Kington's master baker
PUBLISHED: 11:48 09 January 2009 | UPDATED: 15:41 20 February 2013
Helena Attlee got up early to find out how Alex Gooch makes his delicious organic bread - the long, slow, traditional way. Photographs by Alex Ramsay.
Dawn hasn't broken over Hay-on-Wye, but Alex Gooch has already been at work since midnight. By the time we arrive at 6.30am the air inside the industrial unit is hot and full of the delicious scent of fresh, organic bread. Not many 28 year olds would swap a busy social life for a love affair with loaves, but Alex has no regrets. "I've drunk enough over the years," he says, "and done plenty of partying."
So what has been happening here while the rest of Herefordshire sleeps? It has certainly been a full night for Alex and his assistant, Alex Benfield. They have already produced twelve different kinds of 100% organic loaves, rolls and buns. There is bread everywhere, all of it at different stages of production. The first batches out of the oven are torpedo-shaped, white rustic loaves and circular stoneground wholemeal. Now the two bakers are putting the finishing touches to trays of focaccia that rise like volcanic landscapes around a pungent tapenade of olive oil, garlic and fresh organic herbs.
Alex gently tucks a cloth over a batch of ciabatta, checks on the rye loaves and the seeded wholemeal. "Oooh, Chelsea buns!" I say, looking at two trays of enormous, fruity spirals. "We're not in London now," Alex Benfield says severely, "In Hay we call them spiced buns."
Anyone lucky enough to taste Gooch's organic bread will be delighted by its distinctive flavour, its wonderfully elastic texture and the sheer beauty of each loaf. This is feel-good bread and its secret is a long, slow production process. "Take those rye loaves," Alex says, pointing at a battalion of muslin-lined proving baskets filled with dough. "By the time they come out of the oven, they will have taken 20 hours to produce."
If the two Alex's wanted a good night's sleep, they could use masses of yeast, as most commercial bakers do, and produce each loaf in under two hours. The result would be spongy, flavourless and indigestible. Alex has rejected this easy route and gone back to traditional baking techniques. Instead of industrially produced yeast, he uses leavens - or yeast plants - that he has grown himself.
I have already been introduced to these important creatures. They sit in bowls, boxes and buckets, working hard for their living, but thriving in Alex's tender care. "It's all about husbandry," Alex Benfield explains, "they must be fed at the right time." The leavens are treated like exotic pets or tender plants, and nourished with a perfect diet of flour and tepid water. "I feed them 12 hours before I want to bake," Alex explains.
His sourdough loaves are made entirely with leaven, but other recipes use a mixture of leaven and yeast. All the different kinds of bread are given five or six hours to rise, and this is vitally important to their taste and texture. During the long, slow proving process, Alex's wonderful leavens get to work on pre-digesting the flour, a process that makes his bread very much easier for us to digest.
"Supermarket bread is a combination of white flour and non-existent fermentation," Alex explains, "it's just asking for trouble." Alex Benfield looks up from the brioche that he is making to add: "And after you've eaten it, you can feel it sitting on your chest. Not really where you want your food to sit, is it?"
Gooch Organics has been trading since August, but Alex is no amateur. He has been in the restaurant and catering business since he was 17, training on the job and "getting a look at the whole spectrum of food". This experience taught him to recognise the value of high quality ingredients. "If you use really good ingredients," he says, "you are half way there."
His last post was at Penrhos Court Country Hotel, outside Kington, where he was head chef. "That's where I honed my baking," he explains. "I enjoyed being chef, but what I really loved was the bread." Soon he was getting up at night to make breakfast croissants and rolls, baking ciabatta for lunch and another kind of bread to accompany dinner. His recipes began to build up and before long the writing was on the wall. He needed to set up his own business.
Alex has a lot to thank his family for. "I've been lucky," he says, "my parents used to cook for us when we were kids, and they made all our bread." He didn't think much of it then, of course, but when he found himself in a restaurant kitchen at the age of 17, "it just felt right". The family have pitched in to help him set up the new business.
"I think you need a lot of support to start a business," he says, "and without family and friends this really wouldn't be possible." If you go to Alex's beautiful little shop on Broad Street in Presteigne, you might find Sally or Malcolm Gooch, his parents, or even his brother Joe selling the bread. At 8am Malcolm arrives at the unit, loads up his car with trays of warm loaves and sets off again to begin the delivery round.
You can find Alex's bread at Barber and Manuel and at Survival Foods in Leominster, at Hay Wholefoods and the Granary Restaurant in Hay on Wye, at The Mousetrap in Hereford and Wigmore's cooperative village shop. The Stagg Inn at Titley is another valued customer, and Alex also has stalls at the markets in Hay, Leominster, Hereford and Kington.
The last batch comes out of the oven. They are Alex's popular garlic and olive loaves with lovely golden crusts. Alex knocks them out of their tins, but his day isn't over yet. He has his own deliveries to make and the stall to set up in Hay market. He hasn't sat down since he began work at midnight and I watched his cup of tea go cold before he could drink it. This must be love.