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A tour of Britain's regional bakeries
Tottenham cake, gypsy tarts, parkin, Scotch pies, London cheesecake and more. Words by Gus Lobban; Illustration by Reena Makwana.
Good morning and welcome to Vittles Season 4: Hyper-Regionalism, especially to all new subscribers!
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There are two ways you can look at British regional foods. One is to look into the past, before the war and rationing decimated everything, before industrialisation ripped people from the land. This form of regionalism means reconnecting the thread of time where it has been cut; to raid the historical cookbooks to show that actually Britain did have a rich culinary tradition; to be reassured that before everything was homogenised, we really did eat well and we all ate local and we all ate differently. I do have a lot of time for this form of regionalism, but it is, by definition, a reactionary one, a longing for a time, a lost Albion, that can never be regained.
There is another form of regionalism that has everything to do with the present. People assume that the industrial food system and globalisation has paved over regionalism in British food, but actually regional variety pops up unexpectedly like a Hydra’s head. Place always manages to make itself felt, whether it’s in the peculiarities of fast food, the choice of cake at a supermarket, the unique way two different communities, at that particular place, at that particular time, might richochet off each other in an unpredictable way. Rather than flattening regionalism, globalisation and industrialisation has both co-opted and been co-opted by it, leading to new forms that are not obscure or in decline, but are consumed by everyone on a quotidian basis.
This is the form of regionalism this season of Vittles has been concerned with, from tandoori momos to kebab rolls, from shopping centres to the chippy. It is also the form of regionalism that writer and Kero Kero Bonito member Gus Lobban is obsessed with in today’s newsletter (who else but a touring musician would have the knowledge to tackle this subject?) Lobban is interested in Britain’s rich tradition of baking - not in a historical sense, but the regional baked goods that are being produced and eaten right now in local chain bakeries across the UK. A recent trip of mine to Glasgow confirmed Lobban’s thesis that it is really in bakes that British culinary regionalism manifests itself the strongest ─ morning rolls that could be ordered soft or with a crispy, well-done, almost burnt top are more relevant to a sense of regional variation than haggis, and certainly more indicative of a meaningful regional divide than Britain’s most annoying bread related discourse.
A tour of Britain’s regional bakeries, by Gus Lobban
The life of a touring musician consists of constant déjà vu, but in unfamiliar surroundings. It’s a psychological hamster wheel that obsessively focuses your mind on one of the few available leisure vectors: the source of your next meal. My food-on-tour rule is as follows: If this is the only time I’m going to see a place, I’m damn well going to find something to remember it by (take a recent trip to Minot, North Dakota, where the forty-five minute walk to Kroll’s Diner for knoephla soup and fleischkuechle did the trick). Applying this rule in Jakarta or Moscow is one thing, but turning the gaze back onto my home country is quite another. What should I be looking for in Wrexham, Sutton or Dundee?
I’ve travelled around Britain, both as a member of indie-pop trio Kero Kero Bonito and as a solo DJ, and when looking for economical and well-loved local food, there is one institution I’m led back to time and time again: the retail bakery. So much time spent in the domain of the cake and the pastry has made me steadfast in my conviction that these bakeries, from the independents to the local chains, are the best showcase for the considerable variety of everyday regional British cuisine. Forget caffs, which are surprisingly uniform in their approach, or the fancy seasonal restaurants newspaper critics eat at for free. It is in the myriad of bakeries outside our home county where we’re guaranteed to find vernacular British foods we’ve never heard of.
Fisher & Donaldson – Dundee; Fife
Fisher & Donaldson is a small bakery franchise with six outlets across Dundee, Cupar and St Andrews. My grandparents lived in St Andrews and I visited them every year growing up, which seeded my affection for tattie scones and Irn Bru sorbet. However, the universe of our grandparents turned inevitably bittersweet when, years later, I found myself retracing Kinness Burn through the Lade Braes once again, this time en route to my grandma’s funeral. After the service, my dad and I combed the town, which is when we spotted a vending machine prominently bearing a statement which almost seemed like a challenge ‘24 HOUR BAKERY’ and a huge close-up of a Scotch pie. Though my dad and I were amused by Fisher & Donaldson’s 24-hour baked goods vending machine, it is one of the juiciest examples of regional British food in action that I know of.
The fact that it’s possible to construct an entire meal that simply couldn’t exist south of Berwick with baked goods purchased from a 24-hour vending machine says a lot about the casual demand for regional bakery delicacies in St Andrews. For these are truly regional foods: bridies (patty-shaped meat pastries) originate just over the Tay in Forfar; rhubarb pies pop up across Britain, but the Scottish rhubarb tart ruthlessly weaponises its tartness in a way fancier concoctions can’t. My favourite might be the famous Scotch pie, whose lard-packed hot-water pastry attains a moreish, vaguely greasy crispness that makes shortcrust look limp. Though it’s common to place an accompaniment like baked beans atop a Scotch pie, I take mine straight. Their basic mince-and-pastry construction, spinning out only the most desirable elements for a whole stomach-filling snack, epitomises the appeal of great everyday British food.
Béres – Sheffield
In Sheffield for a DJ engagement with the best part of a day to explore, I asked friends and promoters alike what might constitute a uniquely Sheffield food experience for this clueless southerner. They all mentioned the same thing: Béres. Another local franchise, with thirteen locations around Sheffield, Béres is not just a bakery. It was originally founded as a butcher’s, which is evident in its signature dish – the Béres roast pork sandwich, augmented with dripping, crackling, stuffing and apple sauce.
One of the great qualities of bakeries, though, is that you get a window into both the sweet and savoury preferences of society. While buying my sandwich, I noticed a basket of brown, loafy cake on the counter. Of course, it was the Yorkshire speciality parkin – a heavy, treacly ginger cake that embodies the British affinity for hefty, repetitive gratification.
There is a Zen minimalism to the basic British cake experience; it’s the Rothko triptych of global baking, or Terry Riley’s In C arranged for flour, butter and sugar. My first bite of parkin brought to mind the school canteen rock cakes I loved as a child: weighty mounds of crumbling dryness with the barest suggestion of a crust and almost no taste but for the occasional discombobulated currant. Such foods force you to get to know one subtle flavour really well; as a result, you end up hallucinating notes that aren’t even there, and their monastic simplicity inspires a peculiar sense of nourishment.
Greggs – everywhere
Something I’ve learnt from motorway services nationwide is that unlike other Britain-defining chains like Pret or Nando’s, the contents of a Greggs varies depending on its location. Greggs bakes regional delicacies: corned beef pasties in the west and north-east and Haggis pies in Scotland. Bromley High Street’s Greggs (like most around London) offer Tottenham Cake, the ridiculously simple pink-iced sponge slab that again demonstrates the British preference for basic repetitive pleasure (in this case pure, unadorned sweetness). This is truly mainstream regionalism which, rather than raising the national profile of its specialities, embeds them casually in the local scenery.
Corporations haven’t squashed our local identities yet, though given how common we think our local mutations are, maybe it’s just easier to maintain the illusion. Indeed, while Greggs’ embracing of local delicacies is charming, valuable and unusual for a constituent of the FTSE 250, it’s hard not to think of the hundreds of bakeries invaded in their snack food crusade, their menus replaced with the streamlined range of bakes, cakes and sandwiches we’re all (mostly) familiar with. Clearly, Greggs don’t retain Tottenham cake out of the goodness of their hearts, but because they sell. Greggs needs regional products because we need them.
Dicksons – Newcastle
The north-east of England is one of the most interesting baking hotspots in Britain, boasting singing hinnies (griddle cakes similar to Welsh cakes) and the saveloy dip, a mighty arrangement of saveloy sausages, stuffing, pease pudding and mustard in a bread roll, with the top dipped in gravy before construction. However, the most famous Geordie bakery speciality might be the stottie cake: a large, disc-shaped, soft and doughy bread loaf. It’s the ideal height for sandwiches, with ham and pease pudding being the most celebrated stottie filling of all.
Armed with this knowledge, I was determined to try one when I visited Newcastle for the first time in 2017, when Kero Kero Bonito supported Saint Etienne on tour. Fortunately, our Travelodge was three minutes away from the Greggs on Quayside – which improbably and quite beautifully overlooks the Tyne – and I’d received intel that Geordie Greggs sold ready-made ham and pease pudding stottie sandwiches. Upon entering I deployed my usual bakery panic interrogation, only to be informed that there were no stottie sandwiches, but that they did have the pure uncut goods. In order to live the stottie sandwich dream, I was going to have to realise it myself.
Luckily, I was saved by another local chain, Dicksons – Tyne and Wear’s own butcher-baker mini-franchise. Acutely aware of my train’s departure time, I ran in and grabbed a tub of their own-brand pease pudding before anyone else could. With mere minutes until our train set off, I left my bandmates in the station hall and raided Marks & Spencer for sliced ham, butter and a picnic cutlery fifty-pack for a knife to spread it with. As our CrossCountry Voyager squeezed the elemental Northumberland coast – one of the most beautiful train journeys anywhere in the world – I performed stottie surgery with a tiny plastic knife, conjuring my vision of Tyneside cuisine.
Merrie England – Huddersfield
Music can take you to surprising places, and in 2018 I found myself in Huddersfield for the first time for a DJ engagement. This time it fell to Danny, a friend of the promoter, to show me the locality’s finest, and he took me somewhere he used to visit with his grandma – Merrie England.
Merrie England is, bizarrely, a medieval-themed coffee-shop/bakery chain. It has six locations (four in Huddersfield, one in Brighouse and one in Halifax), and the ‘theme’ isn’t implemented particularly strongly, which if anything makes the experience stranger (imagine eating a sandwich next to a suit of armour in an otherwise normal cafe). Merrie England’s signature is not some medieval throwback but a hot beef and onion sandwich. Composed of thinly cut beef, fairly raw onion slices and gravy in a teacake, it has a distinctly retro flavour profile. Eating mine deep in Huddersfield’s Packhorse Centre, I understood the local pride, though in retrospect I wish I’d tried Merrie England's bilberry pie too (because the Lord knows I don't get my fill of bilberries).
Zam Zam Bakery – Bristol
Booked for a DJ set in Bristol, I thought it’d be clever to combine my show with a collection-only Roland Alpha Juno 1 synthesiser snag and a meeting with James Hankins, the Bristol-based director who was editing a Kero Kero Bonito video. I was feeling the burn on the way to James’ flat, a four-octave keyboard in tow, when out of nowhere, the maze of terraced houses suddenly turned into a parade of South Asian community shops: a halal butcher’s; a cash and carry; Sajid’s Men’s Hairstylist. One fascia stood out: ‘Zam Zam Bakery’. Inside was just enough room for a counter and a large brick oven. The menu listed about nine items, all flatbreads, all affordable with the sparest change, and exhibiting Kurdish influence (though there was still room for a classic takeaway pizza). I noted that they offered ‘lahmajon with cheddar’ – not a common combination in Turkey or Iraq, but a logical variation in this corner of West England.
Zam Zam Bakery isn't regional in the way my other examples are. However, diasporic cultures that have existed in this country for decades cannot be ignored as the source of some of the UK’s most definitive retail baking. The presence of these communities forms its own regionalism, complementing local tastes: consider the Jamaican bakeries supplying coco bread across South London, or franchises like Nafees, selling mithai and birthday cakes in Bradford. The regional icons we take for granted are the product of a continuous worldwide exchange, not an isolated past.
I made it to James’ restored. The video he showed me, for the KKB song ‘Time Today’, was pretty much the finished article, and you can hear the Alpha Juno all over that song’s parent album Time ’n’ Place. I should have thanked Zam Zam Bakery in the credits, really.
Graysons – Ainsdale
It had been a dream of mine since my earliest Boomkat-trawling days of musical discovery to play at Bang Face Weekender, the famous annual ‘Neo-Rave Armageddon’ at Ainsdale’s notorious Pontins holiday camp. In 2018, I finally got the call. I loved my Bang Face visit, and after it was over I took a stroll down Ainsdale’s Station Road, looking for nothing in particular and imagining life amidst the village constellation of the chippie, launderette and clothes boutique. Then, I saw it – a bright-red shop front with banners promising tea, coffee, soup, barms, fingers, pies HOT or COLD, daily fresh creams and celebration cakes, huge Bakewells with spider-web icing, brooding confections of darkest chocolate and child-enticing rainbow bursts of food colouring.
This was Graysons, Ainsdale’s premier family-owned independent bakery. Assessing my options, I was taunted by a mysterious label: what on earth was a butter pie? The server explained that it was ‘a kind of potato and onion pie’; indeed, the butter pie’s impressively beige filling is a simple but distinctive product of Catholic fasting habits; it’s most commonly found in Lancashire, which historically hosted more Catholics than other parts of Britain. Graysons’ menu didn't stop there, though – they proffered an interesting range of breakfast-oriented sandwiches. I took a black pudding and fried-egg finger roll and ate it on the first leg of my journey home as I watched the gardens of Merseyside roll by.
Crusties of Broadstairs – Kent
I’ve lived my whole life in Bromley, a London Travelcard Zone 5 suburb of house-proud parents, shopping centre-circling tweens and surprisingly expansive parks. Though Bromley is a London borough today, it was in Kent until 1965 and has been part of the county’s melange for centuries. Of course, no British county’s identity would be complete without some left-field baked speciality, and Kent’s best does not disappoint. The gypsy tart comprises a shortcrust pastry case filled with a simple mixture of evaporated milk and muscovado sugar, whipped into an airy mousse. In employing evaporated milk, it represents a family of ingredients strangely neglected in modern British cuisine, sharing an affinity with tres leches cake or teh tarik. Gypsy tarts originated in the Isle of Sheppey, one of Kent’s more far-flung corners, and have barely registered beyond the former Invicta FM coverage area. However, they are a fixture in Bromley, where I first encountered one not in some quaint family bakery, but the UK’s fourth-largest supermarket chain, Morrisons.
Morrisons’ embracing of the gypsy tart is an example of British supermarkets’ underrated capacity for local adaptation: as depressing as the implications of megamart economics are, you know you're in a Scottish Tesco when you see morning rolls. The supra-national supermarket often accesses regionality through canny purchasing: the south-eastern Morrisons’ gypsy tarts are baked by Crusties of Broadstairs, exactly the people you'd want making your wholesale Kentish delicacies (those sold by the Co-Op are supplied by Plaxtol Village Bakery, another Kentish mini-chain). They are, quite simply, banging. Their shortcrust cases are wide with sides the perfect height, which means that every bite features a broad, chunky mouthful of the gypsy tart’s crucial element, the filling. Gypsy tart filling is like if the centre of a walnut whip was lightly treacle flavoured; I could eat it by the spoonful. The dark caramel aroma of the muscovado sugar comes through clearly in Crusties’ version, with the shortcrust crumbling very palatably into the mix. They’re the ideal size too: generous but not headache-inducing.
Percy Ingle (RIP) – Old London
London cheesecakes are puff-pastry squares, usually filled with red jam and frangipane (though apparently sometimes pure sponge cake), topped with simple white icing and shaved (not dessicated) coconut. Theirs is a peculiar alchemy; most I’ve had employ only a thin filling, or sometimes a small blob artistically occupying one corner, making most bites pure puff pastry with loads of icing and the woody chew of coconut. Other than being sold in the area, they don’t have anything to do with London (or cheese, or cake, for that matter), and the London cheesecake stands alongside the pineapple cake’s popularity in Glasgow as one of many inexplicable regional bakery phenomena.
London cheesecake and Tottenham cake were exactly the kind of treats you’d have found at Percy Ingle before its Covid-expedited demise in 2020. A Hackney-born chain with around fifty outlets in London and Essex, Percy Ingle was the quintessential East End retail bakery franchise. Its presence extended into the south, with their shop on Deptford High Street providing me and my bandmates with useful sustenance in between our rehearsals round the corner. Its operation was typical of the high-street bakery, though it felt vulnerable to London's eternal shift. Squeezed between Greggs’ corporate bakery domination and the more specialised independent shops, Percy Ingle’s offering was decidedly old-school, and it’s arguable that the 2020 closure of a bakery founded in 1954 is just evidence of a dynamic city’s natural order.
GAIL’s – New London
Though Londoners won’t want to hear this, a regional franchise better representative of modern Londoners’ priorities might be GAIL’s, the banner success of the artisanal brunch bakery revolution. During lockdown, GAIL’s commanded hysterical lockdown queues matched only by toilet paper emporiums; their pretty cakes, boxed breakfasts and extensive coffee menu hold an obvious appeal for people who like to work hard, look good and make sure everyone knows about it.
GAIL’s’ eyebrow-raising prices and cultural disembodiment make them an easy target for would-be gastronomical anthropologists like myself, but GAIL’s didn’t put Percy Ingle out of business – they sell a completely different experience. Cities reflect their inhabitants, and GAIL’s is an authentic manifestation of twenty-first century London society. They have even offered up their own contribution to London bakery culture in the so-called Soho bun, a chocolate chip-studded roll invented to hype their Soho branch and monetise croissant dough offcuts. Maybe we’ll all be washing them down with cold brew in a Soho Greggs carved out of the former Maison Bertaux in twenty years’ time
Perhaps the greatest surprise of my retail bakery quest has been realising how little I know about life between counties. I am prepared to acknowledge the possibility that I am just unusually clueless, but it's not like bridies are on the Key Stage 3 curriculum. In retrospect, it’s not actually surprising how little we know about each other’s traditions: regionalism is never the goal of any national project, and while the global exchange of the internet is infinitely delineated, it’s hardly regional. You don’t need a VPN to buy stotties, but you do need to be within a half-hour drive of the Tyne. This camouflage is the essence of regional culture: gypsy tarts are unknown outside of Kent, but within it they are as ordinary as penne pasta or Harpic Toilet Duck. As a result, true local culture is invisible while it’s alive. Such culture is precious.
Many thanks to Sophie Whitehead for additional edits.