect people and the community is a source great inspiration for Mark. “I love that we get people who come into the cafe every day, and we can get to know them. We’re a bit like a community hub – that’s the difference between a small shop and a supermarket”
It’s no secret though that sourdough is expensive, with Mark’s loaves starting at £3. Yet when you think of the work that goes in, it seems good value.
“It’s a different product really” Mark points out. “We don’t want to be exclusive but it’s what it costs to make this bread, and a loaf is several substantial meals. It’s cheaper than a pint of beer when you think about it, but culturally we haven’t wanted to spend much on our food.”
Mark also makes non-sourdough bread, including the popular ‘All Night White’ loaf which is £2.30. Any bread that’s leftover at the end of the day Mark sells at half price and he is also a member of the living wage foundation, so his employees are paid a decent salary.
“I want people to come to work and be proud of what they do and also be able to afford to live” he says. “Yet there is a balance to get right, and if you use good ingredients it’s going to be more expensive.”
As our conversation draws to a close a man in his 60’s approaches Mark to discuss the fact that he’s come back in to buy more bread. As increasing numbers of people turn their back on industrialised food production there is no doubt that the demand for this kind of bread will continue to rise.
Luckily for Bristol we have ample choice of bakeries which, although he may never admit it, is largely thanks Mark’s tireless work over the last 10 years.
One more thing…
What do you think is Bristol’s biggest challenges when it comes to food?
I think it’s sustaining the growth in food businesses. A lot of people look at opening a cafe or starting a food businesses and there’s got to be a point where the market is saturated.
Who are your Bristol Food Heroes?
Josh Eggleton; where does he get his his energy from? I also really respect what Sam Leach did at Birch. He worked here for a year to learn about baking. I also have some baking heroes – Shipton Mill, and Clive Merry who I got my sourdough starter from.
Where is your favourite place in Bristol?
I’m not sure if it’s me getting older, but I like the Buttery because it’s been there forever – you can have chips and see the seagulls there. I like the docks and I like North Street.
What are your resolutions for 2019?
I’m 61 and at some point I’m going to retire and one thing I’ve got to start to engage in is how to make that transition – but that’s a bit further ahead!