Rising and shining
Emma Hughes visits Orford’s Pump Street Bakery, the family business making some of the best chocolate in the world
IT sounds like a plot that Joanne Harris, author of Chocolat, might have cooked up. A father-and-daughter team opens a little pink bakery in one of England’s most beautiful coastal towns, selling the best bread this side of the Channel. After a couple of years, they decide to have a go at making their own chocolate. Not just any old chocolate, mind, but the finest you can buy—in this country and, quite possibly, the world.
Fiction? For Chris and Jo Brennan, the founders of Pump Street Bakery, every word is true. From their Grade Ii-listed base in Orford, Suffolk, the pair has built an unlikely empire, based on two very simple things: bread made the old-fashioned way and bean-to-bar chocolate.
‘I don’t know of any other bakeries that make their own chocolate from scratch,’ admits Miss Brennan. ‘In France, it’s quite common for bakeries that sell pâtisserie to also sell truffles, but they tend to use chocolate they buy in. To start with, I was a bit worried that people would think we were strange, doing both, but I knew that, once they’d tasted the chocolate, it would speak for itself.’
Almost a decade ago, Mr Brennan set himself the challenge of baking bread that was as good as the stuff he’d had on the Continent but using local flours. ‘He bought a semiprofessional mixer and an oven you could fit eight loaves in,’ remembers Miss Brennan. ‘His office turned into a bakery.’ Soon, he decided to start selling the loaves in the town’s market at the weekends, with the proceeds going to the local school. To his surprise, there were huge queues for his stall and he would sell out within an hour.
‘That’s when I started getting really excited about what he was doing,’ admits Miss Brennan, ‘although, of course, I’d always been interested as an eater.’ She left her job in London and moved back to Suffolk to help her father hunt for the perfect premises.
They didn’t have to look for long. In the centre of Orford, on Pump Street, they found a 15th-century timbered building, painted the colour of pink ballet slippers. ‘It was light and airy, but also steeped in history. We were really drawn to that mix of old and new, because we work to very traditional recipes, but we don’t just stick to them for the sake of it.’
The Pump Street Bakery opened its doors in late 2010, the shelves stacked with slowfermented sourdough baguettes, apple turn-overs and brioche buns. The croissants were all made by hand, there was a Roald Dahl-esque doughnut machine splattering away in the back and the breads were named after nearby villages. A restored Citroën H-van called Cédric chugged around Suffolk loaded with Pump Street’s wares, stopping off at markets.
They could have comfortably pottered along like that for many years, but the Brennans had got wind of a small group of independent chocolate producers in the USA, who had taken control of the whole process by sourcing and grinding their own beans. ‘I realised there were people who were expending the same energy on making chocolate that we were on making bread,’ recalls Miss Brennan. Back then, almost none of the chocolate produced in England was being made from beans, from scratch.
As it turned out, chocolate-making and baking had a lot in common. Both, if done properly, let a single ingredient (cacao or wheat) shine; both involve winnowing and fermentation. ‘Most people know that, in sourdough, natural yeast and bacteria work together to make the bread rise and give it that wonderful, slightly tangy flavour,’ notes Miss Brennan. ‘When you’re making chocolate, the cocoa beans are also fermented —they come out of the pod covered in a kind of fruity pulp that needs to be broken down. If it’s done correctly, it changes some of the chemical compounds and locks in the flavour. It’s absolutely fascinating.’
After teaming up with small growers in the Caribbean (Mr Brennan was born in Jamaica), Central America and Madagascar, the Brennans started work on a range of singleorigin bars, from a mellow 58% milk one made with Madagascan beans to an earthy 100% one, as dark as polished ebony, that had its beginnings on Ecuador’s Hacienda Limon plantation. There are also bars generously flecked with the bakery’s own sourdough, rye and Eccles-cake crumbs.
The Brennans soon found themselves being stocked by the likes of Liberty and Fortnum & Mason, as well as garlanded by the International Chocolate Awards, the Academy of Chocolate and the Great Taste Awards. The icing on the (chocolate) cake was being voted Best Food Producer in the 2012 BBC Food & Farming Awards.
The Brennans and their 20-strong team are currently developing a ‘library’ of chocolate bars for real enthusiasts. ‘It’ll come with notes and a tasting wheel—a bit like wine,’ Miss Brennan reveals. Although she takes the whole business very seriously, she’s no puritan. ‘We’re going to be making chocolate Santas this Christmas,’ she grins.
Pump Street Bakery (01394 459829; www. pumpstreetbakery.com)
‘I don’t know of any other bakeries that make their own chocolate from scratch’