Richard Scroggs is the co-owner of the Old Post Office Bakery in Clapham.
In my previous article, I focussed mainly on the different ways that running a Real Bread bakery has enabled co-owner John Dungavel, the rest of our team and me to connect to the world around us; about how we try use the bakery as a vehicle for effecting change in our local community and beyond.
Of course there is another side to running The Old Post Office Bakery. Apart from the obvious fact that it allows all of us to make a living, owning and running any small business is quite a bit more than a full time job. It is present at every moment in your life. The buck stops with you, you are the person responsible, you’re the one who gets phoned at two or three in the morning if a baker hasn’t made it into work, or if the fuse blows and they can’t turn on the ovens, or if a van breaks down on the way back from a market or if the walk-in freezer suddenly stops working and you realise you’re about to lose a week’s worth of stock.
‘There is a massive privilege in being involved in a bakery’
It’s like having a very needy child who has to be cared for and watched out for and worried about at every moment. To be able to cope with this you must have a very supportive family at home who are prepared to accept these constant intrusions. Lucky for me I have just that in my partner Cate who is my constant ally, helper, sounding board, advice giver and occasional fill-in when we need last-minute replacements.
I suppose you could call it a vocation but what is it within our trade that keeps me excited and full of anticipation? Where is the joy, especially considering the brutal hours? There’s no denying they take some getting used to and often leave me feeling totally exhausted, but… There is also a massive privilege in being involved in a bakery. As I walk to work I genuinely feel a rising excitement, the same excitement you get when you’re about to step onto a football, or cricket or rugby pitch. You’re going into battle with your compadres, into an environment where you are working for 10-12 hours, often at full tilt and to the limit of your abilities to get everything done. Time passes in a flash, there’s no clock watching, in fact you only want it to go slower because you’re struggling to get everything done.
It never fails to excite me, particularly on the busy weekend nights as I walk to work at 3am through a sleeping (or in Brixton, still partying) city and then, as I turn onto Landor Road, still a good 500 yards from the bakery, I smell the smell of freshly-baked pastries as the 12am baker pulls them from the oven. I walk through the door and immediately plunge into the crazy choreography of a full-blown baking day. Mixers whizz around, two or three at a time, creating a cacophony of noise. Twenty-five-kilo sacks of flour are upended into those mixers and huge chunks of dough are thrown onto the steel table, where they are expertly chopped into varying weights at a frightening speed.
There is the constant sound of the old-school scale balance we use, tipping back and forth as the lumps of dough are swiftly handed up into loaf shapes by one of the bakers. Laughter and shouts, in up to five or six different languages, ring out as the banter of work keeps us all sane. At times, up to seven or eight people are dashing back and forth in the tiny space we operate in, all constantly crossing paths without ever bumping into one another. Steam rises from the ovens and envelops the work space. Shaped and fully-proved dough is skittled from half-metre-wide boards six at a time, deep into the waiting ovens. Trays of croissants, pains au chocolate, pains aux raisins, Danish pastries, apple turnovers, Eccles cakes, Chelsea buns, vegan sausage rolls (up yours Gr*ggs, we’ve been making these for 20 years!), veggie pies and pizzas are all baked off and stacked at the back on trolleys, ready to be loaded on vans to go to various farmers’ markets.
As dawn arrives we fill our shop to the brim with all the freshly baked produce. We keep the doors open all night and at around 6am we get what I call the crossover shift, as the drunks who sway and slur with their rotating eyes demand “six of those hot croissants” and who then say “I love you” are replaced by the joggers and early morning workers. And every now and again I step back and marvel at the joy and sensual privilege of being able to plunge my hands into sacks of freshly-milled flour, or organic cinnamon powder, sunflower or sesame seeds. As the workers pass through the bakery the rising tubs of dough and rounded loaves cannot be resisted, they are touched and pulled and felt. I think it’s age-appropriate play: Instead of Plasticine or Play-Doh, we have real, living doughs to mess around with.
I love to watch the highly-skilled bakers working around me as their hands turn pastry or dough in beautifully silky movements that they have practised and repeated thousands of times throughout their working lives, while they chatter away without any loss of speed or craft. Producing something this wholesome and yummy for people also provides instant job satisfaction and positive feedback. As London sleeps we toil, taking raw ingredients to combine and craft into delicious food. Then as the light replaces the dark outside, and the sun rises, and the city wakes, bleary eyed people emerge to buy your goods. So often they’ll tell you how delicious it is, how important you are, and how much they appreciate it: What an ego boost!
When I was 15, I read EM Forster’s Howard’s Way. The front page has a two-word epigraph that really struck me as a great truth, and which has always inspired me. It says: “only connect”. Owning and running our bakery and working with our team to produce Real Bread allows me to do this constantly and in so many different ways. To connect with the people and community around me, to connect to the ingredients and beautiful natural processes under my fingers. To connect with everything that I believe is important about being a human being. Amen.
See more of Chris Young's photos of The Old Post Office Bakery
This article was originally published in True Loaf magazine issue 42, January 2020. It is based on an inspiring talk Richard gave at the fourth annual Brixton Windmill Lecture in Sourdough September 2019.