All parents worry about their children’s nutritional needs.
Are they getting enough of their five-a-day? Are they eating a balanced diet? Are their meals wholesome, tasty and broadening their culinary horizons?
Some parents will go down the organic rather than intensively farmed route to ensure mealtimes are pesticide free. Others may choose to opt for a vegetarian lifestyle while there are those for whom a trip to the supermarket becomes a lesson in reading the small print.
As a chef, Andy Bays is well placed to cater for his two-year-old daughter Amelia when the toddler’s hunger pangs strike. Worried by how over-processed much of today’s food is, he cooks all her meals from scratch at his home in North Shields.
But the 34-year-old has gone one step further in his desire to give Amelia the best nutritional start he can in life. He has launched his own artisan bakery motivated by the little blonde haired girl.
Proof’s Bake House specialises in sourdough breads from family loaves in white and brown to bagels and buns. Andy is currently working on perfecting a French baguette.
The loaves certainly catch your eye – and not just because of Andy’s graffiti-style Proof’s Bake House logo that appears on the top of each handmade example.
Unusually for sourdough, the loaves come in perfect ‘cake’ shaped high sided rounds and squares.
More usually sold as a flatish boule or baton, it was again Amelia who provoked Andy to begin experimenting with what he believes is a more user friendly shape.
He and his daughter spend a great deal of time exploring their local area. Sandwiches are an essential part of any outing, but having chosen to eat sourdough because it’s a healthier option, Andy was always left with “great wedges of bread at either end that you can’t really do anything with. They’re too small and too thick to make a sandwich from.”
So he began developing a ‘sandwich’ sourdough that he and Amelia could more easily take on their travels. The result is the distinctive looking, tangy flavoured, moist loaves that the Proof’s Bake House is quickly building up a solid reputation for among those who like their bread to have character rather than be the insipid, cotton woolly offerings served up by the big food multiples.
Bread is now among the most over-processed foods available and the loaves pumped out in their thousands in huge commercial factories are a travesty of the baker’s art.
But there is something about a crusty loaf made with love, care and attention that is pleasing both to look at and to eat.
More than that, Andy finds the process of several cycles of kneading, shaping and relaxing required to make the loaves, calming.
For a man who admits his brain is always racing with new and creative ideas (he also makes furniture as a hobby), crafting bread is a therapeutic release.
“My mind is racing constantly,” he says with a laugh as Amelia jumps on his lap to give him a cuddle. “I am continually thinking about things. But making bread, furniture and running are the only times when I don’t think.
“The rest of the time I’m ‘how can I do this?’, ‘how can I do that?’, ‘how can I improve this recipe or that recipe?’ A lot of the things I think about are related to food and how I can be doing things better.
“I just love the fact that you can make such a wonderfully tasting loaf from something as simple as flour, water, a little salt and my own sourdough starter in what is a time-honoured way.
“Making bread using your own sourdough leaven is a thing of beauty and craft.”
Andy also enjoys the pleasure that eating a food that is essentially so modest and nutritious brings people.
“Everyone I know who eats the bread really enjoys it. I spend my whole time as a chef pleasing people with food and I get a real kick out of seeing someone enjoying something that I have made.”
With a little help, it has to be added. Amelia is a willing assistant in Andy’s fledgling artisan bread business and loves nothing better than helping mix, knead and ultimately eat the fruits of her and her dad’s labours.
Andy has made his own sourdough white and brown leavens which he keeps in a warm cupboard in his Tyneside flat.
When it came to making his own bread, sourdough was the obvious choice. It is more nutritious than mass produced loaves pumped up with additives and processing aids to ensure the bread is moister and keeps longer without being allowed to go stale gracefully.
Sourdough is also more easily digestible – a big boon for those who may already be on restricted diets – and thanks to the lactic and acetic acids that ferment the dough, the body can more easily absorb the vitamins and minerals from the flour.
The acids also slow down the rate at which gluten is released into the blood stream and lower the bread’s GI levels so it doesn’t cause unwanted peaks in insulin levels.
Gluten is more easily digestible too, so sourdough is good for those who may suffer from food intolerances – a growing problem with much of the off-shelf food now served up to consumers.
The downside is that sourdough doesn’t keep as long as the mass-produced loaves we have become accustomed to. But Andy maintains his is the type of bread you will want to make the most of down to the very last slice.
Among other things, sourdough makes fabulous toast and croutons for salads and soups, comforting bread pudding, homemade bread crumbs and bruschetta. The Proof’s Bake House is part of Andy’s no-nonsense style of cooking he learnt back in his native Hampshire as a teenager.
Having left school at 16 he “drifted” into a job working in a pub in Aldershot where he moved up the ranks from pot washer to cooking.
He then got a job at the Phoenix Inn in the picturesque village of Hartney Wintney in north east Hampshire. The gastro pub kitchen was then run by a 65-year-old woman called Pat who Andy describes as “the best home cook I have ever worked with. Her food was amazing. Just don’t tell my mum!
“We did all the sorts of traditional foods that everybody is doing now, like suet puddings. It was Pat who taught me to cook and instilled in me a love of good, honest locally-sourced and nutritious food.”
From there Andy moved to Dublin where he worked as a concierge in a hotel and then back to York to take on another kitchen job.
Wanting to learn all he could about the hospitality industry from both inside and outside the kitchen, he headed to London and for two years was night manager at the five star Pelham Hotel in South Kensington.
“By this time I had worked in a kitchen and front of house and I used that experience to get into Davy’s, the well-known wine importers which operates a number of wine bars and restaurants.
“I learnt all about wine and cigars, worked in the kitchens and also managed some of their pubs.
“Because the training was so good I met a lot of other people who had set up their own places and moved into the independent sector. I went on to run a club in Brixton where I sorted the kitchen out and also a number of gastro pubs around London.
“I experimented a lot with food, watched other cooks and to this day I am still an avid viewer of every food programme going as I like to keep up-to-date with what’s happening and to see what tips I can pick-up.”
His final job before moving North – his father was originally from South Shields and Amelia’s mother is from Newcastle – was running a gastro pub in Battersea.
But he says he “really didn’t get the whole chain pub thing,” which along with the fact that despite his wealth of other culinary experience he hadn’t really touched on the patisserie side, also encouraged him to look at baking.
Initially bread making was a hobby. But once Amelia was weaned and he found himself reading with renewed horror the list of additives, salt and fat included in everything from cereals to processed meats and canned foods, he decided to take matters into his own hands.
“I didn’t want Amelia growing up eating all that rubbish. I want her to grow up eating properly. We assume mass produced bread is healthy but the vast majority is made from processed wheat and has high levels of salt, preservatives and even in some cases sugar.”
Andy’s dream is to one day own his own artisan bakery and café, perhaps incorporating a farmers’-style market with a vegetable shop, butcher and fishmonger stocking local produce all under the one roof.
But until that day arrives Andy is happy to be championing the delights of his – and Amelia’s – own homemade bread.
And anyone who has experienced the pleasing aroma of a hot loaf coming straight out of the oven and covering a freshly baked slice with slithery, melting butter will know there are few smells or bites to beat it.
For more information on Proof’s Bake House, call 07582 576 020 or find their page on Facebook.