I arrive at The Snapery—a bakery in Bermondsey, South London—first thing in the morning, but I'm worried that I've already missed the action. Walking towards the door, I pass a delivery bike on its way out and when I enter, just a few loaves of bread are left on the racks.
"I would shake your hand but I'm covered in flour," says Richard Snapes, The Snapery's eponymous founder. "We've been here since 2 AM so there aren't many baked loaves left, but come on in. We're still shaping some bread that's about to go into the fridge."
Already seven hours into their shift, no wonder Snapes and his team are nearly done for the day. Sourdough, baguettes, and buns have been baked and delivered to the nearby cafes and restaurants that The Snapery supplies, and provisions have been made for the loaves Snapes will sell to the public at Druid Street Market this weekend.
Not a bad morning for a guy who had never worked in a bakery before.
"I got a bread book for Christmas one year and just started baking," says Snapes. "People said what I was making was really good and I was bored of my job. I used to be a chef (although I wasn't actually very good!) and wanted to get back into food, so I quit my job and just over two years ago, started renting a unit to bake."
He continues: "It was a life-changing thing because baking bread is a job borne out of passion. You work crazy hours and all you do is bake. When I started, I didn't have a day off in six months and I started doing weird stuff like fall asleep at the mixer. If you didn't love it, you would quit."
I ask why bread sparked such an obsession.
Snapes' eyes light up: "It's a living thing, you know? It's fascinating using nature like that. Trying to control nature is immensely satisfying—I think it's amazing that every day the dough is different and you have to work out how to treat it. And there's something immensely satisfying about doing a big bake. You look around and think, 'We've created this from just flour and water.' Initially, it's just a paste. And the metamorphosis from that is unbelievable."
And the loaf that Snapes is now weighing and shaping is the one that started it all.
"I wanted to create a loaf of sourdough that reminded me of my childhood in the countryside and the smell of a freshly harvested field is one that stays with you," he explains. "When we mix the dough, you can smell a harvested field just as it's been rained on. I'm very lucky and had a wonderful childhood, so it's nice to be reminded a little bit of that every day."
One of The Snapery bakers cuts me a slice of the aptly named "Field Loaf," baked fresh that morning. The aroma of wheat is unmistakable but it's balanced out by a pleasing sour tang.
"A lot of recipes use a lot of white flour because it's got more strength to it and you can create nice big loaves, but you don't get an awful lot of flavour from that," says Snapes. "You want as much of the wheatiness in there which means you need more bran in there, which means more wholemeal flour. So, I when I was developing the loaf, I kept adding more and more wholemeal flour until I got that smell."
He smiles: "The Field Loaf is the one I always want to eat. I won't really eat anything else apart from that. It's so simple! It's the simplicity of it all that blows me away."
Countryside memories aren't the only thing Snapes has immortalised in bread.
"At Christmas, I went to Norway and they use a lot of spelt and rye but it was the spelt loaves I was interested in," he says. "I took that memory back here and based a loaf around a rye recipe and just changed it to what I remembered it being like. I really enjoyed that holiday and I wanted to remember it forever. What's the best way of doing that? Food."
He adds with a smile: "It can trial and error to get a loaf right and it's bloody annoying. There are so many more variables that can affect bread, like temperature and humidity. It's massively frustrating and you can still screw it up when you think you know it."
I comment on his dedication to nailing the art of baking without any formal training.
Snapes laughs: "I don't suggest that anyone do that. You should follow your dreams but do some decent training first."
I wonder what the hardest challenge has been in becoming a baker. Getting a flawless prove? Honing the rise? Baking the perfect crust?
"Getting up ridiculously early!" says Snapes. "It's a dramatic change in lifestyle. I used to stay up really late because I used to play in a band and do shows. But you can't do that—now I go to bed really early and don't go out!"
"It's also physically very demanding," he adds. "I used to ache for weeks when I started and then all of a sudden, you attune to it. It's also quite easy to get injured because you're lifting onto surfaces which are too tall for some people. We've all had injuries like weird shooting sensations down our wrists. It's a tendon problem which I think is quite common in bakeries."
Snapes continues: "Oh, and the thing I tell everyone when they're making bread is not to let the dough know you're scared. You know, it's like a horse, it can sense your fear."
"When you're working the dough, you almost have to pretend like it's not there. Then it doesn't get stuck to everything."
With Snapes' last morsel of advice digested, I'm sent on my way with a majestic Field Loaf under my arm. I don't have a countryside upbringing to reminisce about but the memory of a pleasant morning spent in a bakery will do.