The success of the Great British Bake Off has rekindled the national interest in baking at the same time that the artisanal bakery was making inroads on the UK High Street.
The result has been an explosion of baking outlets that offer the very best of English baking to a wider audience than ever before, particularly in the nation’s capital.
Baking in England actually has a relatively short history. In fact, domestic baking has only really been a significant mass phenomenon for around 150 years. Of course, the wealthy had always had access to cakes, breads and pies, but most English folk rarely saw such luxuries. For most of the 16th and 17th centuries, cakes were mostly stodgy yeast-or-ale-based concoctions, including expensive spices such as saffron, brought to the UK thanks to the expanding British Empire.
For most ordinary people, baking generally meant the mass production of bread in commercial bakeries. In fact, the production and consumption of bread were an essential part of daily life, although the conditions in bakeries were harsh.
By the mid-19th Century, advancements such as the introduction of baking powder, along with the availability of sugar, and the invention of the range oven meant that baking became more widely accessible and it soon became a domestic obsession. Whisks, eggbeaters, and rolling pins became regular features of English kitchens, and new recipes were created.
Cakes produced in this period often had a high alcohol or fruit content in order to boost their longevity, while also including spices such as cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg. Pasties and pies were also popular amongst the working classes as they offered a fast and convenient form of nutrition.
By the Second World War, baking had become a huge part of English life, with most families boasting their own range of traditional and regional concoctions. The outbreak of war in 1939 had a major effect not only on the ingredients that were available, but also the amount of time housewives had to spend on domestic activities, as vast numbers of women entered work for the first time. Yet despite wartime rationing, baking remained incredibly popular.
That popularity, combined with the rise of artisanal commercial baking and the influence of a higher profile for baking in the media, has led to the current profusion of bakery outlets, particularly in London. Here is a selection of the best that the capital has to offer:
Brick House Bakery
Based in an old electric warehouse in East Dulwich, Brick House Bakery is the artisanal benchmark for San Francisco-style slow-fermentation sourdough bread. The walls of the bakery are whitewashed brick, and there are large glass windows that flood natural light on to the bakers hard at work in the back. The bread produced here is handmade and kneaded over two days before being baked on a stone, all with organic flour. A particularly popular produce is the Peckham Rye, which usually sells out by midday. They also sell a delicious range of sandwiches, avocado toast and pastries.
The Little Bread Pedlar
One of the most popular bakeries to visit, the Little Bread Pedlar is only open on one day a week. It is tucked in the chic district of Bermondsey, based under the area’s signature railway arches. This location was where the founders of the bakery first met and devised their bicycle-delivery service, selling brownies all across London. The brownies are still a popular product, but the bread and the almond croissants match them for popularity. Their intensely-crusted sourdough bread is much sought after, while their croissants are greatly in demand.
Dusty Knuckle Bakery
Originally housed in an old shipping container, behind the Arcola Theatre in Dalston, this bakery has moved and is now located in a brick and steel café nearby. It boasts something of a cult following for lunchtime made-to-order sandwiches with a variety of inventive fillings, with ingredients such as porchetta, salsa verde, braised spring onion and purple sprouting broccoli, chard, olives, feta and almonds on doughy focaccia bread. Morning buns, turnovers and savoury breads are also a big part of their appeal, and they have even set up a baking school for enthusiastic baking beginners.
A business that thrived during the lockdown, the Proof based their success on flyers that offered a tasty and delicious cake menu. Their products are based around retro puddings, such as lemon meringue tart and sticky toffee pudding, as well as their signature Proofiteroles. Their London-wide delivery also includes Hackney Gelato ice cream and Chapel Down sparkling wine and they offer a subscription weekly pudding service.
Set up by Will Lewis during lockdown, Willy’s Pies offer a new pie menu every week, with a limited number of pies, all of which sell out quickly. They feature classic fillings such as roast chicken, wild garlic and leek; cauliflower cheese, spinach and ricotta; along with sweets such as treacle tarts and apple pies. They deliver to North and East London by bicycle on Wednesdays, and to South and West London on Thursdays, and are one of London’s most popular bakeries.
Bread Ahead made their name by serving bread to the local fruit-and-veg suppliers in Borough Market and are best known for their fluffy, sweet-filled doughnuts, although they also make an extravagant cinnamon roll and soft powdered amaretti. Their Soho base is a perfect place to sample brioche French toast and a cheesy croque monsieur. You can even take a course at the Bread Ahead baking school located in Borough Market and learn some of their sourdough secrets.
Pophams Bakery opened its doors in October 2017 and was soon earning social media fame for their laminated pastries, particularly the maple-bacon croissant. They now have a second permanent spot on the Richmond Road in Hackney, with an open kitchen along with a chef’s table and pasta bar which is run by their current baker Phil King.
London restaurant Lyles has been recognised as one of the top 40 in the world, and the team behind that success has also opened Flor, a bakery-meets-wine bar in Borough Market. As Lyle’s more casual sister spot, this is a beautiful light-filled space that transitions from doughy baked goods in the morning to sharing plates for lunch and supper. Pastries produced by head baker Anna Higham include brioche filled with sourdough caramel and birch-syrup kouign amann.
St John Bakery
St John Bread and Wine in Spitalfields, is a classic London restaurant and regulars visit for the unusual nose-to-tail menu. In 2010, they set up their first stand-alone bakery on Druid Street in Bermondsey and then opened a second in Covent Garden a few years later. The ingredients they use are sourced from local suppliers, including dairy from Neal’s Yard just around the corner. Their doughnuts, featuring seasonal jams, are delicious, as are their hot cross buns.
Jacob the Angel
Located in Covent Garden, English coffee house Jacob the Angel has proven enormously popular. The space features just a few tables, along with plates piled high with fresh rainbow-coloured salads. Savoury options available include sandwiches such as chicken, rose harissa, whipped feta and rocket as well as spinach, leek and nutmeg bourekas, and the much sought after individual coconut cream pies are a sumptuous treat.
East London has been ahead of the game when it comes to bakeries, but Layla, which opened its doors in March 2021 is bringing made-on-site sourdough to Portobello Road in the west of the city. They don’t have a delivery service, but the site is worth a visit, as they perfect croissants, sausage rolls and focaccia sarnies that change weekly, featuring ingredients such as roast celeriac, pickled radish, tahini and chard. You can also enjoy freshly squeezed blood-orange juice and coffee from Brixton’s Assembly roasters on the pavement.
Butter and Crust
Butter and Crust is a new sourdough-by-bicycle service for South London, which launched back in October last year. Deliveries arrive before 9:00 and they offer a choice of three sourdough loaves as well as Monmouth Coffee, Townsend Farm apple juice, cultured butter, seasonal jams and granola. Butter and Crust also team up with top artisan bakeries to provide a range of four pastries each week. These can include cardamom buns from The Snapery Bakery, caramelised white-chocolate, almond and spelt cookies from Maya’s Bakehouse or kouign-amann from Hedone.
Pickles and Bakes
Natalie Lewis was another enterprising baker who turned the lockdown to her advantage and her business has grown into a delicious country-wide delivery service. She was particularly successful with her fudgy gooey brownies, fluffy madeleines and mini cakes. She has also devised paint-your-own biscuit sets, which come in all shapes and sizes, to keep your kids entertained.
Launched in April 2020 by Sophia Sutton-Jones, this bakery has since expanded thanks partly to her successful use of social media. Her bakery produces delicious baked-on-site bread, Basque cheesecake, salted pecan rye brownies, chocolate babka croissant loaves and sourdough pretzels, which can be bought on site or pre-order. She also offers online courses, tips and tutorials.
Buns From Home
Having launched from a private kitchen at the time of the first lockdown, Buns From Home is now a thriving bakery just off Portobello that attracts a daily throng of customers, partly due to the success of their feature cinnamon and cardamom buns. There are plenty more baked treats to enjoy, including a range of tempting buns in flavours such as tiramisu, cheesecake and pistachio and coconut, along with a savoury Croque monsieur focaccia. You can also order home delivery.
Set up by two local entrepreneurs, Margot specialises in sourdough and a small team of bakers take three to four days to produce each of Margot’s signature breads: sourdough staples and takes on classic ryes. This is one of London’s must-visit bakeries, which focuses heavily on ingredients. Among their most popular offerings are the tahini and halva, chocolate and cinnamon babkas and the changing sourdough pastries including such delights as twice-baked apple croissants.
This always-popular lakeside café serves up an all-day breakfast menu, in which full fry-ups, Sri Lankan hoppers and classic avocado toast all features. This is perfect place for a long-weekend morning in Victoria Park but they also offer two other East London bakeries, on Broadway Market and Columbia Road, providing fresh breads and flaky pastries, while they even have a bakery in Newquay, Cornwall, which has a loyal following.
This Hackney hotspot is extremely popular, thanks to its specialty bread, the Hackney Wild, a blend of heritage and modern wheat grains, reputed to be chef Michel Roux Jr’s favourite in the city. Based in a Hackney railway arch, the café fully committed to sustainability and high-quality goods. All of their bread is made by hand with organic and locally sourced ingredients and packaged in biodegradable products. The menu changes daily but includes such delights as sausage rolls, sourdough pizzas and lemon drizzle cakes.
This bakery has enjoyed a rapid rise to fame as head baker and owner Claire Ptak was chosen to bake the lemon and elderflower wedding cake for Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding. Yet fame hasn’t changed the basic Dalston charm of this bakery. Cakes can be made to order but the East London shop also sells a range of delights for walk-in customers, including cupcakes and whoopie pies: two biscuity cake sides topped and filled with seasonal buttercream.