Cin'Sational

19th September 2014

“All I’ve ever done is baking,” says Paul, 49. At the age of 17 he took on a Friday night job at Elsums Bakery in Bushey. Within a couple of weeks he’d gone full time. It was the start of a love affair with ingredients and process – and it turned into a long-term relationship that flourishes to this day. “It was all craft,” he says, “all done properly. I’ve only every worked for people who’ve done it properly.”

He stayed with Elsums for five years, learning both on the job and, for the final 12 months, at Cassio College Baking Course on day release. There were nights when he had less than three hours sleep before going off to college; he even added evening classes – baking and cake decorating – into the mix. He’s a man who is clearly both driven and in possession of some extra hours in every 24 that the rest of us don’t know about.

After Elsums he moved on to the day shift at Stanmore Hill Bakery, getting his hands in to more than just bread. He loved it – but he still wanted more. He gave up his job, travelled four times a week to Barking, the nearest place where there was a full-time Technical Baking course, and spent the fifth day on a placement at the Chorleywood Flour Milling and Bakery Research Association laboratories. That initiated a real passion – “Bakery Science is what I really love”, he admits – and led, after his course, to a full-time job.

I’m really surprised to hear this. Paul loves ‘proper’ bread – when I take up a place at one of his bread-making courses his enthusiasm lights up the day – and given that the FMBRA is responsible for the now notorious Chorleywood Bread Process, I’d have expected him to be dismissive. He shakes his head. “In its day it was a great achievement.” I'm surprised, too, to hear that Cinnamon Square – filled as it is with the wonderful aroma of fresh baking – sells hardly any bread. Paul half-shrugs; after years in the bread-making world, he understands people's lifestyles and motivations. “It's not only price-driven,” he says. “It's convenience-driven.”

And that leaves him with a dilemma. “I love bread with a passion… but to be sustainable, we have to focus on other things.”

Fortunately, the rest of his career, pre-Cinnamon Square, has given him such broad knowledge that I rather think he could turn his hand to anything. It’s certainly no surprise to hear that he has a book in the pipeline, nor that he was one of the advisors to The Great British Bake-Off before the series launched; the Technical Challenge segment was, in fact, his suggestion. He calls it a “fantastic programme” and the Technical Challenge “the best bit.” He’s generous in his praise of Paul Hollywood, too, although he does admit that he disagrees with some of his techniques. “But the programme has done very well for baking, and that’s fabulous.”

After four years at Chorleywood, during which the FMBRA ceased to be government-funded and started to do contract work “instead of good-of-the-nation work”. Paul moved on to United Biscuits at High Wycombe. He worked on the relaunch of Mini-Cheddars – I raise my eyebrows and he laughs; “new and improved,” he says cheerfully – and was in at the start of the Go Ahead brand. Then came a move to Puratos, a Belgian company with sites across Europe, Scandinavia, America and Canada, who make “everything that a baker would want or need”. He ended up as Technical Manager, with quality control, assurance, training, demos and service all in his brief.

He was there nine years in all, and he loved it, but all the time, under the surface, the conviction was growing that he and his wife Tricia, 47, could do something more, something different. The lightbulb moment came one afternoon over coffee and dessert in the Waffle House in St Albans: they would set up their own bakery… more than a bakery… somewhere that would become a destination… with coffee, classes, courses. I can hear the ideas spilling out all over again as Paul recalls their mounting enthusiasm.

It was the obvious next step for them both (Tricia’s commercial background includes years of experience in marketing) but it took two years from conception to opening. Frustrating at the time, of course, that slow process eventually proved very beneficial. The analogy to bread-making is irresistible: time to select the right mix of ingredients, time for activation, time to let it prove and finish it to perfection. Along with finding the right location – which was always going to be Rickmansworth; Paul and Tricia have lived in the town for over 20 years – and a landlord who’d trust them, they worked with a branding company, recommended by Coffee Republic, who helped them formalise and coalesce their ideas, create something credible. Paul had, for example, seen cinnamon buns being made in the States, and he started to develop his own version. The agency helped them come up with the name, Cinnamon Square, for both product and shop, and the sense of theatre that would go along with it.

That was, astonishingly, eight years ago, and much of what they dreamed and planned has come to fruition, even if they would like to be selling more bread. The cinnamon square bun became their logo, their signature product and the winner of a Good Taste Award in 2007. It’s not the only accolade that Paul and Tricia have won; they’ve had repeated recognition by the Baking Industry Awards in a range of categories, including Marketing, Craft Business and Skills Achievement. In 2013, the Ricky Sticky Bun, newly launched, won the speciality category at the World Bread Awards.

Just this month they won the Innovation Category at the Baking Industry Awards with a product developed when Paul entered the company into the second series of Britain’s Best Bakery earlier this year. Their Wild Card Challenge in the regional finals was to incorporate orange and shortcrust pastry into one delicious dish… and ‘The Orange’ was born: two halves of orange shortcrust pastry, one filled with layers of caramelised oranges, Grand Marnier orange curd and a rich dark chocolate ganache, the other with a light orange mousse and each encased in a delicate layer of Belgian chocolate. The judges had declared it the ‘best wild card of the series’ and it helped Paul and his colleague Hazel Carmichael to win the Home Counties round of the programme. When they launched The Orange instore, they sold 400 in the first month alone.

Paul recalls that he and Hazel were noted, even teased, during filming for the severity of their methodical, meticulous approach. “Timers, thermometers… we had it all. Everyone thought it a bit over the top, really, but it’s just how I work.”

I can confirm that. I signed up to learn how to make bread with Paul and a diverse group of fellow students (including a retired lawyer exploring new options for her newly free diary, an accountant who’d been given the day as a 60th birthday present, and a mother and her home-schooled teenage daughter looking for a project to take forward) and one thing was clear: skills and experience varied wildly but Paul knew that we could all turn out great loaves if we bought into his philosophy. He likes to call it the measured approach. “More accuracy leads to more consistency,” he said, as he drummed into us the need to be precise. The instructions kept coming. Weigh in grams. Weigh liquids; don’t measure them. Use a plastic bowl for better temperature control. Hold it in one hand; mix with the other. Always keep one hand clean.

Paul’s objective in this masterclass is to teach us how to make traditional English tin bread by hand using minimal equipment. He underpins the basics with information about the science behind the ingredients, the recipes and the methods, to shore up a student’s confidence for trying this at home. He’s focused, and keen that we are, but it’s a relaxed, entertaining day. Physically it’s hard work, of course, but it’s leavened with plenty of laughter, and by the end of the course you find you’ve absorbed the tips and the logical processes without really thinking about it.

His recipes are straightforward, with ridiculously few ingredients, especially if you compare them to the long list you’ll find on the back of a processed loaf packet, most of which are there simply to assist with the processing and the life, and which add nothing to the taste.

Once we’ve mastered both white and wholemeal from scratch (we even cut lunch short by the need to shape the wholemeal loaf; timing is everything in the measured approach), Paul produces more dough and gives us some tuition in plaiting: first three strands, then four. We watch, draw little diagrams and fail to understand them. Much hysteria ensues before, miraculously, we all ‘get it’, and trays of loaves are ready to go into the oven. We leave at the end of the day with bags stuffed full of bread of our own making. Only one loaf remains behind… unloved, unwanted. It’s the example loaf that Paul made in a domestic breadmaker, to demonstrate that it really wasn’t as time-saving as we’d like to believe. Not only did it take longer than making by hand, it just didn’t look very nice either. Better than processed, certainly, but not as tempting or as satisfying as the real deal, which was – no other word for it – cin’sational…

See www.cinnamonsquare.com

Find Your Local