Steven Jose is the owner of The Bakehouse in Brockenhurst. The bakery has won many awards, regional and British, and is a landmark in the village.
Steven is the fifth generation in his family to run the bakery business under the family name and has had his sleeves rolled up since he was 9 years old. His great, great grandfather, Ebeneezer, was the first to start the tradition and the family have been going ever since.
We met in a nearby cafe in Brock’ before the COVID19 lockdown and I asked him a few questions.
Tell me about the history of your family and baking?
The family started baking up in North Cheam, near London. They moved to the south at the turn of the century. Our first and main New Forest bakery was in Neacroft on the western side of the National Park.
Family business development over generations often includes sad tales and our family has one. My uncle Monty was kicked in the head by a delivery horse at age 14. He died. He was the oldest one of 7 girls and one other boy, 10 years younger. The girls weren’t expected or allowed to take the business on then, so it fell to James – the youngest by ten years. It would have been a huge amount of pressure for him. They all relied on his success to get by. He was a hard worker. Over time he grew the business up to the 1950’s period where we had 3 bakeries and 13 shops. We employed 110 people then. But it was so hard to get reliable delivery drivers and eventually this forced us to reduce the size of the business. We kept this store in Brockenhurst as the jewel.
When I started I used to fix the vehicles. It was a never ending job. I love the picture of me hanging out of a truck when I was a kid. If you look carefully, the truck has no door handle. They got opened and closed in a hurry, and so much, that they used to fall off and most of our trucks had no handles!
How do you make your famous breads?
That’s a long answer, but I’ll try to make it concise. It’s been the same for 80 year now. Our bread is based on the old traditional ingredients and methods. It’s produced in the shop from raw materials and all by hand – and the odd machine! It takes from 2am to 7am to make but in summer, with higher demand from tourists, baking starts at 10pm and goes through the night. It’s me, my daughter Nicola and James, my son, who is learning.
What are the benefits of eating real bread compared to the supermarket products?
In the old days, our family logo was, “Our Bread is Pure”. This was important becuase after the war, when poverty was so bad, people were backing with chalk and sawdust added to bread to bulk it out. People would get ill from bread. Now, actually knowing what bread is, and the process that it’s made with is little known.
What is different from our bread compared supermarket bread is that ours goes stale after a day, supermarket bread goes mouldy after 3 days.
Stale means that bread dries out. But supermarket bread doesn’t do that. After cooking, all bread steams to cool down. At this point the two processes differ. The mass production supermarket process then injects water back into the bread at the cooling point. It’s cheap and increases the weight of the loaf. This is a simple technique into tricking the buyer into thinking they are getting more value. Because of the extra water, when that bread goes ‘off’ it goes mouldy. To prevent this, the process uses chemical mould-inhibitors to slow this down.
What is your bread made of?
We use only 5 ingredients. Organic flour, water, yeast, a pinch of salt and a little vegetable fat. There are no additives or improvers. White bread takes us 30 hours to make. It has to be risen twice… that’s double the work, double the process and that’s a lot of work for £2.30 a loaf.
People shouldn’t judge bread on it’s usable timeframe but on it’s taste, ingredients and provenance. I think how things are sourced, made and sold is very important.
Is provenance important to you when sourcing ingredients?
Of course, we try to buy local where we can.
That goes for the staff too. The team include all my kids who are all involved in the business and make it what it is today. I’m incredibly proud of their work.
What happens when you close at 5pm. Where does all your bread go to?
We focus on waste output as much as input. Every day we make to order. We study the sales patterns from the years before, the weather forecast. And when we run out, we run out. Anything left over goes to a local farmer who takes all the non-meat products and feeds it to his pigs. The waste-mileage is 5 miles. They’re lucky pigs!
How do you think people’s food buying patterns have changed over time?
It used to be thought that people spent about 40-60% of their weekly budget on food but now that’s flipped to the spend on houses; mortgages or rent. House sizes have increased so much and food has got cheaper and cheaper. People have become distanced from food production. That means that supermarkets have become educators. And they’ve educated people to buy what makes profit, not what makes them healthy. I don’t mean to bash supermarkets, but the reality of our food production system in the UK is far from ideal.
Our bread and bakery products are cheap for tourists, and cheap when you consider the work that goes into them, but compared to the supermarket they are expensive. You can buy 4 donuts for £1 down the road. We sell 1 donut for 90p. Our donuts are made on the day. But the ones down the road might be 3 years old.
What’s it like living in Brock’?
The Brockenhurst community are very important to us. We have locals who come to us day in, day out. In summer it’s good business here, but in winter, we rely on those who live nearby.
There are many more walkers and cyclists here now. The good London rail link makes a huge difference. You can get here in under 2 hours from London and straight on your bikes and into the woods. Who wouldn’t love that.
What did you want to do when you were a kid? Surely not a baker?
Sorry to disappoint. Yep. Since I was 5, I was helping out, and since I was 9 I was actively involved. At 15 I was running a night shift in one of our 13 bakeries. The team at night were quite a crew and it was tough sometimes. That was when we were delivering in vans to our bakery outlets. I spent my childhood fixing vans. I was more of a mechanic than baker for much of the time. We downsized because for one thing, it was very hard getting good reliable delivery drivers. They had to turn up for work at 2am. It wasn’t something most people want to do day in day out.
What’s the most rewarding experience of being a baker?
Having worked a night shift, I love to see the products all perfect and laid up on the racks ready for the first customers at 7am. I try not to be upset that they buy it and ruin the look!
Where is your favourite place in the New Forest?
I play golf and love the course at Burley. It has to be one of the most eccentric in Britain. The wild ponies and donkeys wander the course. There are no fences to keep them off. The greens managers mow the greens shorter than the animals can technically eat, but this is the theory not the reality. The course winds amount the forest and heathland which is very pretty there. The birdsong first and last thing of the day is very special.