"Over my 30 years working in the corporate sector, I have had it bred into me that quality is all-important," Chris Brennan, co-owner of Pump Street Bakery tells me. "Now, it shapes everything that we do here."
I'm standing with Brennan in a hot and humid shipping container, the very slight acidity of fermentation coating the air. I know what you're thinking: A shipping container, fermentation … you're in trendy East London, right?
You're wrong. I'm on the coastal heath of Suffolk, a stone's throw from the North Atlantic and quite definitely in the middle of nowhere.
This sleepy fishing village, Orford, is where just over a decade ago, Brennan chose to retire. He tells me that during his career, he spent a lot of time in Europe—southern France and Paris especially.
"At that stage of the game, the bread in France was fantastic," he says. "I remember one baker who made baguettes twice a day, once batch for breakfast and another for supper."
He did this, Brennan explains, because they were so fresh and so natural that they were stale within a few hours.
"From a quality perspective, that really impressed me," he remembers.
On returning to England, the bread that Brennan found was largely colourless, flavourless, and suspiciously resistant to staling.
"In many ways, that was sort of an awakening call—my light bulb moment," he says, as we step out of the container and into Pump Street's main bakery building. "Good bread is flour, water, salt, and a bit of heat. I thought, If the guy in the French hills could make it in his bakery, why couldn't I make it, too?"
After a spell of baking bread and pastry at home to sell at the local market, Brennan found a permanent location in Orford's village square. In 2010, he opened Pump Street Bakery here with his daughter Joanna. Joanna oversees the bakery's cafe and retail space while her Dad, along with a small team, takes care of production.
"The cafe is a place where we like to showcase our produce, especially our sourdough bread," she tells me. "The seasonal menu changes daily and features some of the best ingredients the area has to offer."
These ingredients include loganberries picked less than a mile away and mackerel caught and smoked even closer.
We take a short break from the bakery tour (Brennan is bringing me an espresso—the fourth he's made in as many minutes because "the others weren't quite right!") and at last, I put my finger on it—the thing that has made this a little different from any other bakery I've visited before.
Brennan, Joanna, and their staff aren't discussing flour, butter, or yeast. Instead, they mention grain varieties (with a particular glint in Brennan' eye when he shows me a locally grown rye flour), bacterial species, and melting points.
The Pump Street bakers' attention to detail is all-consuming but, as pastry chef Lance Peters points out, this isn't a science lab.
"Everything is made by hand, with minimal use of machinery," he says. "When people come here, they always want to know the recipe or our 'secret,' and while the formulas are important, it really does come down to using the best ingredients we can get our hands on."
In 2013, the bakery took their focus on provenance one step further. As we walk past the hot bread ovens and into a cool and noisy room at the back of the bakery, Brennan tells me how.
"What's happening in here is our next great adventure," he says, as he grabs a handful of what looks like fine bark from a small steel machine. "These are beautiful, top quality Grenadan cocoa nibs."
He grins, before adding: "I know, why are we in a little room with a machine producing cocoa nibs in a bakery? Well, after bread, to me chocolate seemed the next logical step."
In fact, the link between the two is closer than you think. The fermentation that occurs during the sourdough bread making process is very similar to that which occurs in the production of cocoa beans.
"I wanted to take the same journey of quality that I had with bread, with chocolate, and for that I knew I would have to go straight to the source, to the farms themselves," explains Brennan.
Pump Street Bakery chocolate is made from bean to bar, which in itself sounds simple but is actually a radical approach to chocolate making.
"The majority of the chocolate made in the UK isn't made from beans at all," says Brennan. "Less than 1 percent of the bars made in this country use the bean-to-bar process, but for us it's essential. It's the only way we can control every stage."
Rob Sledmere, head of chocolate at Pump Street, takes me out of the bakery and back into the shipping container. He gestures towards a tall pile of hessian sacks, each sporting a stamp from their native country.
"The taste of cocoa differs from country to country, which is why all of our bars are single origin, so we can bring the natural flavours out of the beans," he says.
He's not wrong. The Madagascan bar I try is full of bold citrus notes and a very light acidity. The Ecuadorian bar has notes of caramel. It's easy to forget that there are only two ingredients here—cocoa and sugar.
Brennan joins us in the container, proudly passing me a small, stamped bar of chocolate.
"This is what we're really proud of, our signature bar," he says. "About two years ago, we found a way to connect the product of sourdough fermentation—bread—with the product of cocoa fermentation: chocolate."
But this isn't a standard, flavoured chocolate bar. After months of trialing the method, Brennan has created a way by which he can accurately introduce the malty tang of the bread to the rich Ecuadorian cocoa.
"The bread is dried and ground into very fine breadcrumbs," he says. "We introduce these, with a pinch of sea salt, to the cocoa solids and sugar which in turn are ground together for a day or so, until smooth and glossy."
The bar has a short snap and an almost granular crunch. The the sea salt accentuates the creamy sweetness of the cocoa, resulting in an almost milky flavour.
It is strange and delicious—both in equal measure.
All photos by Keiko Oikawa.