I can see them working through their large glass windows. Early in the morning, at five when I head over to the gym, I can see them setting up the work stations for the day ahead. They wear grey aprons, black t-shirts, and their hands and forearms are already powdered with flour. The sight of them is more picturesque these days as the mornings are not so bright and the streetlights still shine a bright amber.
They have a seriousness on their face that feels concentrated yet automatic. Their minds are engaged in a clear and unconscious ceremony that is precise and consistent in practice. Repeated every day before dawn breaks, an almost sacred process of baking bread. I can only assume that a master baker, walking up Timberhill at the spiritual time of day, would nod his respect at his fellow craftsmen and walk on.
I have this theory that people who are indifferent to certain types of food, or who profess an adamant or casual distaste for them, express an unfortunate strain of ignorance. It is the kind that inhibits curiosity and quarantines exploration. Even for the simplest of things, even for bread.
You see the sliced bread you buy in plastic wrapping is processed in vast factories, the ‘fresh, artisanal, hand-floured sourdough’ you buy from Tesco’s are made quickly and mechanically in steel ovens geared for mass production. The latter sounds like a bakery but it isn’t the same.
Bread is industrialised not to make it taste better, but to make it cheaper. White flour was the start, now there is this healthy-sounding thing called wholemeal and weird hybrid half-and-halfs that all taste of nothing really. There is bread with grain, with nuts, with cheese and all sorts, but the bread in itself still tastes forgettable, goldfish forgettable. If it tastes alright and sells cheap, it’s a winner. If it sells cheap, tastes okay and has a label saying it was crafted by ninja warrior bakers from the foothills of Mount Everest, then by God will you sell some bread.
But good bread, bread that has character and qualities of taste that are identifiable and appreciable, come from a process that takes time. The dough is fermented organically, microorganisms get to work releasing nutrients and minerals – it is food that is alive and breathing – and only after this, is it baked in ovens built to nurture this amalgamation with heat into what we call bread. Crispy, crackly, crunchy crusts, fresh and earthy aromas that originate from insides filled with cherished air in pockets of soft, fluffy, galaxies of deep flavour. Good bread can be eaten on its own, without the accoutrements and embellishments that we are beguiled to think are necessary.
A lot of people these days would not be able to name a local bakery. In Norwich, if I meet someone who does not know of a bakery, or does not understand why I fuss over and extol a simple product of wheat, salt and water, I will most certainly tell them about Timberhill Bakery. As these connoisseurs will proudly explain to anyone bothered to ask, their bread is made from archaic forms of grain that go through the aforementioned time-consuming form of fermentation without the fast-acting industrial yeast. They bake their product in a large stone oven that produces the kind of sourdough bread that persists like a fond childhood memory.
The bakery doubles as a café, whose menu is filled with organic, home-grown, vegan-y, meaty or sweet-y wonders for prices that are fair and in a setting that adheres to the prevalent Scandinavian and antipodean cultures that we see in most cafés. Maddy and I go there every Saturday morning. Maddy has a plate of Spelt sourdough toast with delectably smooth butter and tart raspberry jam; sometimes alongside a small, crumbly kiwi and lime vegan cake. She’ll also drink a glass of apple juice that tastes like it was freshly crushed by the teats of Dionysus – she thinks similarly of Tropicana’s cloudy apple, so do not overthink this. I gravitate from the variously laden tartines to copiously filled toasties, with the occasional scone or slice of toast. I have these with a black americano that is quite alright too.
The people who we have sent on pilgrimages to this temple of wheat have now become passionate bready evangelists that would sing their praises from street corners. From dish sponge white bread to seeing the light, Timberhill takes you from the dregs all the way up the sourdough stairway to heaven. There are a lot of similar soil-to-oven type places in big cities like London, but to find a place like this in Norwich feels like a gift I do not deserve. But I do deserve it, we all do, and so are Timberhill Bakery deserving of our patronage.