Bread, beans & Brennan
PUBLISHED: 11:06 22 December 2015 | UPDATED: 11:06 22 December 2015
Nick Cottam meets the man behind the now famous Pump Street Bakery
Orford’s version of Roald Dahl’s chocolate factory is an industrial unit about a mile from the Market Square. Pristine clean and scrubbed to within an inch of its life it houses the Pump Street Bakery’s chocolate making operation – a bean to bar business that has positioned itself at the top end of the market.
Arriving for a chocolate tour we are greeted not by an excitable Willy Wonka, but by the more measured tones of Chris Brennan, an ex-IBM man and founder of the Pump Street Bakery. Chris describes himself as a foodie who likes to dabble.
“I’m always trying to figure out how you get good food and how you make it,” he says. After a 30-year career at IBM he put his dabbling to the test, starting the Pump Street Bakery with his daughter and launching the company’s now stock in trade sour dough bread, followed by the more recent addition of upmarket chocolate. In the early days Pump Street bread was sold at the country market on a Saturday morning, but lengthening queues brought the bakery and a café into its current Pump Street, Orford premises.
Visiting the company’s chocolate making facility away from the hustle and bustle of the Market Square we get an insight into a niche product made the Chris Brennan way. “About three years ago,” he says “I started to understand that really good chocolate is like bread – difficult to get.”
Suffolk is now well endowed with both Pump Street products – the type of sour dough bread he discovered during his time living close to the St John bakery in East London, and chocolate – including a sour dough and sea salt variety - which the company makes from bean to bar using single source suppliers for each of up to 10 products.
A key ingredient he says is the sourcing of beans from an individual estate or farm.
“Everything comes from people I know and if we lose traceability we drop it.” Thus we hear something of Bertil Akesson from Madagascar, and about farms in the right hillside regions of Grenada, Ecuador, Honduras and Venezuela. We also get an insight into chocolate politics – the importance of paying living wages to estate workers and a reasonable sum – in this case over £5 a bar – for a small batch, quality product of the type produced by the Pump Street Bakery.
“I like to look at it this way,” says Brennan. “You can go to the supermarket and pay as little as £5 for the worst bottle of wine available, or you can go elsewhere and pay anything up to £300 for a bottle of Chateau Lafite. In our world of chocolate there should be room for a 35p and a £6 bar, depending on how the product is made.”
The making in the case of the Pump Street Bakery starts with those single source beans and goes through a process of roasting, grinding and conching – breaking down the cocoa solids and sugar crystals - to produce the chocolate which can be cooled down, aged and turned into bars. With relatively few small batch producers like PSB around a big challenge, says Brennan has been to find the right equipment – a grinder from India for example and a peanut butter machine that might have kept even Veruca Salt happy.
The result has been a string of awards, including a Top 50 (out of 50,000 products) placing for the company’s Madagascar Milk 58% at the Great Taste Awards 2015, and two gold medals for the Grenada – Crayfish Bay 70% (this writer’s favourite) at the International Chocolate Awards 2015. Put it this way, the awards listing on the PSB website is a fairly long scroll and there are now approaching 100 resellers in the UK and overseas. “The driving force,” says Brennan “is for someone to say that our chocolate is the best they’ve ever had.”
Needless to say you won’t find PSB chocolate on a garage forecourt or even in a traditional sweet shop. “We’re looking for outlets like delis, farm shops and really innovative grocery stores,” says Brennan. “Chocolate needs to cost more even at the bottom end of the market and for that to happen it needs to be treated as more than just a commodity.”
This, of course, highlights the importance of paying the farmer a fair price for his beans which in turn should help to ensure that estate workers are paid a fair wage. The cocoa beans from which chocolate is derived can be a difficult crop to harvest, coming as they do from the shrubby cocoa tree which only grows on damp often inaccessible hillsides 20 degrees north and south of the Equator. While many of the best beans still come out of the Amazon, Africa now produces over 90% of the world’s cocoa.
Chocolate, it seems, is starting to follow in the footsteps not only of bread, but also of coffee, beer, cheese and other artisan products. Knowing how a product is made and where it comes from as well as praising the fact that small can be beautiful has become an important part of the consumer buying process.
We finish our PSB chocolate tour with the all-important tasting – no frills just pieces of different types of chocolate handed round by Chris Brennan. We all seem to be impressed with flavours that are variously described as strong, dark, intense, salty, rich and milky. As if to prove the point we meet again in the Pump Street bakery shop as we pay a premium price for award winning chocolate.