Tuesday, 8 July 2014
Baltic Bakehouse, Liverpool
Think of the Baltic Triangle as Liverpool's Dalston - a previously run-down area of old heavy industry finding new life as an area for creative upstarts and independent restaurants and cafés. Wandering around the area bordered by Wapping/The Strand, Parliament Street and Park Lane/St James St at first nothing seems to have changed much; weeds grow up old brick walls enclosing sleepy timber yards, the skeletal frames of long-since collapsed buildings house that depressingly familiar Liverpool sight, the temporary car park.
But look a little closer, and the signs of a renaissance of sorts are clear enough. On Blundell Street, a handsome old converted warehouse is now artists' studios and the Lantern Theatre, a family run venue, in their words "dedicated to the development and delivery of new talent". Round the corner on Greenland Street is perhaps Liverpool's most wilfully insane food/party venue, Camp and Furnace, who describe themselves as an "indoor festival park". Here you can watch the football on the big screen while eating slow-smoked pork ribs and drinking (at least when I last looked) some colourfully eclectic cocktails (Moroccan lemonade?). And a billion other things as well - the Camp and Furnace guys seem to reinvent themselves every few days.
But to me, the most exciting corner of the Baltic Triangle isn't anything so self-consciously hip as a live music and streetfood venue, or a cutting-edge theatre showing challenging new plays. It's a little café and bakery on Bridgwater Street that does that most old-fashioned of things - makes bread and cakes and sandwiches, and sells them for not very much money to eat on the premises or take away. And that's pretty much all it is.
OK, that's really not all it is, not by a long stretch. Baltic Bakehouse make by far the best bread and cakes in Liverpool, and certainly have a claim on the whole of the North West. The sourdough is a towering achievement, a thin, firm crust containing a ever-so-slightly tacky crumb, full of flavour and an absolute steal at £3.50 a loaf. Price is, unsurprisingly, where the Liverpool Dalston differs substantially from the London Dalston - there's a bakery near Hackney Road that sells a walnut sourdough for £14. And you can guarantee there's plenty of people pay it.
Alongside their signature loaf, Baltic have a rotating menu of guest breads such as Olive Wild (it's got olives in), a wonderful bouncy, moist focaccia with a topping of crunchy baked rosemary, and baguettes that wouldn't be out of place in the finest French boulangerie.
The quality control is high - nothing makes it to the shelves without exhaustive tasting and unless everything is as good as it can possibly be. For this reason, croissants are yet to find a permanent place on the menu as they weren't quite happy with the way they turned out, and it can be frustrating to fall in love with a particular item only for it to disappear for a few weeks for extensive reworking or because oven space is taken up trying new things (*cough* salted caramel chocolate tarts *cough* bring them back you bastards *cough*).
The upside of these high standards, though, is that you can pretty much guarantee anything available on any particular day is going to be absolute knockout. The Chelsea buns are extraordinary, little folded golden brown parcels of butter and cinnamon with a bright white crumb, the best I've ever tried and believe me I've had a few. The custard tarts (sliced or individual) are also wonderful, the custard firm without being eggy, bright-white and with a delicate thin pastry. And the salted caramel chocolate tarts... perhaps it's a good job they're not a permanent feature, I can see myself doing some real damage. I've never had much in the way of willpower.
It is, quite understandably, hugely popular and Saturdays the queues very often trail down the street. But good news for Baltic Bakehouse fans that don't like queueing is that they're currently overseeing the food offering at Hardman St pub the Fly in the Loaf, so you can enjoy your sourdough alongside a huge selection of world beers in one of Liverpool's more attractive old pubs (and there's some competition in that regard).
More than the quality of the product on offer though, is the enormously satisfying situation of a small, independent artisan producer doing what they do, creating their own market for proper organic bread and patisserie in a city yet to fall too far out of love with their nearest branch of Gregg's, and for it to be a complete runaway success. It all goes to show that however dispirited it's possible to get with the state of British food, there are always reasons to be hopeful. And for that, and for Baltic Bakehouse in particular, we should be eternally grateful.