Flour power: Tom Baker's food revolution
Richard McComb joins the food world’s
popular front – in Cotteridge
Flour powersa revolution
There is no Che Guevara T-shirt, no beret and no Zapata moustache. But make no mistake: Tom Baker is a revolutionary.
Articulate and blessed with a natural, under-stated charisma, Tom talks in hushed tones of re-education, of fighting back and subversion. It’s heady stuff, intoxicating, and I am an instant convert to the Baker ideology.
The deal, though, is sealed with six haunting words: “Fancy an egg with your muffin?”
It is 10.30am and we are sitting in the back garden of Tom’s terrace house in Cotteridge, south Birmingham. The sun is streaming down and Tom’s three chickens – the chronologically named April, May and June – have popped out of their “eglu” pen for a peck and a scratch.
There is a pot of coffee on the table and Tom is finishing his freshly-prepared muffins in his wood-fired earth oven. The latter is what it says it is – an oven made from earth, fired by wood. Think of the classic native ovens of North Africa, Asia, the Pacific and neolithic Britain. This is elemental cooking – cuisine rustique – and the results are fantastic.
The muffins are browning off in a pan placed inside the oven’s glowing semi-circular mouth. Yes, a just-laid, free- range egg would be jolly nice, I tell Tom. “It’s zero food miles,” he says, looking at the 2ft separating chucks and oven.
Once the fluffy, buttery muffins are done, my garden chef scoops them out on to a tray and fries some eggs in the same pan. And the eggs are great – yolks of trickly, yellow loveliness, munched manically with the muffins under the sporadic shade of a eucalyptus tree.
It is an incongruous, thoroughly enjoyable experience. We could be a million miles from Birmingham city centre, not a ten-minute car ride.
But Tom is based here for a very good reason: this is where the work needs to be done. There’s no point living in a gastro town, like Ludlow, as pleasant as that might be. He’d be preaching to the converted. This is where Tom’s revolution will have the most impact – his food revolution, that is.
Tom is the brains and the creative talent behind Loaf, a social enterprise that aims to reinvest money earned from food-based activities (staging seasonal cookery schools, diner parties and consultancy) into promoting real food.
Significantly, Loaf, born in August this year, is dedicated to carrying the torch for what Tom calls “real” food – that is food grown, produced, sold and prepared in and around Birmingham.
Tom, aged 27, is web-savvy – he has a great food website, www.loafonline.co.uk, which has an ever-expanding food directory listing artisan producers, independent shops, restaurants and veg box schemes.
He is also a teacher with the innovative School of Everything. Part-funded by Channel 4’s 4iP fund, the School of Everything website aims to put pupils of all ages in touch with experts across the UK. From thai chi to salsa dancing and international cookery, it’s all covered, including bread-making.
Tom’s home doubles as Loaf HQ and it is here that he puts on bread-making classes, specialising in slow-fermented artisan and sourdough breads. These are yeast-free parcels of eating pleasure.
Tom, who works four days a week as an NHS nutritionist, lives with his 28-year-old wife Jane, a talented professional photographer, and the couple do not want for fresh produce.
In addition to the hens, they have a 75ft allotment up the road at Northfield. It’s only their first year but already they have been harvesting potatoes, Swiss chard, sugar snap peas, garlic, celeriac, carrots and soft fruits.
And if supplies run low, there is always foraging in the inner city. Tom conjures up a jar of homemade plum jam to accompany some of the leftover muffins. He harvested them a short stroll away in Lifford Lane, on the road to the local tip.
“I picked 3kg in five minutes,” says Tom. “All this stuff is out there – for nothing.”
The jam is lovely and would probably cost £5 a jar in Selfridges. Cost to Tom Baker? About 1p in plimsoll erosion walking to the trees.
He loves scouring the urban hedgerows for ingredients. Stinging nettles – “picked from above dog weeing height by the canal” – are incorporated in a DIY nettle and cobnut pesto. Tom used mirabelles harvested from a tree outside a Redditch solicitors to make jam but he is still getting up to speed with wild fungi, so treat any offers of mushroom risotto chez Baker with caution.
He’s a New Age Womble at heart, reclaiming a slab of granite from a skip to put in the bottom of his conventional oven. The idea is that the granite gives the bread “spring” when it is placed directly on to it, replicating, sort of, the effect of the earth oven, which is extremely hot. Tom, a self-taught chef, would dearly love to launch a “Keep It Local” marketing campaign to promote food within a 40-mile radius of Birmingham. He is bidding for National Lottery cash for the scheme and believes Birmingham is lagging behind other cities in developing its food potential.
“Bristol, Manchester and London have burgeoning food movements, but we are lagging behind. There are lots of individuals doing great things but no one is coordinating it,” says Tom.
“There are some real food heroes right here in Birmingham and we should be using them instead of going to Tesco. We used to have a great culinary tradition but we have lost the skills. Birmingham has great foods from all over the world but sometimes we forget to eat our own British food.
“I really want to promote local food in Birmingham. We have some great agricultural land and great producers, but we really don’t use them. It is a bit shameful for the Second City.”
He practises what he preaches, be it preserving or bottling, or baking 100 per cent bona fide crap-free bread. The loaves and rolls baked in the earth oven are a delight, with a barely distinguishable smoky, woody edge.
Days after we meet, Tom tries cooking his first joint in the oven, a leg of lamb. He concedes he was a vegetarian for three years until a friend brought round a pot of venison stew.
“That was it. I was a goner,” says Tom, who studied psychology and biology at Aston University before doing a masters in nutrition at Oxford Brookes. “I do try to eat ethically. We all eat too much meat. I eat it once or twice a week, from free range or organic sources.”
He is a great advocate for real food, which he says is all about authenticity, traditions, cooking from scratch, ethical vitality and connecting with people, be they the people who you sit down and share food with or the “heroes that bring it to our plates”.
Tom, and I suspect many people like him, myself included, see no reason why we should surrender our food heritage to the multi-nationals, the global buyers and the supermarket vultures.
He says: “The industrial revolution and agro-business changed our food forever, making the food chain more and more complex.
Loaf aims to simplify the food chain again, connecting local people with local producers, with as little in between as possible.
“This both harks back to a pre-industrial, and even pre-agricultural, time, and is groundbreaking in subverting the complexities of big-business calorie distribution.”
It’s a manifesto for change, for food change, and it starts here: in Cotteridge, by an earth oven.
nFor more information about Loaf, go to www.loafonline.co.uk
nFurther details about the School of Everything are available at http://schoolofeverything.com