1 April 2009
As I walked towards Blackbird Bakery (The name originated from Four-and-Twenty Blackbirds but that was too much of a mouthful) to interview Eamonn Sweeney I checked that there wasn't a barber's shop next door.
I wanted to use the headline The Demon Baker of East Dulwich but you can rest assured that this Sweeney is not cooking up fresh human flesh to put in his tarts and pies but wholesome, organic goodness in the shape of fruit and grain.
On arrival the young lady behind the counter offered coffee and cake while I waited, recommending a plum tart creation that was beyond nice. When Eamonn the baker entered he looked rather tired (I do hope this is not his normal look!) and found that he had been covering for his night shift baker who has just gone missing on an African holiday! But, with little sleep and more of the same to look forward to, he was still willing to offer himself up for interview.
I am always amazed how people get careers. More and more I find that careers choose them through fate or serendipity and so it is with Eamonn.
On a long working trip to the States he worked in a baker's to pay his way. In the quiet periods he was taught how to make 'creams and mousses and various cakes by the pastry chef…It was a good all round education,' he remembers.
After returning to England he says he never did anything with that knowledge but went off to university.
Over time the point came when he felt he had to do something with his life and so that his 'whole youth wasn't entirely wasted bumming around working in divey restaurants' he enrolled on a Start Your Own Business course. Prince's Trust funding followed and he eventually began a wholesale business, supplying bread and cakes to outlets, which almost went under within two years.
Then in 2003 a customer who had a stall in North Cross Road was giving up the pitch asked if he would like it. He wasn't too keen but discussed it with his colleague who said she would do Saturdays if he did the baking. Originally they planned to work the stall for a couple of months to pay off some bills that had built up. 'The first Saturday was brilliant,' he starts. 'We took four hundred quid, which was more than we was taking in a week.'
The next logical step was a shop and when cheap enough premises became available in Herne Hill he took it. That was successful from the start so onwards and upwards from there meant a move to Crystal Palace, then the Grove Vale shop, where we now sit, opening about a year ago. It is, though, still the stall in North Cross Road market that is the big earner. A constant stream of regulars attend each week for their croissants, pastries, tarts and lovely breads.
Eamonn recalls how difficult that first two years was, traipsing round cafes and restaurants trying to sell his wares, then one little Saturday job in the market and everything explodes. Three shops later and a unit in Herne Hill where the baking goes on, I sense an empire starting to build.
I asked how many staff he has and, half-jokingly, he told me that he doesn't really know until he counts them up at the Christmas Party.
He talks of one young protégé who started as a fourteen-year-old Saturday boy, 'washing up and stuff', who now works full time in the kitchen. So he has obviously instilled his own love of baking in someone else.
Mr Sweeney is a true baker. He says one of the highlights is ending a long night shift with the smell of bread and croissants all around, and then coming out to see the early morning skies. He makes it all sound so romantic. I want to be a baker now!
And even with the long and unsocial hours this baker still fits in romance; he met his soon-to-be wife on a blind date set up by his former colleague. A chick-flick story if ever I saw one. Top that Cilla!
He also told me of the lows of being a baker, but I won't bore you with any of that. I will say, though, that it is extremely hard work and only for the dedicated, so not a job that he would readily recommend.
I checked out some online blogs and found that people rave about his flans and croissants. I have tried a few of his breads (rosemary, sour dough) but my favourite is the walnut and onion.
I'll be working my way through the other ten at some point. And his cakes should come with a health warning. My girlfriend brought home a chocolate masterpiece and I almost died trying to eat it all at one sitting. Death by chocolate. What a way to go.
Blackbird Bakery, 22 Grove Vale; North Cross Road market (Saturdays); opposite Herne Hill Station; 71 Westow Street, Crystal Palace.
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