This story originally appeared on MUNCHIES UK on September 14.
It's 7 AM and I'm standing in an alley underneath Manchester's central railway station. As commuters file into the city on trains overhead and bleary-eyed clubbers stumble home, I'm walking down a row of nondescript railway arches—searching for a bakery.
One of these arches is home to Pollen Bakery, a new outfit bringing black sourdough to Manchester. The bakers behind this dark bread—so dark it almost looks burnt—are couple Hannah Calvert and Chris Kelly.
Their day typically starts at 3 AM, but thankfully they've invited me along at this slightly more sociable hour to watch them in action.
The pair prepared the dough the day before I visit, mixing flour and water with starter from the sourdough levain they've been cultivating for two years.
"We then add salt and more water, finish mixing and transfer the dough to big tubs to begin the bulk fermentation," says Calvert. "We fold the dough every 25 minutes to build the gluten structure. Then we divide the dough into loaf-sized pieces, pre-shape it, and allow to rest for 30 minutes. The loaf is transferred to a banneton and placed in the fridge overnight."
Calvert now pulls the fermented loaves—these are 20 percent rye sourdough—from the fridge and scores the bread, while Kelly shovels them into the ovens. It's a slick operation, the couple working quickly together.
As the loaves bake, Calvert tells me what's on sale at Pollen. As well as the 20-percent rye, they make five-seed sourdough with flax, pumpkin, sunflower, sesame, and poppy seed; a sourdough with oat porridge cooked into the dough, giving it a glossy texture and nutty flavour; and a 100-percent rye. Their signature is a white sourdough—from dough to finished loaf, the process takes 28 hours.
When the 20-percent rye loaves are done, Calvert and Kelly take them out of the ovens on boards, transferring to a cooling rack. Mouth-watering smells fill the bakery. The bread is dark, with a blackened crust. This baking style is common in France, and increasing in the US, but it's pretty rare in Britain.
They wanted to bring dark-bake bread to Manchester because it has more flavour, explains Calvert.
"It also gives it a much nicer texture, it's crunchy and chewy at the same time," she says.
The reason the loaves are so dark is down to the fermentation. Pollen's breads are fermented for up to 18 hours in the fridge. This slow, cold fermentation means the grains release all their nutrients and—crucially—natural sugars, resulting in a dark, caramelised crust.
"There's a big difference between it being dark and being burnt," says Calvert. "I think, especially in the north, people are quite afraid—they see a darker-bake loaf and think it's burnt. I hope that people will look at our bread and think, 'OK it's darker but that's giving it more flavour,' rather than, 'It's darker so it's burnt.' We're quite stubborn that we're not going change the way we make our bread just because one person doesn't like the darker bake."
But the bakers say the reaction so far has been overwhelmingly positive.
As she scores the next batch of five-seed loaves, Calvert says flavour is paramount.
"A lot of bread we've eaten over the last few years has just tasted like white stodge," she explains. "With our bread you could literally just eat it on its own and there's a lot of flavour within it."
The other benefit of the long fermentation is that the loaves are easier to digest: allowing the grain time to hydrate during the cold proving makes the bread fairly light, and manageable for people with gluten intolerances.
Calvert and Kelly both left bank jobs to pursue careers in food. They had a falafel stall before deciding baking was their passion. They also got frustrated by the lack of places to buy decent bread in Manchester's city centre.
"Manchester is a huge town," says Kelly, "but you can't buy good, seasonal organic produce in the city centre. There isn't a bakery. It's an odd set-up. Ask people where they buy their bread, and it's from a supermarket. Even Greggs doesn't sell loaves anymore."
He adds: "We want to meet the people buying our product, show them our bakery. They can come down, see the ingredients we use, and witness the process of making bread."
It's now 10 AM. As I leave the bakery with a loaf of freshly baked five-seed sourdough, the couple are preparing a batch of oat porridge loaves and pastries (Pollen also sells croissants, pains au chocolat, and the delicious sounding cruffin—a hybrid of muffin and croissant).
A few days later, after Pollen's public launch, I catch up with some of their first customers.
"The [dark-bake] sourdough was incredible," one tells me. "It gave it such a richer taste and crunch. I definitely prefer this style."
Manchester may be more receptive to black bread than Calvert and Kelly predicted.