Lucie Steel on earning her crust from her own business, Birch Cottage Bread
PUBLISHED: 11:27 04 July 2014 | UPDATED: 15:15 16 July 2014
Lucie Steel has found a most fulfilling lifestyle - she earns her crust baking and selling her own bread, and teaching others, writes Jan Raycroft
The first lesson gained about Lucie Steel’s lovely little business, Birch Cottage Bread, is that if you want to get your hands on any of her delicious loaves in assorted shapes and flavours at a local producers’ market, then it might be a good idea to arrive shortly after opening time.
They were flying out of her baskets at May’s Bucklebury Artisan Food Market held on the first Saturday of each month behind The Bladebone Inn, Chapel Row, snapped up by those in the know. Fortunately, our photographer Maureen McLean was there to enviously catch a record of the buying spree, while the editor arrived… well, just in time to disappointedly grab a few crumbs.
The second lesson comes when we follow Lucie back from the market to the pretty cottage in the woods near Hermitage she shares with forester husband Matt and son Ralphie, her home for the past 15 years: it’s that this is a woman with a golden heart to match her loaves.
First stop is the kitchen, where alongside mugs of tea we are treated to the best toast ever, with lashings of butter. Having skipped breakfast, it seems impossible to stop eating slices, and since we are getting on so well I beg Lucie to stop feeding me: “Now look, I’m a woman of a certain age and all this delicious bread is going to bloat me up,” I whimper. “Oh no it won’t, it’s sourdough,” declares Lucie.
She then explains how traditional sourdough comes from a slow process using a natural yeast starter to produce the dough, while high speed commercial yeast in mass-produced bread is continuing the fermentation process when it arrives in our stomachs, leading to those uncomfortable symptoms.
Of course she’s absolutely right – not only were there no side effects from the mountain of toast, but Lucie had another surprise in store when we went outside to see the mini-bakery in her garden. There on the racks are two huge loaves she saved from the morning batch for us to take home.
The rest of the weekend was spent enjoying – and sharing – this healthy and filling treat, a meal in itself with a few slim slices of artisan cheese, or delicious accompaniment to summer salads. And not one bloated tummy or cramp sensation.
But back to Lucie’s garden, as this is where she produces the bread we crave. It’s all made in a converted 22 ft long shipping container, now staying forever on dry land with its newly installed windows, worktops, fridge and essential oven.
This sturdy and easy-clean little bakery in the garden, which she bought online, epitomises how Lucie’s one-woman business has grown in the past three years. Always a keen baker, it was a build-up of being pulled in all directions, those issues which we must all face, which led her to reassess life.
“At the time I was the practice manager for an equine veterinary practice. My son was starting school and there was the terrible loss of my mother becoming ill and then dying. I felt ‘No I can’t do this any more’. I just couldn’t be the ‘everything person’ and needed something new.”
In fact it was Lucie’s mother, a superb baker and cook, who managed to spur her on with a small legacy originally planned for a car… which became instead that shipping container. Lucie knows her mum would be delighted with the results.
She began by taking a sourdough course with Virtuous Bread, founded by Jane Mason. The inspirational course was to set Lucie on her new path which soon extended beyond producing bread for friends and family. After a Bread Angels course she started baking and selling loaves alongside cleaning and book keeping work. Before long the demand for bread was turning into a genuine business and had become Birch Cottage Bread.
As a ‘Bread Angel’ in her own right, Lucie is part of the growing network of micro-bakeries up and down the UK. It’s become a way of life that sees her happily rising in the small hours so that she can later spend the morning delivering delicious loaves to cafes and local businesses, with others being baked fresh for weekend community markets.
She also shares her skills with others who’d like to know more about baking bread. Courses cover basic baking, sourdough and Italian breads. You may just want to provide healthy loaves for your family, or perhaps eventually be lured down the path to your own little operation.
Lucie on Twitter: @birchbread
Baker, writer and businesswoman Jane Mason founded Virtuous Bread in 2010. For some it is a chance to use new skills in their own homes, while others eventually become Bread Angels, running their own businesses.
Jane encourages people to be more responsible in their food and lifestyle choices, how they treat those around them, seeing bread as an obvious route.
Her book, All You Knead is Bread, contains over 55 bread recipes from around the world.