Interview: Baker Ben Mackinnon

EE talks to Ben Mackinnon about why he started baking, the wood fire oven he built from 100% reclaimed materials, and tips on how to make a good yeast ‘starter’.
Ben Mackinnon
© Dainee Ranaweera
Under the arches of the London Fields train station is Unit 402 Mentmore Terrace. It is home to three businesses,

  • E5 Bakehouse – an organic bakery run by Ben Mackinnon.
  • Happy Kitchen – an organic, non-profit food company run by Lisa Stockton and Ellie Pennington.
  • Mini Magoos – an organic breakfast cereal company run by Maria Jeetoo-Luigi and Justin Aukeela.

A large window in the shop front lets passers by peek into the E5 bakehouse, and as I arrived I noticed Ben in the window complete with his E5 apron on, kneading some dough. The front of the store is relatively small, with Happy Kitchen’s display of attractive organic cakes on the right hand side, and the E5 Bakehouse’s freshly baked loaves on the left hand side of the store. The E5 Bakehouse staples are three sourdoughs: the Hackney Wild, Seeded Spelt, and Bordinsky Rye.

After serving a few customers, Ben joined me at an outside table in front of the shop. Just as we started the interview, a big 10-seater police van pulled up on the other side of the street and 2 officers stopped a couple of adolescents in what looked like a drugs bust. While the 2 officers were handcuffing the teenagers, another 4 officers crossed the road and headed towards the shop. They spotted us outside and said to Ben half-jokingly

“We only came along in the van so that we could come into your shop. One of us is a vegan and some others are trying to lose weight.”

The whole incident was rather surreal. Who would’ve thought that tough drug-busting policemen paid so much attention to their figures! Happy Kitchen cakes contain no sugar, wheat, soya or dairy products making them a healthier alternative to your normal supermarket selection.

The E5 Bakehouse started turning out its first loaves in July 2009, and Ben has been supplying the local community with freshly baked sourdoughs ever since. For Ben, setting up the E5 Bakehouse was not just about baking bread but starting a business which supported

  • the use of organic raw materials
  • a low carbon footprint by using local and seasonal produce
  • self-sufficiency, by using reclaimed materials

Before turning to baking, Ben worked in the environmental sector. After studying conservation biology, he worked in fisheries conservation, followed by a role as a conservation observer for the EU, and then projects related to renewable energy. Disillusioned by widespread greenwashing and an increasingly complex layer of bureaucracy at work, he decided to take some time out and go travelling. Over the summer of 2009, he travelled around Spain, Portugal and Morocco, and got quite excited by the big wood fire ovens he saw in Morocco. A seed of thought had been planted. After he returned, he enrolled himself in a baking course at the School of Artisan Food in Sheffield. It was here that he met Carl Schwarz, a teacher who had a profound impact on his decision to start baking.

“If I’d had a damp squib of a teacher, things might have turned out differently. I really enjoyed learning from Carl. He’s been involved in breadmaking for over 10 years and knows it inside out. He is also an expert of sourdoughs, which is a lot more challenging than your average loaf.”

Sourdough bread is made from a yeast starter as opposed to just straightforward yeast. A yeast starter is made by combining flour, water, yeast and sugar. The starter is then left to ferment over a number of days. As it ferments, bacteria produce lactic acid as a byproduct which in turn creates the characteristic sour and tangy flavour. I asked Ben how long it takes a starter to develop.

“It depends on the type of bread that you are making. In the case of my Bordinsky rye bread, I have the “mother” which I keep in a cool place and feed every few days. I take a portion out of that the night before I want to bake. Using the sourdough starter I extracted, I make the bread and then let it brood for 4-5 hours, then bake it. The Hackney Wild bread is a longer 3 day process. There are a lot of time systems, and managing them is one of my biggest challenges at the moment.”

Ben’s top three tips for making your own starter are

  • Don’t use tap water
  • Do use organic flour
  • If you’re going to put fruit into stimulate the lactobacilli, use organic fruit
left to right: Hackney Wild, Seeded Spelt and Bordinsky bread

E5 Bakehouse Sourdoughs. left to right: Hackney Wild, Seeded Spelt and Bordinsky bread

Towards the end of his course he struck a deal with a Pizzeria in Clapton allowing him to use their wood fire oven in the mornings to bake bread. As the demand for his sourdoughs increased, Ben went on the lookout for new premises, and after participating in a workshop at Happy Kitchen, Happy Kitchen’s owner Lisa Stockton offered him space in the front section of the unit in London Fields, where the E5 Bakehouse now resides.

The business unit did not have a wood fire oven and this is something Ben had to build from scratch. With the assistance of his sister Eve Mackinnon, an engineer working in the Central African Republic, they came up with the idea of using the rocket oven principle. Commonly used in the developing world, the rocket oven principle is revered for its high combustion efficiency over a small surface area. The E5 Bakehouse oven takes an hour to get up to temperature 230-240C. Inside it has 2 shelves, which fit 20 loaves each and require 40 minutes cooking time.

After the design was complete, Ben went on the search for disused materials which he could use to transform into his wood fire oven. Reclaimed bricks and paving slabs were used for the main structure, as well as clay lump, which was extracted from an agricultural building close to where Ben grew up in Suffolk.

“I had to go and see the local farmer and explain what I was doing. I’ve since given him a loaf of bread which he was quite chuffed about. The baking area comes from an old tool box from SOAS that was never really used. I’d gone to see my friend Theo, and we were standing in the pub when I said to him ‘Hey man, I’m thinking about building this oven’. As I was describing it, he got this twinkle in his eye, and lifted up this rug that was over the table and there was the toolbox, and he said ‘how about this?’ and I said ‘it looks about right’.”

Ben spent the next 2 weeks chopping and welding it down so that it slotted into the oven. He also collected sand from the beach in Southwold, Suffolk where he grew up, and found disused bags of lime locally, so the wood fire oven was literally made of scrap.

“The construction of the wood fire oven reflects my philosophy of less dependency on consumerism. You could call it permaculture almost.”

E5 Bakehouse Wood Fire Oven

E5 Bakehouse Wood Fire Oven

If all this sourdough talk has got you drooling and you can’t make it over to the E5 Bakehouse unit in London Fields, don’t fret, his tasty breads are also available at the Happy Kitchen stall every Thursday and Friday at Whitecross Street market, and every Saturday at Broadway market. They also do a Saturday bread delivery for the E5, E8 and N16 areas. It costs £3.50 to get one of his sourdoughs delivered to your doorstep.

If you would prefer to learn how to make sourdoughs yourself, Ben will be conducting classes at the E5 Bakehouse next month. The next dates scheduled are

  • Saturday 16th October
  • Sat 6th November
  • Sat 13th November

The class will start at 11.30am and you will learn to make a classic pain de campagne and focaccia. During the afternoon, there is a break for tapas. The students take home a brotform, the traditional basket used for proving bread, along with a sourdough starter and recipe instructions. It costs £65. For more details, please email Ben directly.

E5 Bakehouse, Arch 402, Mentmore Terrace, London. E8 3PH. email: e5food@yahoo.co.uk

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3 Responses to “Interview: Baker Ben Mackinnon”

  1. manina says:

    tracked this promising source of decent bread down after seeing the bakery featured on the TV show about reviving trad Brit food, cant wait to cycle down there and taste some and also find out about the other outlets…also been looking for a place to learn about bread making so two birds with one stone – in the vegetarian sense – of course!

  2. Liane says:

    I tried the spelt loaf and the hackney plain wild on Saturday – both were delicious! Good crust, good crumb, good taste and fresh out of the oven to top …..hmmmmmm

  3. Martin Izat aka Martin1Wheel says:

    I’ve been buying Ben’s Rye Sourdough for about a year now,it’s rather lovely & Ben is a very charming dude,go & buy bread from him,you will not be dissapointed

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