If Ann Cudworth’s artisan breads aren’t already a talking point among those who like their loaves to have some liveliness and bite, then the name of her new foodie venture has certainly set tongues wagging.
The quirkily named Baobab Bakery on Heaton’s Chillingham Road, Newcastle, is not easily forgotten (presuming you can pronounce it, of course. Ann helpfully breaks it down as bey-oh-bab).
It’s definitely original and Ann admits it has already proved something of a conversation opener among locals intrigued first by the name and secondly by the wonderful array of artisan breads, cakes and pastries temptingly on display in the large pavement side window.
For those who may not know, a baobab is a large, extremely odd-looking tree native to tropical Africa, Madagascar and Australia. It has an exceedingly long and thick trunk, branches that look like a mad professor’s hair and an impressively large, velvety, gourd-like fruit.
So strange is the appearance of this tree that Ann says the African story goes that one day God became so annoyed by the baobab’s constant complaining that He came down from heaven, pulled it from the ground and thrust it back in upside down.
That’s why the branches, which for most of the year are leafless, appear like tangled roots sticking up in the air.
But despite its peculiar looks, the baobab is revered. It provides food, shelter and water for humans and animals alike. Its leaves are used for condiments and medicines and the bark for cloth and rope.
The gourd, which fittingly is called ‘monkey bread’ or sometimes ‘cream of tartar fruit’ (and yes, the citric and tartaric acids found in baobab pulp do form the basis of the baking ingredient of the same name), is high in vitamin C.
Mature trees, which frequently have hollow trunks, have even been turned into barns and pub-style bars!
It’s a tree with no shortage of useful applications which can now add artisan bakery-cum-café to its list of valuable functions.
Ann is well known in gastronomic circles as the doyenne of North Shields-based Dough Works, which began as an artisan bakery selling at farmers’ markets and through selected retailers but now solely offers baking and bread making workshops. She didn’t just pick the baobab name at random, however.
It means something to the 54-year-old, her husband Phil and their three grown-up children.
Ann, a former nurse and midwife at North Tyneside and Freeman Hospitals, spent four-and-a-half years working at a mission in Zimbabwe in the 1980s.
It was here she met Phil, 55, a Zimbabwean by birth.
The couple’s eldest child, Aleisha, 25, was born in the country. But sensing the troubles that lay ahead for Zimbabwe, the Cudworths moved to the North East, living first in Middlesbrough, before making the move to North Shields about 20 years ago.
In 2000 the family made a return visit to Zimbabwe and one day came across a young boy earning a crust selling baobab pods by the side of the road. Ann bought one, which for the past 14 years has been displayed at her home as an unusual keepsake.
Having decided to open her own high street bakery and café, “as I am at an age when I thought it might be my last chance to do it”, Baobab seemed the obvious name.
“I have always liked the word baobab,” she says in her soft Irish lilt (she hails from County Kilkenny). “And they do say that any word where you emphasise the ‘O’ is always popular with people.
“Then there’s Phil’s family roots, the fact that we both lived in Zimbabwe and that our eldest child was born there. It was a good time for us; we have very happy memories of Zimbabwe.
“The baobab tree is also extremely important in African culture. Apart from its many culinary and medicinal uses, a baobab tree tends to be where people meet to chat and have discussions about the world.
“I like to think of the café being a meeting place for people. There might not be an actual baobab tree here but people are free to chat under the baobab name.”
In keeping with the theme, African art that once adorned the walls of the Cudworths’ house now hangs in the café – another talking point among customers.
But it is Ann’s home baking that is the real conversation piece.
The cosy smell of bread straight out of the oven wafts enticingly through the café and shop.
It is proving so tempting for locals that Ann has been struggling to keep up with demand on her own and is about to take on an assistant baker.
Fans of her culinary endeavours will be pleased to hear that while she may no longer be gracing the North East’s food festivals and farmers’ markets, her signature bakes are still available to buy over the counter.
Baobab Bakery specialises in everything from wheat and rye sourdoughs with seeds, plain white, spelt bread with honey, light rye and caraway, soda bread, cheese flutes, croissants, brioche, fruit and cheese scones, pizza by the slice and biscuits.
Her bestselling Guinness hot cross buns and Simnel cake joined the line-up over Easter.
Everything is made using Ann’s own sourdough as well as Northumberland-based Gilchesters Organics’ range of flours.
As you can imagine, bread features heavily on the daily changing café menu. It can include everything from simple and filling bread of the day with cheese, chilli chutney and salad to toasted cheese sandwiches and pizza.
A selection of African dishes are about to join the repertoire, though, such as babotjie – a dish of beef mince with fruit chutney, raisins and egg served with rice – and bunny chow, an Indian curry that originated in the Durban area of South Africa, that is aptly traditionally served in a hollowed out loaf of bread.
Originally taken by Indian sugar plantation workers as their ‘packed lunch’, bunny chow is the ultimate healthy and filling fast food.
Baobab Bakery is all a long way from Ann’s small beginnings as a purveyor of breads and pastries.
As a working mother she had cooked out of necessity as well as pleasure. But when Phil was diagnosed with cancer Ann decided it was time to turn a passion into a living.
As she says, cancer changes everyone’s outlook on life. “Phil said that if there was anything we really wanted to do then we should take the plunge and do it. It was then I decided on a complete career change,” Ann explains.
In 2005 she began selling her artisan breads via independent delicatessens and at farmers’ markets and food festivals. As her popularity grew four years ago she launched Dough Works offering the double helping of the baking and bread classes as well as the retail side.
She cannily spotted a niche in the market just as the latest trend for home baking began to take off and people sought to relearn what had become a lost art.
Now with the birth of Baobab, Ann is just offering the workshops which she holds in her domestic kitchen in North Shields.
They cover everything from basic bread and pizza making (done in the impressive wood burning oven she has had built in her back yard) to croissants and baguettes, pasta and sour dough.
So popular are they that they sell out almost as soon as they are announced.
She says: “We might not always make our own food these days, but we are very open and willing to try new and sometimes very different cuisines. People also want to know how to make things now; they want to know how to bake and do things even if it’s not a skill they use every day.”
Unlike Ann, who has turned an avid pastime into a career-changing success.
Is she now living the foodie dream? Most probably, she admits. “I enjoy the baking and I enjoy it when it turns out well and people like my bread. Who wouldn’t be happy about that?”
- Baobab Bakery, 413 Chillingham Road, Heaton, Newcastle, NE6 5QU, 0191 276 1401. Twitter: @baobabbakeryUk. Facebook: Baobab Bakery Cafe
- Dough Works, 0191 296 5393/0778 494 4226, www.doughworks.co.uk