‘Baking got me through my depression – now I’m running a successful business with my dad’

·10-min read
Kitty Tait baking small business bakery
Kitty Tait baking small business bakery

‘I didn’t know how to function any more. And then, one day, I watched my dad make a really simple overnight bread, mixing flour, salt and yeast in a bowl. Watching something so simple transform into something so magical made me feel safe,” Kitty Tait, 17, recalls of the single loaf that altered the course of her life. Her father Al’s “miracle overnight white” – proved overnight and baked in a casserole dish – results in a crunchy crust and a pillowy crumb. Inspired by Jim Lahey’s no-knead bread method, it is the first recipe the father-and-daughter duo share in their debut book, Breadsong: How Baking Changed Our Lives.

In the first half of the book, Kitty and Al tell the story of how they immersed themselves in the world of baking and bread, and eventually opened a bakery in the Oxfordshire market town of Watlington, where they live. At the time, 14-year-old Kitty was in the grip of overwhelming anxiety and depression. “There were days and days of feeling lost and incomplete and not wanting to exist at all,” she writes. “I wanted to take my brain out, wash it, and put it back.” Everyday tasks were unmanageable. On the days when she could, she’d pull on the pair of orange soft cord Lucy & Yak dungarees after which the Orange Bakery is named.

“The more I baked, the safer I felt,” she recalls, as we tuck into rhubarb and custard Danish pastries (made with butter from the nearby Nettlebed Creamery in Henley-on-Thames), foraged wild garlic croissants, Marmite blondies and a blistered sourdough loaf interspersed with prunes. “I spent my days either learning about or baking bread, absorbing as much as I could.” At a time when she couldn’t even watch TV, let alone attend school, the crackling sound of an expanding crust (the “breadsong”, after which the book is named) captured her fractured attention.

Al, then a teacher working with dyslexic undergraduates at Oxford University, recounts how powerless he and Kitty’s mother, Katie – communications director for the cancer charity Maggie’s – felt. Unable to make sense of what was happening to their youngest child and why, they set out to support Kitty as best they could, while also parenting her older siblings, Aggie and Albert. “The only thing we could do was keep on being there for Kit. Baking gave us a toehold,” remembers Al.

What happened next was never part of a plan. One loaf led to another. Kitty began to drop excess loaves off to neighbours’ doorsteps on her bike with hand-written notes in brown paper bags, emblazoned with the potato-printed orange that would become their logo. “We were worried people would think they’d been bread-bombed,” says Kitty, “but our subscription service was born.” She created a loaf she called “the Comfort”, made with Marmite (“the crust tastes like Twiglets”) and to meet demand, she began borrowing her neighbour Juliet’s oven. “Each evening I would go between houses, like a quiet elf in my pyjamas. All I could think about was bread.”

Next, a determined Kitty set her sights on mastering sourdough. She sent off for a sourdough starter from the Hobbs House Bakery in Bristol, named it Ferguson and nurtured it, before making another from scratch to keep him company – Muriel, fermented with the wild yeast microbes of an apple. After a period of trial and error, guided by James Morton’s book Brilliant Bread, she sent letters to Chad Robertson and Elisabeth Pruiett at Tartine Bakery in San Francisco, famed worldwide for their sourdough, and lobbied her parents for a Rofco oven, which could take 12 loaves in one go. A pop-up bakery followed in the town’s Pilates studio, publicised by “yarn-bombing” (an ingenious guerilla marketing tactic whereby hundreds of orange pom-poms appeared on railings, gates and lamp posts, to the extent that “Watlington looked like it had been hit by a tsunami of satsumas”).

At this point, a cautious and less impulsive Al, who had stopped teaching (“there really wasn’t any way of putting a time frame on Kit’s recovery, and we knew we just had to commit to her”), began to realise that his daughter’s obsession with baking was taking them into uncharted territory. “I felt a bit of a fraud. I was a teacher who was doing a bit of baking to help my daughter and I hadn’t signed up anywhere for this to be my life change.”

Still, when a shop became available to rent on Watlington’s high street (opposite family-run butcher Calnan Brothers, where Kitty and Al now source the meat for their sausage rolls), a bricks-and-mortar site seemed inevitable. There was one obstacle: the funding. But that was overcome by an astounding response to Kitty’s Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign. “We gave ourselves three weeks to get £5,000. Within 48 hours we’d hit our target, and in three weeks we’d doubled it. Some investors were friends who wanted to help, but there were also strangers and bakers worldwide, from Elisabeth Pruiett in America to Pophams Bakery in Hackney. The support wasn’t only financial. There was so much belief in what we were doing, and it gave us the confidence we needed.”

The bakery opened in May 2019. Today, a hand-painted mural of oranges, each inked with the name of an investor (including the actor Jeremy Irons, a local resident, and the pop star Sophie Ellis-Bextor), is painted on a navy-blue feature wall. The distressed wood interior was crafted by local carpenter Kristian Lucas of Rust and Woodchips, who uses reclaimed wood. Other than bread, it’s decorated with things that Kitty and Al “just liked” – old Ovaltine tins, battered Penguin books, and a set of 1950s orange weighing scales. Queues have snaked out of the door ever since.

That September, Al decided to “let go” of his guilt about Kitty’s education and the thought of her ever returning to school. “Both Katie and I realised we had to relinquish the idea of pushing her along some sort of traditional education route, as it wasn’t going to be right for her.” Although they worried they might be cutting off options for Kitty in later life, now that Kitty’s mental health had improved, she was learning voraciously, if unconventionally, and without following a strict curriculum. “Watching how Kitty was devouring information made us reluctant to channel her back into GCSEs.”

Teachers from her old school gave Kitty a steer in a range of subjects, and Al topped up her learning with maths “geared towards the real hurdles of business rather than the abstract ones of geometry and quadratic equations”. The fact that Kitty was their third child made Al and Katie more relaxed. “Aggie and Albert had gone through mainstream education, so we weren’t trying to make any radical point.” As well as baking, Kitty is often to be found occupying her mind by delving into specialist topics via podcasts, or teaching herself Danish. The bakery isn’t open every day, which gives her the time to dedicate to learning.

“Sometimes I think, where would I be without baking?” reflects Kitty. “But I can’t even contemplate it. My life has gone down this path now. Sometimes it can be a little bit lonely, because there aren’t many 17-year-olds who run a bakery, but equally, it’s incredibly unlonely. There are so many bakers worldwide who are passionate about bread. It’s really unifying.

“Nothing about our story was planned, from the very first loaf of bread to the bakery. The book wasn’t planned either. We were approached by an agent through my Instagram account, which planted the seed of the idea and in 2020, we decided that we’d come a really long way, and began writing.” The way the story is told is almost pen-pal like, switching alternately between Al’s words and Kitty’s.

“I thought writing the book would be quite lovely, and it was – but revisiting how it all began was really hard,” Kitty recalls. “Before I wrote the book, I still felt really embarrassed that there had been times I couldn’t get out of bed, or that I’d sit on a bench and cry. I’d blocked a lot of it out. Going back to those memories was painful, but there was a turning point where I decided I wanted to be completely honest. The more I wrote and the more I relived those memories, the more I began to see it through different eyes. I saw that what happened wasn’t me being ‘weak’. It made me want to be really nice to and unashamed of 14-year-old me, and to own that part of my life.”

At 14, Kitty’s anxiety made even a two-hour car journey to Gloucestershire with Al (to visit Danielle Ellis, who runs bakery classes at her home) a near impossibility. Now, as she approaches her 18th birthday, she has completed stages at numerous other bakeries; staying in a hostel while working at Hart Bageri in Copenhagen, and honing her craft at the likes of Layla’s Bakery on the Portobello Road and Rye by the Water in Brentford.

The Orange Bakery is now a fully-fledged business, which brings in a source of income for the family, made possible by the fact that Al and Kitty (who work from 5am until 2pm when the bakery is open) took over the old Scout Hut in the town, investing in bigger ovens and fridges, which gave them more space and freed Kitty up a little to focus on the creative side of things.

“All I want to do in the future is travel, and bake. I’m a bread geek, and there’s so much more I want to learn. It’s in every community, in so many shapes, forms and flavours. You can learn so much about a culture through bread. Being able to bake and work in other places gives purpose to travelling,” she says. “The second thing I’d love to do is make sourdough more inclusive. It can be intimidating, but I want to make sourdough achievable for everybody, and help other people to discover the joy of it.”

Five of Kitty Tait’s favourite bakeries

“From the beginning, other bakers would talk to Kitty as a baker, not as a 14-year-old girl,” says Al. Here are just a few of the bakeries that inspired her along the way

Hart’s Bakery in Bristol

“Long wooden tables of people dunking hunks of sourdough bread into soup. Beyond the counter you can see the bakers pulling loaves out of the ovens, and the menu is brimming with different flavours and ideas.”

@hartsbakery

Ten Belles Bread in Paris

“A few blocks away from the Canal du Midi, no attempt has been made to dress it up. The loaves are almost black, but when you rip off a hunk of crust they have a rich brown crumb, which is fresh and light.”

Pophams Bakery in Hackney and Islington

Pophams founder Ollie Gold gave Kitty an old spare mixer early on in the story of the Orange Bakery, which she named Margo. “The mixing by hand took hours and had given me the biceps of Dwayne ‘the Rock’ Johnson.”

@pophamsbakery

Northern Rye in Newcastle

“Just like us, Northern Rye started out with just a couple of little Rofco ovens. They inspired our recipe for bialys. They look like the love child of a bagel and a pizza and were made by Ashkenazi Jews in Bialystok (hence the name) in Poland. Dad’s favourite filling is a blob of camembert and chutney.”

Za’atar Bake in Oxford

“We first came across fatayers, a type of flatbread, at this epic café run by Mahmoud on the Cowley Road. He’s passionate about bread and you can see his bakers baking in a huge, ferociously hot domed oven.”

@zaatarbake

Breadsong: How Baking Changed Our Lives is out now, and available to buy from Telegraph Books. Follow @kittytaitbaker on Instagram

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