It all started in a dining room in Crouch End.
During the first confinement, Sophia Sutton-Jones made a loaf of spelled bread for a neighbor who had some health problems.
He was impressed, so asked her to do it for him regularly.
Other neighbors also asked, in an increasingly busy WhatsApp group as Lockdown Sourdough Madness took hold.
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“Within a few weeks, I was making 90 loaves a day and only baking twice a week,” explains Sophia. “I had to take care of an eight-month-old baby as well as my mini bakery.”
Her guest room became a flour room, the dining room was the bakery, and the kitchen was full of dough bins.
Demand was only increasing, so they moved to a small industrial unit in Finsbury Park where they cooked, and Sophia’s partner Jesse Sutton-Jones delivered everything by bicycle.
However, after an accident in which the ovens were left on with the fermentation baskets inside, the black smoke pouring from them made them realize that they must be in a real bakery, with people.
So Sourdough Sophia, a beautiful little pink-fronted bakery on Middle Lane, was opened.
After a hugely successful Kickstarter campaign, they officially opened on Christmas Eve last year and are now selling up to 300 loaves and 400 pastries a day.
The sign on the door says, “Sourdough is for life (not just for containment!)” – and that seems to be true.
Initially, they were open Wednesday through Saturday; they added Tuesday in August and Sunday in November.
Even after lockdown, it seems our sourdough mania is going nowhere.
But where the Sourdough Sophia really shines, in my opinion, is the pastries.
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The displays are stunning and behind the checkouts are trays of almond croissants ready to be enlarged, the sweet dough and almond flakes oozing onto golden layers of crispy dough.
I lived in Paris, and I tell him that it’s really the last place where I had such a good pastry.
She’s a little shy to brag, but says, “I’ve heard a lot of French people say ‘It’s the only croissant I can have outside of Paris that’s good’.”
I feel vindicated – but not as vindicated as Sophia who goes on to list all the ways they broke the rules laid down by the French baking gods.
For starters, no one on the team has gone through the years of training pastry chefs go through – all are self-taught in six months.
“We went through a good six months of pain, reaching out to everyone we could for tips and tricks,” says Sophia.
“I have many baker friends all over the world who have helped me almost every day.”
She would simply send photos of their efforts and ask questions about anything that looked wrong – the look, the taste; “We dig into all the details – from how hot the butter should be, to the consistency of the dough, to how long it should rise.
“These are fine-tuning details that take years to perfect: we did it in six months.”
As if that didn’t bother French pastry chefs enough, they don’t use French flour either, only British flour; they don’t use French butter, only British cultured butter from a small company; they use a different layering technique and they use brown sugar instead of white.
“French pastry chefs would probably ask ‘What’s wrong with you?’,” she says, “but it all just adds a nice flavor.”
Another thing their pastries have over the ones I remember (very fondly!) from Paris is that they are not afraid to experiment.
During their weekly brainstorming sessions, they dreamed up crazy creations such as Danish French Onion Soup, Croissant Baklava and Marmite and Leicester Red Cruffin.
“I let everyone roam free and try different ideas,” Sophia says, although of course many just don’t work, like a creamy raspberry cruffin that will never see the light of day.
Even now, she has her eye on a panettone dough that the team is trying out and hoping to release soon – it’s three days of work with many complex and co-dependent steps.
One of the team members is much older than the others, and it turns out that the handsome man in his sixties is Sophia’s father, who comes from his home near Frankfurt in Germany.
A trained baker who began his three-year apprenticeship at age 14, he was never able to realize his dream of having his own bakery.
Now, whenever he comes, all he wants to do is work with his daughter in the kitchen.
Sophia grew up in Germany and started baking with her dad when she was four – and today he just taught her how to make sourdough stollen.
For a time, she dabbled in marketing, putting off her dream of owning a bakery in part because it’s so risky for anyone who wants to make a decent living.
“Then we had a child, and we put it off even more – and then when covid hit, we thought, ‘Do we have anything to lose now?'”
She used her savings to buy materials, and now almost a year later her dream has come true and there are queues in the street.
And listen, I’m trying to be professional, but what am I gonna do, do not buy a loaf of bread and three pastries, including the best-seller (a passion fruit curd cruffin on the inside and raspberry sugar on the outside)?
It would be madness.
I walk out into Crouch End leaving the bakers to their folding, rolling, big tubs of fluffy, bubbly dough.
Yeah, I think I can delay my next trip to Paris a bit.
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