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‘For far too long, even in the restaurant industry, bread has been an afterthought’ – real bread baker Eoin Cluskey

The Bread 41 owner on how he is using his loaf to expand his organic bakery business

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Eoin Cluskey has just opened a restaurant at Bread 41 and hopes to expand the business to Cork, Galway and Belfast too. Photo: Gerry Mooney

Eoin Cluskey has just opened a restaurant at Bread 41 and hopes to expand the business to Cork, Galway and Belfast too. Photo: Gerry Mooney

As well as bread, the organic bakery makes up to 5,000 fresh pastries every day and is open for breakfast and lunch. Photo: Gerry Mooney

As well as bread, the organic bakery makes up to 5,000 fresh pastries every day and is open for breakfast and lunch. Photo: Gerry Mooney

Eoin Cluskey at Bread 41 on Dublin's Pearse Street. Photo: Gerry Mooney

Eoin Cluskey at Bread 41 on Dublin's Pearse Street. Photo: Gerry Mooney

"I want you to taste real bread and recognise that you’re eating one of the oldest foods known to humankind," Eoin Cluskey says. Photo: Gerry Mooney

"I want you to taste real bread and recognise that you’re eating one of the oldest foods known to humankind," Eoin Cluskey says. Photo: Gerry Mooney

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Eoin Cluskey has just opened a restaurant at Bread 41 and hopes to expand the business to Cork, Galway and Belfast too. Photo: Gerry Mooney

"It’s not just about what you do, it’s about the way you do it.” I’m standing in Bread 41, Eoin Cluskey’s flagship organic bakery — and now restaurant — on Pearse Street in Dublin, and he is holding forth on his personal food philosophy as he expertly kneads dough. With aprons on and sticky white bread dough on the stainless steel worktops in front of us, a group of us are here to learn how to make bread the old-fashioned way, and it’s immediately clear that when it comes to the magic of mixing flour, water, salt and yeast, Cluskey is a master.

“It’s about attention to detail, and I don’t see a difference between making good bread and preparing and cooking a piece of fish or a whole joint of meat. It’s the exact same for bread and for far too long, even in the restaurant industry, bread has been an afterthought,” he says. “But as more people get more into food they want to know where the bread on their table comes from, and even in high-end Michelin-starred restaurants, there’s often a stand-alone bread course. Top chefs are going back to basics and recognising the importance of bread.”

The key takeaway from this practical lesson is that if you want a really nice loaf of bread, you need to start with a dough that initially feels too sticky and work it until it becomes elastic and smooth. I’m tempted to add more flour to my mix, but Cluskey stops me. “No, that’s perfect. It’s just not there yet. This is both food preparation and mental therapy you have to lean in, use your muscles and just keep folding and kneading. Time and effort are the secret extra ingredients.”

This is just one of the many differences between what fans call ‘real bread’ and the other kind, the kind that has found its way onto breakfast tables and into lunch boxes for the last 100 years. Mass-produced bread is cheap and convenient, but in terms of the length of time that people have been eating bread, it’s a newcomer that’s barely been around for a second.

It used to be thought that people have been making bread for about 8,000 years, but a 2018 discovery pushed that date back all the way to over 14,000 years.

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Eoin Cluskey at Bread 41 on Dublin's Pearse Street. Photo: Gerry Mooney

Eoin Cluskey at Bread 41 on Dublin's Pearse Street. Photo: Gerry Mooney

Eoin Cluskey at Bread 41 on Dublin's Pearse Street. Photo: Gerry Mooney

Baking is one of the oldest things that human beings know how to do. “The difference between industrial baking and making real bread is that making a decent loaf of bread by hand takes at least 24 hours and preferably around four days, and that time is required to really develop the flavour,” says Cluskey.

“By contrast, making a mass-produced loaf of supermarket bread takes 35 minutes from start to finish and it doesn’t have much flavour at all.

“When you eat a loaf of real bread, I want you as a customer to taste the fermentation. I don’t want you to taste some additive or something else put in to mask the flavour, I want you to taste real bread and recognise that you’re eating one of the oldest foods known to humankind. I want you to put it in your mouth, chew and go ‘oh my god, that’s delicious.”

Cluskey’s passion for his product is infectious. He makes it and eats it every day, and he puts it on his table at home where his wife Katie, a secondary school teacher, gives it to their children Oliver (8) and Sadie (3).

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“When real bread is fresh out of the oven, it’s perfect. The next day, it still makes amazing toast. The day after that you can use it to make breadcrumbs and cook with it. Real bread goes hard when it’s stale, factory-made bread goes green and mouldy.”

Lockdown damaged Bread 41, as it did most Irish businesses, but in some ways it helped to grow appreciation for artisan products and real bread as plenty of those who spent time baking with their own children can attest. A lot of people got into making their own sourdough and Bread 41 was one of the best places to get a starter. Cluskey gave away sourdough starter kits, giving many people a way in to making their own bread at home.

“We closed for three days at the beginning of lockdown, while we regrouped, and I asked every member of staff what they wanted to do. Everyone wanted to work and so we opened up and worked through it, and it allowed us to grow an amazing company culture where everyone checked in on everyone. It was really heart-warming.”

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As well as bread, the organic bakery makes up to 5,000 fresh pastries every day and is open for breakfast and lunch. Photo: Gerry Mooney

As well as bread, the organic bakery makes up to 5,000 fresh pastries every day and is open for breakfast and lunch. Photo: Gerry Mooney

As well as bread, the organic bakery makes up to 5,000 fresh pastries every day and is open for breakfast and lunch. Photo: Gerry Mooney

Cluskey also used lockdown to expand Bread 41 into the unit next door on Pearse Street, adding a pastry room, and now, he’s opening up the upstairs of the premises as a new restaurant. “We’re working with a wonderful chef, Eoin Morris, who’s worked in some great restaurants in the past and this is his first head chef role. I can’t wait to see what he can do, and we’re here to support him and help him grow and excel.

“The plan is to lean heavily into using more veg, and while we’re not anti-meat, the meat we serve needs to be high-quality, high-welfare quality meat. We need to really connect with suppliers and bring in some real traceability and accountability. Overall, seasonality will be key.”

The restaurant shares the Bread 41 name and for the time being is only open for breakfast and lunch, as well as brunch on the weekends. Cluskey plans to add a few night services before Christmas and then opening for Friday and Saturday nights in the New Year.

“For now, we’re tying the menu strongly to McNally organic farm, one of our main suppliers. Whatever they have in season, that is what we’ll be putting on plates, along with a bit of pickling and fermenting.

“Right now we’re serving simple dishes, such as kimchi fritters with peanut rayu and a miso hollandaise, and eggs Benedict served in a croissant with fantastic bacon, or a Scotch egg, elevated to a restaurant standard, with wood fired leeks and mushroom ketchup. It’s super tasty.”

Key to many of these dishes, of course, is the bread. Each day, the bakery offers six basic types of bread, all made with organic flour. These are Shackleton 7 seed, Glentie Malt loaf, Wholegrain sourdough, Granary Brown, Oat Porridge and Wicklow Mountain Rye.

The magic of bread, and the thing the accelerated mass produced version just can’t compete with, is fermentation. When flour, salt and water are combined with a fermenting agent such as a sourdough starter or just plain old bread yeast, something really interesting happens. “Fermentation adds air and flavour but it takes time. We slow the process as much as possible to draw it out and that’s what produces the end result.”

When it comes to baking bread, some things can be automated but ultimately getting a good end product requires people to mix the dough, monitor the fermentation, move the dough around and get it in the oven.

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"I want you to taste real bread and recognise that you’re eating one of the oldest foods known to humankind," Eoin Cluskey says. Photo: Gerry Mooney

"I want you to taste real bread and recognise that you’re eating one of the oldest foods known to humankind," Eoin Cluskey says. Photo: Gerry Mooney

"I want you to taste real bread and recognise that you’re eating one of the oldest foods known to humankind," Eoin Cluskey says. Photo: Gerry Mooney

“The big players look at this problem and immediately eliminate as many steps from the process as possible, but when you do that, the product suffers. I have a break-up clause with real bread, and that clause is that I’ve promised myself that the day I skip a step in the process, I’m gone. I’m done. I’ll quit.”

Cluskey isn’t kidding. He says what gets him up in the morning is the thrill of tearing into a hot loaf of bread, steaming and fresh from the oven. It’s a primal thing, and it must be respected.

Bread 41 is a multi-sensory business. Cluskey and his staff bake bread daily, make pastries, teach classes and help others to learn the skills necessary to set up themselves.

“When we first opened our doors in September 2018, we made 60 loaves of bread and 120 pastries and we sold out in about 20 minutes. We’ve been playing catch up with demand ever since but on a busy day now, we can produce anything up to 5,000 pastries and many, many loaves of bread.

“People typically want pastries more mid-week on their way to the office, and then they want loaves at the weekend.”

The end game for Bread 41, and Cluskey’s personal dream, is to see freshly baked, real bread available from a craft baker in every town in Ireland. “At one stage there were 120 mills grinding flour across Ireland, but now there’s not even 20. I’d love to see a great connection between the farmer growing the wheat, the miller grinding it and the baker baking it, then that would be a fine thing. And the winner would be the consumer.

“But it’s difficult to scale what we do and spread it because everything is done by hand, and that’s the point of us. We have 29 or 30 people working with us, starting at 5am each morning and they love what they do.”

Cluskey’s medium-term plans include opening a Bread 41 in Galway, Cork and Belfast, working with people in these areas to make it work.

“My plan is to go there, find a unit, set it up and find someone local who will come to Dublin and train here for six weeks. Then we’ll send a landing team there for six weeks to get it all running smoothly.

“We’ll systemise everything, but the growth plan is also to allow people who work here to step up and take their own piece of the brand. I want to provide career paths for passionate people, not just jobs.” 


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