Tour Review: SideStory’s Sweet and savory baked treats in the East End
In London’s ever-changing neighbourhoods which play host to frequent pop-ups, it’s easy to get caught up in the latest this fascinating city has to offer. However, I recently found that experiencing some Old London gems with SideStory was all-too-charming as well.
SideStory curates distinctive and delightful tours with friendly and well-informed guides who have a deep knowledge about their subject. The London tour I embarked upon with them was led by the warm and erudite Naomi Knill, a former lawyer turned food writer who has a fondness for organic Gilchester flour. Naomi puts her culinary expertise and insider knowledge to good use on the specialised foodie tours of London neighbourhoods. So, on a spring day in late March, we met in trendy Shoreditch for a walking tour of the capital’s best bakeries. The stories and insights she went on to share throughout the tour made it exceptionally interesting and localised.
Bagels on Brick Lane
Our first stop of the morning was Beigal Bake. As a New Yorker, it should be noted that I have extremely high standards for bagels; yet this legendary Jewish bakery on Brick Lane does not disappoint. As soon as you walk in the door, you’re hit with wonderful, doughy scents of twice-cooked bagels being prepared in their kitchens. Naomi shared the history of the Jewish community in East London, as well as the linguistic and cultural roots behind the shop’s mouth-watering ‘beigals.’
Beigal Bake is a 40+ year old, 24/7 operation and its ingredients are high quality; to put it plainly, the bagels we readily find in supermarkets have nothing on Beigal Bake. Theirs are soft, moist, chewy and substantial, and when complemented with cream cheese and smoked salmon, simply mouth-watering. To top it all off, their to-go bags are sourced from a local London producer and fourth-generation business – Gardner’s.
The Baking Renaissance
During the walk to our next destination, Naomi discussed how the hit show ‘The Great British Bake Off’ was a major catalyst for the last decade’s baking renaissance in the UK. While so much of today’s food scene is about looks and ‘is that dish Instagram-worthy?,’ by highlighting long-standing bakeries and exciting newcomers in East London, the tour offered a refreshing focus back onto high-quality foods and local institutions. With high rents pushing so many creative chefs and bakers out of the city centre, outlying neighbourhoods are some of London’s most exciting spots for foodies.
Next up was Pavilion, a new-ish British bakery along colourful Columbia Road that has been expanding and opening a few new branches. When we walked in, classic Brit rock was playing, and this intimate café gave off a whiff of cool vibes. Pavilion is part of the rise of ‘real bread’ in London and interestingly enough, the business was inspired by the owner’s time in Sri Lanka. Their sourdough loaf tastes sweet, moist and slightly yeasty, and it has a firm, perfect crust. It’s a tasty treat on its own or with their homemade peanut butter.
Bread for the head
While we strolled over to The Bread Station, Naomi shared its back story. The Bread Station is a collaboration between a Michelin-starred chef and a Danish baking master; its delightful breads and desserts are so good that they’re sold wholesale to restaurants. The café and its outside seating are a lovely place to relax and enjoy the bakery’s organic treats.
The loaf of Danish Rye Naomi picked out exceeded my expectations. It’s moist, dense and somehow light, with the perfect amount of seeds and nuts and a nice crust. The moistness and fruitiness meant it was almost like a cake, but without all of the sugar. Another style of white bread which I tasted had a biga or Italian-style yeast starter. The crust was chewy and the inside moist; it was lovely. The Bread Station offers other sweets which manage to taste both light and flavoursome – such as the flourless chocolate cake and a Hindbaersnitter, which is similar to, but by far much better than any Bakewell tart I’ve ever had.
We continued our walk and all the while, Naomi shared interesting cultural and historical facts about everything from London’s history to the state of the baking industry. During the twentieth century, much of our food supply started to come straight to us from factories instead of farms. That ‘big business’ mentality is a big reason why grains today are usually homogenous and overly processed. That type of production can impact (re: lessen) how nutritious a food is and how tasty it is.
Before Naomi pointed this out, I had never really stopped to consider why artisan bread may cost £4 while a mass-produced supermarket loaf is only 70p. It’s all about quality ingredients and hand-production. So often in today’s world, our bread is made by machines and is full of additives and sugar. The London bakeries we visited are opposed to that business model and are trying to go against the grain.
Subsequently, we’d somehow saved room for a stop at E5 Bakehouse near London Fields. According to Naomi, they were one of the forerunners of the ‘real bread’ scene in London. She picked out an exceptionally tasty bread to try – a classic sourdough with fabulous texture and tang called Hackney Wild. (It was so good that I also brought a loaf of it home!) We were allowed to take a peek into the impressive kitchen and observe the bread making operations in action, and I also learned that E5 Bakehouse buys its grains as local and organic as possible. That day, they proudly had a sign up that they were sourcing from Howard Roberts’s Farm, just 22 miles away in Hertfordshire. E5 Bakehouse mills its grains onsite and even offers creative homemade jams, such as a Raspberry Rose flavour.
The exceptional tour finished at Violet’s, an adorable café near Dalston. There’s a sweet, subtle smell that pulls you in from the outside, and the scent is even more delicious once you step inside. Violet’s butterscotch blondie is heavenly with its subtle flavours and chewy texture, and the mini chocolate cupcakes are perfection.
Best of all is that Naomi confirmed that they’re not packed with tonnes of sugar, either. Like all of the places she chose for today, it was obvious that pure, quality, classic ingredients are a key part of their recipes and success. In general, the more I learned from her, the greater my appreciation was for the high-quality baked treats I sampled.
As a traveller, I adore getting off the beaten track to get a feel for the ‘real’ local’s version of a city, and this is what I feel SideStory does for its guests. One of the things I loved is that they made this tour not just a food fest, but rather an informative, fun glimpse into a burgeoning field that has a growing fan base among modern foodies in Britain. Often, food is not simply sustenance; it is part of the culture and history of a people. As someone who hasn’t been living in Great Britain for very long, this tour was a charming (and delicious) chance to get a feel for local tastes and historical anecdotes.
Naomi had the inside scoop on how to find fantastic hidden and overlooked experiences, and I definitely felt like I’d had a nice sampler of British baking and Old London, not just a walk through ‘hip’ neighbourhoods. This bakery tour through the best of East London’s old school gems and new British bakeries was a fantastic experience, and one I’d love to do all over again.