Leeds, the other Normandy

Leeds, the other Normandy

Baker and chocolatier Thierry Dumouchel is more than happy to promote the Leeds region as one of the reasons for his success, Peter Baber discovers.

Thierry Dumouchel is an ambassador for Leeds. His story, about his life as a Leeds-based wholesale and retail baker and chocolatier and how much he loves the city, is one of three that (for the moment) are underpinning tourism body Visit Leeds’ latest campaign to attract new visitors to the city – and in so doing boost the tourism economy and create over 300 jobs.

The others in the series include Pippa Moore, a dancer with Northern Ballet, and Caitlin, a local schoolgirl with a penchant for Tropical World.

Other personalities are promised in the future campaign, which has been made possible thanks to £500,000 in match funding Leeds & Partners has won from the Regional Growth Fund.

The campaign aims to underpin research that Visit Leeds has done on the kind of visitors the city tends to attract. This suggests that, whereas the package and coach tours might be more inclined to head for York or Scarborough, Leeds tends to be patronised by visitors favouring “independent discovery” – people who like to find their own favourite restaurants and favourite boutiques they can tell their friends about back home.

Independent discoverers wanting to find out more about Dumouchel would discover two things quickly. The first is that his eponymous bakery is, strictly speaking, not in Leeds at all, but in Garforth.

The campaign is all about the Leeds city region, however, so this can perhaps be excused. But the most obvious thing about Dumouchel, as anyone would guess from his name, is that he is not a Yorkshireman.

He is originally from Normandy. And despite having run his bakery in Garforth for 15 years, and having been in England for some years before that, he still has a very, very strong French accent. It takes me a while to discover, for example, exactly what he means when he describes some of the bread produced by more mass market operations in the UK as “sheetee”.

Is this some strange French culinary term? Oh no, on second thoughts, it’s not… That said, you can hardly find anyone who is more supportive of his adopted region and city than Dumouchel, who only moved here because, as he puts it, he fell in love with “a lovely lady in Yorkshire”.

When he had first come to England – mainly to improve his English and thus make it easier for him to work outside France – he ended up in Devon. But he likes Leeds first and foremost, he says, because it is very similar to Normandy, and to Betteville, the town between Rouen and Le Havre where he originally comes from. “Leeds people are just like the Normans,” he says.

“They are very honest and straightforward. If they don’t like something they will tell you.” Such similarities could also be why he feels he has built up a strong sense of camaraderie (a word surely mutually understood by both French and English) with many of his suppliers and customers.

“I say to my customers: ‘If you close me down I have to get rid of someone. And then if you come back and want to use me again I’ll say I can’t. If you cut down everything, when you want me again I won’t be there.’ It is very interesting when you can do that as a small supplier. But we all understand each other and they are all people I know.”

He has a similar attitude with his staff. Clearly anyone coming to work for the first time, either as an apprentice or as someone having a career change – a fairly regular occurrence at the moment, thanks in part to the Great British Bake Off – is in for a bit of a shock.

Dumouchel says that initially he even tries to discourage them. “When they first arrive they think is it easy,” he says, “but we point out that baking is a skill. A guy we had who came to us after leaving the army saw me kneading a dough ball and thought it was easy, but soon learned. They don’t understand the skill at first – they think it is just mixing water.”

But Dumouchel is keen to teach them once they pass that first hurdle. He has a policy that everyone who comes to work for him shakes hands with him in the morning and again at the end of the day – just so he knows they are doing all right.

“They have to come and say hello,” he says, “so at least they have the chance to say if things are not okay. Communication is very important here.” He is very keen to look after his staff. “I didn’t fire anybody during the recession,” he says, “because I realised that without them I couldn’t do what I have been doing. Team work is very important here.”

He likes his staff to see the full operation too, not just the particular part of it they are involved in. “I take them to see the shop, to see the colours, and to see the products and where they come from,” he says. “They don’t just work in a bloody bakery. They need an idea about what is going on next door.”

Such training has clearly paid off. Of the 25 or so people he has trained up from scratch at the bakery, two are currently in Canada, one is in Budapest, and no less than four are plying their wares back in France.

Dumouchel is, as you would expect for a Frenchman, passionate about food. But then, as you might not expect, he says that’s a very good reason for being in Yorkshire.

He even sticks his neck out and claims that the cream the farmers make in Yorkshire is every bit as good as it is in his home region of Normandy – something I suspect that would make many of his fellow Normans back home reach for the Calvados in shock.

That is one of the reasons why he makes such disparaging remarks about the more commercial baking process that so much of the industry in the UK has adopted, in particular the process known as Chorleywood, that has been in use by virtually every large baking firm in the UK since the 1960s.

This speeds up the process of making the bread, but at what cost? Dumouchel claims that in France the number of people claiming to suffer from gluten intolerance is much lower, mainly because yeast in French bakeries is still left to ferment for longer.

The yeast in bread that is made in a more commercial manner, he claims, carries on fermenting instead inside people’s stomachs, and that is why people have problems. The bread that is made in Dumouchel’s bakery is left to rise for as long as 18 hours, and sometimes as long as 36 hours.

No preservatives or any kind of accelerators are used in the dough. He also uses a special kind of flour known as Camp Remy, which has what is known in the trade as a very low yield (in other words, not as much flour per ear of wheat) and hence has a creamier texture.

This flour was commonplace in both Britain and France before the Second World War, but rationing in Britain encouraged farmers there to experiment with higher yield flours and they never went back, unlike French farmers, who were subsidised after the war to return to their traditional methods.

As a result, Camp Remy is no longer available in the UK. Dumouchel, however, says that through experimenting with a mill he knows well in Driffield, they have managed to come up with a flour that is fairly close. That, he says, is another advantage of working as he does in Yorkshire.

“All the ingredients are fantastic here,” he says. “I like the covered market in Leeds, and I like contact with local producers. When I work with butter, with cream, or with rapeseed oil, I know the people who make it, and that makes a difference. All this knowledge is important.”

He has even developed a liking for pork pies. They are on sale in the shop. Summing up his job, he is reminded of a line in a song by a singer called Renaud, hugely popular over in France but barely known outside his homeland.

“He sings that he would like to find a job where he would enjoy going to work, but he doesn’t think it exists. Well it does exist. It exists here.”

That, however, is the word from the boss. Those who work around him say that it isn’t just a re-enactment of the entente cordiale that has kept the Dumouchel operation going for so long.

"Thierry has got the best head for figures of anyone I have ever known,” says bakery manager Rebecca Brayson. And that is saying something: before she joined the company 13 years ago, Brayson had a career in banking. (She was only tempted to cross over, she says, because she loves all things French, loves food, and thought the two were a perfect match when the bakery, which is based near where she lives, opened up.

“One day I came in for a pain au chocolat and came out with a job offer,” she says.) She adds: “I have also never known anyone like Thierry who can thrive on so little sleep, but still know the price of an ingredient he bought five years ago and which supplier he bought it from.”

That lack of sleep is understandable when you realise that, owing to the long baking times, the bakery is effectively open from midnight until 5pm. Brayson says the very French bakery’s opening in 1998 was a wonderful surprise in a dormitory town like Garforth.

“There wasn’t atraditional bakery, there, English or otherwise,” she says. “The closest to us now is [a business] in the centre of Leeds. But it’s a franchise, it’s very factory based, and it is nothing like what we do in terms of quality. But it does at least get the names of cakes we make known. It has bizarrely benefited us.”

She says Thierry’s last minute decision to include a shop on site also proved to be a boon, mainly because the site includes ample parking, something that is lacking on the main street in Garforth where all the nearest sandwich shops are based.

“I know the French style really blew me away,” she says. “I wasn’t sure it would catch on initially, but the quality is so good, and that is what Yorkshire folk look for. “It’s very French in style, but Yorkshire in the way we produce things.”

The bakery, which Brayson says has been growing by 20% a year, now employs 14 people full time, has already built up a strong customer base of everyone from Swinton Park in Masham to the Layne’s coffee shop in Leeds. But more recently she and Dumouchel have been focusing in particular on the retail side.

She herself has become a recent convert to social media, after hearing a presentation at a bakers’ conference that she says was the “best 20 minutes I have listened to in a long time”.

She now uses Twitter to advertise that days’ bake. “The little we have started with has been extremely successful,” she says. “If you had told me 12 months ago that we would be promoting this business on Facebook and Twitter I would have laughed at you. But it works.”

And they have also been working up the bakery’s online presence. They have been piloting a scheme to deliver bread boxes overnight right across the country. “The only place we can’t deliver are the Shetlands,” says Brayson.

“Over the next 12 months we really want to push the online bread ordering side, to be complemented by chocolate. We very much want that second outlet, but feel it should be online before we go for physical reality.”

How pertinent then, that after several years of being on the shortlist, last year the Dumouchel bakery should have won the coveted craft industry award title at the Baking Industry Awards.

Still, it wouldn’t be the first time that the world has beaten a path to Garforth. Thierry Dumouchel is also an ambassador in this country for Cointreau. And that means anyone in the UK who wants to market a food product as being flavoured by the orange liqueur first has to send a sample for Thierry to approve. The country, it seems, is listening.