Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Where have all the bakeries gone?

I have one word for you: Gregg's. Funnily enough, my first ever job was with Gregg's in St Andrews, then called "Baker's Oven". This was 2005, and not many people had heard about the baking phenomena which has spread across the country like a virus, taking residence on pretty much every high street across the UK. Manchester, like most cities in Britain now, is swarming with Gregg's, and we have welcomed their low prices and quick & easy lunchtime snacks with open arms. We know that the pastries aren't made freshly on site, but it doesn't put us off in this tough economic climate; we want a cheap, tasty fix and we don't ask questions. That said, I know first-hand that the sandwiches and baguettes are prepared on site every day or so, and the puddings are shipped in a day or two before so everything is reasonably fresh. The pastries are transported into the shops in bulk - frozen - then oven-baked for about 20 minutes so they come out hot, crispy and alluring!

Having grown up in St Andrews, an idyllic little Scottish town famous for Will & Kate and its invention of golf, I have been lucky to always have a traditional, local bakery. Baker's Oven was one of those cafes that my friends and I would just walk past and not notice, despite it being located on the main shopping street in the town. If we fancied a gingerbread man or a millionaire shortbread, the place to visit was Fisher & Donaldson (who appear to have a website!) - your quintessential bakery where everything is undoubtedly homemade and tastes utterly divine. The service was (and I'm sure still is) very personal - with it being a small town, everyone tends to know everyone! I remember it got to the point where I would enter the shop and the man behind the counter would see me and say "A gingerbread man for you today, my dear?". That is the kind of banter I love about these oldy-worldy places - and something we are fast-losing on our high streets. Don't worry, I'm not about to do a Mary Portas, but the decline in British bakeries (in particular those baking their own fresh produce) is something of a tragedy, in my eyes, that has gone rather unnoticed as big supermarket chains have fundamentally changed the way in which we shop.

Now the reason I come to talk about this is because of my recent move to China Town in Manchester city centre. It would appear that the British bakery is alive and well in China Town! We have a choice between Wong Wong's on Princess Street (just down from the Manchester Art Gallery) and Ho's Bakery on Faulkner Street (by the Chinese arch). I remember prior to my first Chinese bakery visit, I felt a bit nervous about venturing into the unknown and wasn't quite sure what to expect. From my experience of Chinese restaurants, I hadn't thought that Chinese cuisine was very focused on its 'sweet' offering. But you will be pleasantly surprised.

Both bakeries have a lot of desserts in common, so I will talk about them generally. There is a great selection of buns and rolls - both savoury and sweet. These include honey buns, pineapple buns, chicken curry buns, ham & egg buns, custard buns and coconut buns. I would liken the dough to that of brioche - white, sweet and delicious (please feel free to contact me about the detail of each type!). Wong Wong's do a great chocolate-filled bun in the shape of a tortoise, whilst Ho's offer mini buns as well as the larger ones so you can try a selection without feeling too guilty. The bakeries also specialise in cakes, with images on their walls of cakes they have made, often decorated with personalised messages. They make cakes for weddings and birthdays primarily, as you would expect, and they are covered with lots of fruit and cream. I have yet to try one myself, but they do look delicious. Prices start at about £8 for a small circular cake, but can go up to over £100 for something larger and more complicated.

A12My favourite dessert at the Chinese bakeries is the mango pudding (also available in coconut flavour at Ho's) which is a creamy mango-flavoured jelly with small mango chunks in it and comes in a clear plastic bowl. The mango puddings at Wong Wong's are less creamy and taste a bit healthier, priced at £1 last time I checked. At Ho's, they are £1.20 and creamier in texture and taste. Both are very yummy indeed!

The bakeries also offer hot and cold drinks, including bubble tea which I think is delicious without the liquorice jelly balls (the bubbles bit!).

Things to avoid: I won't be trying Red Bean cake or pudding again - the flavour was not very nice.
Things to try: Chinese popcorn - looks nothing like the regular stuff, but more like a Rice Krispie bar!
Something to note: Ho's offer a student discount when you spend over a fiver.

A mango pudding, thanks to Happy Home Baking

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