Situated a mile from Comrie, a picturesque village in the southern highlands of Scotland, is Wild Hearth Bakery. It sits among deer-dwelling woodlands and snowy mountains—exactly as you’d imagine a traditional winter wonderland in mid-January, until you find out that the building the bakery occupies was a maximum security prisoner-of-war camp during World War Two.
Purchased by the not-for-profit Comrie Development Trust through a community right-to-buy option in 2007, the Cultybraggan camp’s 80-plus corrugated steel Nissen huts are as breathtaking as the landscape, albeit in a more sobering way. Although many are now used by a variety of businesses, from cheese to furniture makers, their history lingers in the collective consciousness of Comrie, not least because 2016 saw the camp make national news when former inmate Heinrich Steinmeyer left the community his life savings, totalling nearly £400,000.
Wild Hearth’s owner John Castley got his first taste of baking as a teenager in his home city of Sydney, but over two decades passed before he opened his own place. He worked in IT after university and then, after a career change, as a chef at Theo Randall’s London InterContinental restaurant. He decided to take the plunge and become a baker when he relocated to Scotland after his partner got a job in Perth. Initially hoping to open a cafe with a bakery attached, he ended up running a cottage bakery from home for a year until Cultybraggan presented itself as a viable site.
After a major six-month renovation, Wild Hearth’s May 2017 opening saw bakers from around the world come to exchange ideas. Originally, Castley wanted to both bake and run the business himself, but with a small baby at home, it soon became apparent that he’d need help. Baker Matteo Serpi and pastry chef Francesca Selvaggio, graduates of Italy’s University of Gastronomic Sciences, decided to join Castley in Comrie—despite never visited the village nor met their future boss—after connecting with him on Instagram. But another sourdough aficionado, their mutual acquaintance Australian baker Ian Lowe, assured both parties they’d get along and it’s with the help of this friend that the three developed their current formulas.
“The whole idea of sourdough is that instead of using commercial yeast, which is a single form of yeast and produces a very predictable flavour profile, sourdough is made from a little ecosystem of wild yeast and bacteria,” explains Castley. “Because you’ve got this different range of organisms, they’re producing a lot of different flavour compounds, so it’s a much more complex flavour than yeasty bread. At a molecular level, what starts happening is the protein in the dough starts to get torn apart, the gluten is starting to become predigested for you.”
Wild Hearth uses flour from two suppliers, artisan baker-favourite Shipton Mill and Yorkshire Organic Millers.
“Because we’re doing pure sourdough, we don’t use any yeast in our pastries so we need a really reliable flour,” says Castley. “What you find is the big millers like Shipton get quite scientific about it—they test their flours and blend them, so that you get a really consistent product. But then for things like a rustic French country bread, we use a wholemeal flour from Yorkshire Millers. They have a stone mill and in terms of flavour, their flour is incredible.”
Wild Hearth’s breads and pastries are baked four times a week in its 9.6 tonne oven, fired by wood from local birch, beech, and oak trees. Built on site, it’s one of several impressive pieces of machinery in the Nissen hut.
“Because I’d made improvements to the structure and the building I don’t have to pay rent for two years, which meant I could invest in some quality equipment,” Castley reveals.
Indeed, the bakery’s fast-spreading reputation, in part built thanks to early high-profile customers such as the two Michelin-star Gleneagles Hotel restaurant, suggests its so far twice-used 160 kilogram mixer isn’t an over-confident purchase.
As well as sampling the bakery’s sesame-covered fruit loaf, a sweet cinnamon swirl, and the lightest lemon cream-filled bomboloni doughnut during Serpi’s Monday night bake, I also get to try his pizza bianco, which at the bakery’s community pizza gatherings can measure up to two metres long. In organising the events, Wild Hearth are continuing Comrie’s long history of local group activity, with the town’s current inhabitants involved in over 50 different organisations.
With midnight approaching and ABBA blaring out of the speakers, I almost forget about Wild Hearth's unusual location. But stepping outside, I’m soon reminded by the contrasting eerie silence. Inside the site’s visitor centre, I find more information on the story of Steinmeyer, whose life-long fondness for Comrie developed after four local school children smuggled him out of the prison for a trip to the cinema upon learning he’d never been. Cultybraggan might no longer be a prisoner-of-war camp, but in-keeping with locals’ passion for honouring the site’s heritage, Castley has a plan for his own tribute to its history.
“We want to name a bread after Heinrich,” he says. “Steinmeyer stollen.”
If the outstanding quality of Wild Hearth’s current breads and pastries is anything to go by, then the German bread will not only be a fitting tribute to Steinmeyer but yet another reason to visit Comrie.