The Return of Justin Piers Gellatly
I visited Justin at his new bakery where he is making us 500 spicy buns for the launch party tonight.
Justin & Louise Gellatly
I rose at four in the morning, walked down through the lonely City streets and crossed empty London Bridge to arrive at Borough Market where, in the shadow of Southwark Cathedral, Justin Piers Gellatly opened his new bakery recently. The reason I got up so early and why Justin’s progress is of such interest to me is that, for the last five years, I have been in thrall to his baking. Quite simply, Justin makes the best bread I ever tasted in my life. Some might describe him as a prince among bakers but I would call him the king.
This spring, after thirteen years, Justin left St John where he had been head baker, to take care of his sister who was unwell, but now he is back with a bakery of his own and he has brought his wife, Louise, along too. “I had planned to do something of my own eventually,” Justin admitted, “but Matt Jones of Bread Ahead offered me a partnership in the business, so I have complete control and I can do my own thing.”
It all started at a special service in Southwark Cathedral in September. “I made the sour dough starter in the Cathedral and the priest blessed it and I carried it back to the bakery and it’s gone like a rocket!” Justin confided to me, widening his eyes in wonder.
“We start at three or four in the morning and finish around twelve,” he continued wistfully, “we’re trying to avoid the nocturnal and see more daylight.” Across the other side of the bakery, Louise was man-handling heavy sacks. Previously a chef and now just a few weeks into her apprenticeship to her husband as a baker, she was making dough. “It’s the most important job,” Justin assured me while Louise wrestled with bags of flour,“but it’s also the least glamorous side of baking because it’s handling lots of heavy stuff.” Wiping perspiration from her brow and persevering with the task in hand, Louise did not disagree. “Louise is the focaccia queen,” he added in a respectful whisper, “she’s nailed it.”
With Justin wearing his square hat and Louise in her headscarf, and both swathed in their aprons, the pair look for all the world like medieval images of Mr & Mrs Noah from Noah’s Ark – and it was obvious they make an effective double act in the bakery too. “We have been together twenty-four years – since we were sixteen,” Justin revealed, “We ran off to Las Vegas and got married a few years back.”
The modestly sized new bakery supplies restaurants nearby and they sell their bread from a stall in the market six days a week – but soon they plan to open a baking school and teach others how to bake. “It will be a good thing,” Justin declared to me, turning evangelical, “because there’s not enough good bakers around.”
All this time, as we spoke, he had been working – taking the sour dough and white crusty loaves from their shaping baskets, tipping them onto the wooden peal (which he uses to put them in the oven), scoring them with a razor blade and baking them. Within fifty minutes, Justin was taking out his beautiful loaves, golden and brown, and they commenced their strange crackling sound as they cooled – which Justin calls ‘the loaves singing.’
Then it was on to making raisin bread and spelt bread and rye bread and ginger loaf and bread pudding and cheese & olive sticks – and thus the night wore away and the pile of Justin’s baking grew and grew, like Rumpelstiltskin spinning straw into gold. Blue dawn rose over London Bridge Station and the Shard became visible, as much of it that was not concealed by cloud. The first trains of commuters were rumbling overhead while, from Justin’s warm humid world below, the hot fresh bread was being carried away to local restaurants and cafes for breakfast service. Justin’s night of work had produced seven hundred beautiful loaves, every one checked by him to ensure it met his personal standard.
With enviable stamina, Justin & Louise carried on working furiously but weariness overcame me and so, laden with gifts from the bakery, I stumbled home through the City where the pavements were now filled with grey-faced office workers filing to their desks. It was not yet daylight when I fell into my bed in Spitalfields and dreamed of the seven kilo ‘Cathedral Loaf’ that Justin promised to bake for the launch of my Album tonight.
Bread Ahead, Bakery & Baking School, Cathedral St – Borough Market Stall, Mon – Sat
Read my other stories about Justin Piers Gellatly