The day Room Forty met Paul Hollywood’s Mother in Real Bread Week…

Cowburn’s Artisan Bakery
Cowburn’s Artisan Bakery

Over the past decade sourdough has become oh so fashionable, the hipster favourite – but there are a few bakeries that have been quietly producing it for years – if you know where to find them. The modest shopping parade on Buxton Road in High Lane on the outer fringes of Stockport is home to Cowburn’s Artisan Bakery run with passion by Rick Cowburn.

Rick is a sourdough master. Forget the scorched and blackened sourdough’s sold by hipsters at Artisan Markets, Rick’s sourdough loaves are, simply, perfect. No rock hard crusts with a hollow interior, Cowburn’s loaves are beautifully textured, beautifully baked, delicious tasting bread. 

Britain’s Best Bakery?

Predating Bake Off the Professionals by six years, Britain’s Best Bakery was an ITV competition that ran on daytime TV from 2012 to 2014. Cowburn’s were North West & Scotland Regional Champion and only missed out on the final by a whisker. Rick’s tales of what went on behind the scenes in the competition are hilarious.

At Room Forty we think we know a bit about bread, but admit to being novices compared to Rick’s own skill. Rick served his time in kitchens all over the UK including working as Pastry Chef for the legendary John Tovey at the Miller Howe and a stint at the Michelin starred Samling. Rick was appointed as Pastry Chef at the Cliveden to set it back on track and rebuild its baking reputation following a savage review of their Afternoon Tea by Michael Winner in The Sunday Times. His new team was soon to include baker, Paul Hollywood. Rick still uses Mr H’s ‘Mother’ sourdough starter. 

There is little that Rick doesn’t know about baking and his enthusiasm and sense of humour are infectious.

When he offered to let us join him in the bakery for a day we jumped at the chance, even if it did mean a 5.30 start – a full hour after Rick himself had got going – as he does six days a week.

Paul Hollywood’s mother at Cowburn’s Artisan Bakery?

Sourdough is a living thing; natural yeast fuelled by the Mother – in this case, Paul Hollywood’s. It is a labour of love and care. ‘I think of my loaves as like my children, that’s the way you have to’, says Rick, ‘you need to raise them, look after them as they grow. Many is the time I’ll check on them in the middle of the night’.

‘I love baking bread. It is not like pastry. Bread has to be managed, developed and nurtured. I find the whole process very mindful. I’m in my zone in here, often oblivious to what is going on out there in the street’.

Think you’ve tried Sourdough?

You possibly have. Possibly haven’t. Last year Which? Magazine exposed most bread sold as sourdough as ‘Sour-faux’ with supermarkets being the worst culprits. A true sourdough takes its own time to ferment and grow. Forty eight hours with constant checking is not uncommon. Sadly there is no legal definition of the term Sourdough – or indeed ‘artisan’, or even ‘bread’ – so the product you buy can be full of all sorts of additives. Cowburn’s is the real deal. It’s just flour, salt, water and the mother starter. It is real Bread Week this week where the focus of the campaign is to raise awareness of what is, and isn’t REAL bread.

Simplicity is its key

‘Many intolerances are down to the rubbish that is in commercial bread,’ adds Rick, ‘true sourdough is easy on the gut. It’s a natural ferment full of pre biotics’.

Dan Kirwan is the other member of the Cowburn’s team. The speed that the duo works at is phenomenal. A team working in harmony, other than exchanging banter they both seem to know what the other is up to without having to discuss it. Tidy to a fault, the bakery is spotless. Dan joined Rick a couple of years ago. ‘I’ve never come across anyone who learned so fast’, says Rick.

A sign of the times and the demise of the high street, retail sales are largely negligible midweek with most of Cowburn’s product being sold at farm shops and going out to restaurants. The bakery is in fact technically closed in the week, but the door is always open and while we are there several people pop in to see what’s on offer. 

Saturday is the big retail day when a variety of breads, pies, croissants, potato cakes, cinnamon buns, egg custard tarts, muffins and sometimes the ‘High Lane cake’ (Rick’s own take on an Eccles cake) are on sale. We visited on a Wednesday morning and as we setting off to leave Rick was starting his Viennoise dough for the croissant – naturally powered by the Mother starter. The dough was going into the fridge – a process that will take 50 or so hours to complete. Truly a labour of love but the taste and quality difference is phenomenal.

Get there early on a Saturday – they are only open until they are sold out. See you in the queue!

Cowburn’s Artisan Bakery, 119 Buxton Road, High Lane Village, Stockport SK6 8DX, 01663 810020