Baking

This Ghanaian Bakery Has a Delicious Secret

No one knows exactly what goes into the traditional West African bread at Uncle John’s Bakery, but people travel from all over London to try it.

by Zamira Rahim
05 April 2018, 9:27am

People travel from all over London for a loaf of John Mensah’s sweet bread. It’s Friday afternoon and a stream of customers stop by his bakery, which sits on Tottenham’s West Green Road. Orders come in from Brixton and Croydon, at the other end of the capital. John’s bakery specialises in Ghanaian fare and is beloved of the city’s West African and Afro-Caribbean communities.

“If you go to a Ghanaian wedding, they will have the bread,” says Joe Baidoo Cobbina, a customer who works next-door to the bakery. “If it’s not the bread, then it’s doughnuts. If not doughnuts, the pies. That place, it represents to our community the taste, you know? The taste of the country, of Ghana.”

In 1982, it was John’s longing for Ghana and its traditional, staple breads that led him to open the bakery. He and his wife Emelia had arrived in London at the beginning of the decade. They settled in the north of the city and found jobs in the food industry.

“We worked odd jobs, at first,” Emelia says. “And then I got a job at Tesco and we were making some more money.”

Uncle John's Bakery in North London. All photos by the author.

The Mensahs searched for Ghanaian sweet bread, wanting its familiarity in their new home. They found a company that sold imported bread from West Africa, but were disappointed at how quickly the food grew stale. John’s mother sent the couple a recipe and they began baking, first to eat and then, realising the food’s worth, as a passion project.

“It was on the side, in the evenings,” John says. “After work, we’d start cooking, you know. Six o’clock in the evening to the morning. I’d sleep two hours. We’d wake up, take the van in the morning and make deliveries.”

Emelia and John Mensah, founders of Uncle John's Bakery.

John went to the Ghana High Commission, taking a few loaves of bread with him. Slowly, with their support and through word of mouth, the couple’s customer base grew. The Mensahs broke even and then had enough demand to quit their jobs. They opened the Tottenham store, looking to capitalise on the large number of Ghanaians in the area.

“The other business that imported the bread, they closed down. It killed them.” John says, grinning.

We are standing on the bakery shop floor. John repeatedly breaks off to chat to customers, or to direct his youngest son, who is manning the till. Today much of the business’ baking takes place on two large factory sites nearby. The store itself has been relaunched and given a facelift, complete with a canary yellow facade to match the branding on the products.

One wall is covered with shelves of sweet bread, another with tea bread, which is less sugary. There are fish and meat pies under the glass counter, which is topped with baskets of doughnuts. “Akwaaba,” a Ghanaian word for welcome, is written on a chalkboard sign close to entrance.

Ghanaian sweet bread, a specialty at the bakery.
Shelves of packaged sweet bread on sale at the bakery.

Sam Mensah, John and Emelia’s ambitious, elder son, has been the business’ managing director for a few years. Under his watch, the bakery is working with new wholesalers, including Tesco, his mother’s former employer. He sighs as he talks about endless paperwork, giving me a glimpse into the growing pains of a rapidly expanding business. The shop now has Twitter and Instagram pages, and the Mensahs have hired a business development manager. Sam is thinking about selling fresh juices alongside the baked goods. There is a distinctly sleeker, corporate edge to the 2018 version of Uncle John’s Bakery.

Sam Mensah, managing director of the bakery and son of John and Emelia.

“We’ve refined our recipes a little,” Sam says. “You can’t really use that exact family recipe for the production we need. There’s a lot to do. And people are really liking ‘world breads’ now. I want to try and sell beyond the Ghanaian community, to anyone.”

So, much of the charm of Uncle John’s Bakery lies is in its cosiness and its reliance on one family’s work. As Sam and I speak, Emelia takes me by surprise, walking out of the small back kitchen at the back of the bakery that, plainly, is still in use. Her apron is dusted over with flour and her hands are gloved.

“Here, for you.” She hands me a brown paper bag, warm to the touch. “Careful, I just pulled them straight from the oven.”

Bofrots, a Ghanaian doughnut.

The mini doughnuts in the bag are known as bofrots. They become my preferred Uncle John’s product—rich in taste and fluffy in texture. The tea bread is deliberately plain, the sort of carb you have with a morning coffee. And the much lauded sweet bread is dense and appealingly chewy. I’d expected it to be far more sugary than it was. It remains, by some distance, the bakery’s most popular product.

Almost all the recipes I find online for sweet bread include bread flour, ascorbic acid, dry yeast, and on occasion, nutmeg, But no one at Uncle John’s will tell me exactly how they make theirs.

“We won’t tell you the ingredients! No, not in a million years,” Emelia says, before resuming her afternoon’s work. “No. I will take that recipe to my grave.”

“It’s like KFC’s secret mix,” Sam adds. “It’s nice to have mystery. And it’s not just about what you put in anyway. It’s all about the method. It’s about how you bake.”