A taste of Dorset – Baking for a century
Oxfords Bakery has been in the family for four generations and is about to celebrate its centenary. Tony Burton-Page went to the headquarters at Alweston.
Published in September ’10
You realise that there is something unusual about a bakery when the first thing that welcomes you on a visit there is a chicken. Admittedly, this could be explained by the fact that Oxfords Bakery at Alweston, a village three miles south-east of Sherborne, was once a farm – but it has actually been a bakery for more than a hundred years. When Frank Oxford bought the lease from the Digby estate in 1911, the premises had been the site of Hodges bakery for several decades. But to this day it still looks more like a farm than a bakery, and the friendliness of the chickens and ducks who still reside there is a testament to this.
Frank married Olive, a girl from nearby Holwell; their son Ron, grandson Roger and now great-grandson Steven have all continued the family tradition of running the bakery, and much of the actual baking side has features in common with those days a century ago, although the business as it is in the 21st century is very different. In 1911 the bread baked that morning would have been delivered by horse and cart to the houses in Alweston and nearby villages. A farmhouse family would probably have a four-pound cottage loaf which would be carved up and distributed as necessary. And so it went for fifty years or so, the only major difference being that the horse and cart made way for a fleet of seven Morris 1000 vans to deliver the bread to the customers, who by now numbered over 2000.
It all changed, as did so much, in the 1960s. The British Bakers Research Institute developed the Chorleywood Process, which produces a finished loaf (typically, a sliced white) within a mere two hours of starting the mixing of the flour – the minimum amount of time that traditional bakers allow their dough to ferment before they even think about putting it in the oven. The Chorleywood Process is all about speed, as Steven Oxford explains.
‘Cut out the two-hour fermentation period and you can make two hours’ worth more bread, so your profit margins will increase, so of course the big bakeries love it. The trouble is that it takes time for the gluten to dissolve out of the flour and for the yeast to complete the fermentation cycle; this high-speed bread hasn’t had the chance to ferment in the bowl or in the oven. And once it goes into your stomach, the process carries on. This leads to bloated stomachs and from there to IBS and to all the wheat and gluten intolerances we hear so much about nowadays – there’s been a 500-fold increase of these intolerances in the developed western world in the last ten years alone! I maintain that’s it’s not the wheat that people are allergic to, it’s the process.
‘If you look at the list of ingredients on a processed loaf, you’ll very often find that there are fifteen or more – flour improvers, sweeteners, colours, flavour enhancers, texturisers, preservatives and enzymes. But traditional bakeries like us only use the basic four: flour, salt, water and yeast. And the vital ingredient is time! But there are sixty million people out there who need to be fed, and unless there’s a bakery in every town and village in the UK there has to be mass production of bread. Twenty years ago, there were about 15,000 independent bakers in Britain, whereas now there are 3000 – of which there are only half a dozen in Dorset, and most of those have diversified in some way or another.’
Oxfords have diversified, too, although they are still true to their traditional roots – it is still baking which is central to the business. There was not even an Oxfords retail outlet until 1969, when Roger opened the shop in Sherborne. He had realised that the giant bakeries had latched onto the Chorleywood Process and that he could not possibly compete with their sheer volume of mass-produced bread by selling from house to house. So he increased the size of his customer base while maintaining the quality of his product, in addition to selling locally produced fruit and vegetables and starting a lunchtime trade of sandwiches and the like. Despite competition from new branches of Somerfield and Sainsburys, the Sherborne shop has not only remained consistently viable but has also engendered two siblings: a shop in Blandford, which opened in 2006, and one in Canford Cliffs, which opened in December 2009.
Diversification has been the order of the day in both shops. ‘A baker I know sells less bread now in his ten shops than he did forty years ago in his only shop,’ says Steven, ‘so it wasn’t a surprise that when Morrisons opened in Blandford the demand for bread at our branch there dropped considerably. So we built up our lunchtime trade and the coffee shop to make up for it – and at least Morrisons has done us a service by bringing more shoppers into the town! And at the Canford Cliffs branch, in addition to the fresh bakery products you would expect, there’s also a ‘Dorset delicatessen’, where we sell foods sourced from local farmers. We’re proud of our rare roast beef, which we roast ourselves every day – I don’t think there are many places where you can get really rare roast beef nowadays!’
After all these years, the baking is still done at Alweston, using the same oven that Frank Oxford used in 1911 – although it is no longer open at the back so that it can be fed with faggots, and within the last thirty years it has been converted to burn oil. But traditions die hard, and every time the Oxfords go to the Royal Bath and West Show or the Great Dorset Steam Fair they take the old drum mixer and the Bamford stationary engine to demonstrate the way the dough used to be mixed, as well as an oven and those four crucial ingredients for the staff of life: flour, salt, yeast and water.