The story of Hylsten Bakery in Buckfastleigh is one that is full of passion, drive and determination, plus a light dusting of drama. It is a story of resilience in the face of some profound bad luck, and a heartening tale of a community coming together. It is also the story of some really good sourdough bread!
We don’t think many businesses easily survive the kind of challenges that this little artisan bakery faced within its first two years of trading, which can be a difficult period for any new business. First the bakery faced two closures due to cases of Covid which interrupted production. Then, when things were finally back up and running again, they faced a devastating oven fire that caused extensive smoke damage to the bakery. Then there followed what can only be described as an insurance nightmare. When all appeared to be lost however, a group of friends started a crowdfunding campaign and in a truly uplifting story of community support, their friends in business and elsewhere (and many of the very people that they had baked for) came together to raise the funds to help them to restart the business again.
So what is Sourdough Bread?
Sourdough is naturally leavened bread, which means it doesn’t use commercial yeast to rise. Instead, it uses a ‘starter’ – a fermented flour and water mixture that contains wild yeast and good bacteria – to rise. This also produces the tangy flavour and slightly chewy texture of sourdough. People have produced and eaten bread made this way for literally thousands of years. It was the process that the ancient Egyptians used to bake their bread (bread and beer were staples of the ancient Egyptian diet!).
Wild yeast gives sourdough bread more flavour than commercial yeast, and it’s more natural in the sense that it doesn’t contain any additives. Making sourdough bread is more labour intensive however, and the process takes more care and attention. But the resulting bread is tasty and also seems to be more easily digested than ‘normal’ bread.
The fermentation process that gives the bread its distinctive sour taste is also what makes it more gut-friendly. If like millions of people, you are suffering from digestive malaise, and if you’re sensitive to foods containing gluten or have irritable bowel syndrome, sourdough may be for you. It is important to note that it is not gluten free, but for people with mild intolerance to gluten it is often perfectly digestible.
This is because the wild yeast and bacteria in a sourdough starter break down some of the carbohydrates and proteins found in flour (gluten is a protein). When bread is made with fast-rising yeast, the bacteria don’t have time to do any pre-digesting, so there is more gluten left in the bread, and the body finds it harder to digest.
The rise of Hylsten Bakery
The founding directors of Hylsten Bakery, Kate and Megan, met in 2017 working in the kitchen at Embercombe, a residential education centre in South Devon. They instantly connected over a mutual love of good food, farming, and sustainability, and became firm friends. Kate went on to work at E5 Bakehouse in London, where she deepened her knowledge of the art of sourdough baking and her understanding of the principles of relocalising grain economies. Here, she also had the opportunity to teach what she had learned to people of all ages and backgrounds, sharing with them just how empowering baking can be. Megan meanwhile, founded The Shared Plate UK, a thriving cafe and community space in Swansea. Megan still works as a chef and as a facilitator of community and food projects in Devon and all around the rest of the UK.
Hylsten Bakery began its life in March 2020, after a friend put them in touch with someone who was offering to sell a micro bakery in Ashburton. The idea was simple – they would use local organic, stoneground flour to bake delicious, nutritious sourdough bread with as little waste from field to loaf as possible. Kate and Megan shared a vision for making small scale artisan production work, with the idea of connecting local farmers to local millers and, in turn, to the bakeries and other retailers that sold the finished bread.
They began trading in the September of 2020, but soon found that production could not keep up with demand, and that they had outgrown their very limited facilities. They decided to upscale and invest in a five-deck oven and looked around for a larger premises in which to operate the bakery. Luckily, they were able to secure an industrial unit on the Devonia Trading Estate in Buckfastleigh. The bakery grew quickly, and Hylsten Bakery was on the rise, enjoying much success in their first year of business. We heard about this new local bakery in Greenlife and started stocking Hylsten bread immediately. Their delicious sourdough loaves became an instant hit with our customers, and despite the difficulties that Covid-19 caused to everyone trading at that time, sales, and the reputation of the bakery grew.
Let Baking Be Thy Medicine
They waited patiently for Covid-19 restrictions to lift and as soon as they could Kate and Megan opened a bakery school to run alongside the bakery business. Since September 2021 they have been teaching regular bread classes to people of all experience levels. These bread making courses involve a pay it forward community outreach scheme too, so that they can offer free classes to vulnerable people in the local community. Kate and Megan told us ‘The bakery and school is our way of contributing to building a resilient local food system, to support local growers and millers, and to share our knowledge of sourdough baking and love for good food with our community.’
In addition to their regular bread making courses, they also partnered with the charity Veterans Outdoors to run a course for female veterans. They told us, ‘The day was a great success, and we received some heart-warming feedback about the benefits making bread had had on the mental health of the participants. The therapeutic nature of bread making is a perfect activity for individuals suffering from depression and anxiety disorders. This kind of work is very close to our hearts, and we hope to continue to run these kinds of therapeutic courses.’
One of the core values that define what Hylsten Bakery are all about is working towards more resilient food systems. Kate and Megan explained, ‘A large proportion of the UK’s grain is being imported from countries as far flung as Canada and Kazakhstan, a source that suddenly seems very unreliable given the unrest in Ukraine. In addition, we are promoting the resurgence of ancient and heritage grains into our fields, these strains are well adapted to our native wildlife and therefore are more resilient to bugs, requiring less interference in the form of herbicides and pesticides. Modern varieties result in higher yields but that comes with a higher chance that the crop will fail. This is a false economy that we can’t afford to waste any more time on.’
Hylsten Bakery buy much of their fresh flour from local Devon producers such as the Fresh Flour Company. Working closely with local growers not only means a low carbon footprint for the business, and the freshest possible flour, it also ensures a better deal for growers. This means resilience for local economies too. Resilience was soon to be what the team at Hylsten would need themselves…
All was going well for the little bakery and Kate and Megan’s vision was now a reality. Then, at the end of 2021, early one Sunday morning in the week before Christmas, when no one was about, they had a fire in their oven. The damage was devastating, and they had to close the bakery. They contacted their insurers and waited to hear back about their claim.
Unfortunately, when the insurers finally did contact them about their claim, it was not good news.
Kate explained ‘When they finally did get back to us it was to inform us that there was a clause in the agreement which rendered our claim invalid.’ They estimated that they needed to find £28,000 to put the business back on its feet, buy a new oven, and commence the daunting clean-up operation.
However, Kate and Megan and rest of the team at Hylsten Bakery were to find out that they had a great many friends and fans, and during the relatively short time that they had been in business, not only had their passion and integrity won them friends in business, they had also grown a loyal customer base that was passionate too, both about what they stood for in terms of producing a truly locally sourced, manufactured and distributed food product, and all the effort and commitment that that requires, and, of course, about their delicious bread!
Kate and Megan and their colleagues were amazed at what happened; ‘Just when it seemed certain that we wouldn’t be able to continue, some friends of ours at Country Cheeses and the Kitchen Table in Totnes decided to set up a crowd funder for our cause. We couldn’t have hoped for the response we got and within a month we were able to put down a deposit on a new oven, pay our staff for the weeks spent cleaning smoke damage, and set a date to resume baking.’
We never doubted in Greenlife that they would reach their target. The most remarkable part of the story is that although there were some substantial private donations from friends and businesses, the vast majority of the £28,000 that was raised in just two months was from individual customers and fans of the wonderful work that Hylsten Bakery has done for their community. We think that it’s surely a story that can restore your faith in real community spirit – full of empathy and of hope worth sharing.
At the time of writing this article (April 2022), Hylsten are very much on the rise again. We wish them all the best. If you haven’t yet tried their wonderful bread – the following Sourdough breads are available at Greenlife:
A free form loaf packed full of flavour and made with local, highly extracted, stoneground flour. A blend of white and wholemeal flours gives it a distinctly sweet nutty flavour with a moist and slightly open crumb.
Town Mill Tin
A great family loaf, perfect for sandwiches, this loaf has a light, fluffy closed crumb. Made using single estate, UK grown flour from the Fresh Flour Company that is milled right next door to Hylsten Bakery in The Town Mill Building.
Inspired by a love for pumpernickel, this loaf has that familiarly deep, savoury flavour but with a lighter, moist crumb. Made using 100% British dark rye flour and British golden linseeds.
Toasted semolina porridge is added to this loaf, which gives it a fabulous crumpet like texture. Golden linseeds add a nutty flavour. Semolina is packed full of flavour and nourishment – and by working with a local mill Hylsten use the semolina that would otherwise be thrown away. A perfect partner for butter and marmalade.
Hylsten focaccia is is made using 100% organic UK grain. It’s baked hot and fast so it’s got a dark, blistered exterior and a soft, fluffy inner. It’s topped with extra virgin olive oil from Honest Toil – family grown, pressed solely from koroneiki olives, unblended, unfiltered, and properly cold-pressed. Cornish sea salt and rosemary from The Husbandry School are the final ingredients.