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Forgive us our
daily bread

Illustration by Hannah Gilson

Baking hasn’t just been a national remedy for Covid cabin fever. Jessica Benjamin finds it has also helped our mental health and kick-started fledgling careers

You remember the crisis, right? No, not that crisis. The other one: the endless scouring of corner shops and supermarkets in March of last year for flour — any flour — with which to join in the New Baking Movement. Sourdough, banana bread, cinnamon whirls, macarons… the pandemic has succeeded in turning even the most kitchen-averse among us into wannabe Mary Berrys (Berries?), creating a new league of both amateur and professional bakers.

Why, though, was this the particular hobby that enthralled a nation? And a year on, with pub visits looming and freedom on the horizon, what will remain for those whose businesses and livelihoods have been shaped by our lockdown obsession?

Though the full extent of the pandemic’s impact on the country’s mental health remains to be seen, the proportion of individuals showing signs of depression has doubled since the start of the outbreak. Inevitably, therapising hobbies are now more popular than ever and, as chartered psychologist, author and former Great British Bake Off finalist Kimberly Wilson explains, there is a scientific basis to the therapeutic effects of baking.

‘Carbs increase the availability in the brain of tryptophan, the precursor of serotonin, increasing serotonin release and helping to support mood,’ she says. ‘They also reduce levels of cortisol (a major stress hormone) in the body — so carbs aid our recovery from stress.’

And it’s not just the end result that’s proven (sorry) so soothing over lockdown — it’s the process itself. ‘The satisfaction of seeing the products of your labour provided a sense of accomplishment when many felt helpless,’ says nutritional therapist Dr Christy Fergusson. ‘My clients come to me struggling to eat healthily during lockdown, and I think a lack of routine has been problematic for them. Creative endeavours, especially ones that are time consuming like baking, have a reward at the end of other people enjoying it — there’s a social element and I think that’s something that we’re all missing.’

London’s Luminary Bakery is well versed in the positive effect of baking. Founded in 2014, Luminary uses baking as a tool to offer training, employment and community opportunities to women from disadvantaged backgrounds. Its head trainer, Rachel, acknowledges the power it holds. ‘Lots of the women we work with say that they find the process really calming — providing moments to be mindful as you’re mixing batters or decorating a cake, and to physically work out frustrations through kneading dough,’ she says.

A silver lining to the pandemic is that the uptick in demand has helped launch the careers of fledgling young bakers. Melissa Hall, founder and head baker of Jasmine’s Flour, is one such creative who set up shop during lockdown. ‘It was the first time people had so much free time on their hands,’ she explains. ‘For many of us, lockdown gave us a moment to explore our creativity, and in some cases [baking] helped us overcome mental health challenges. With people being at home and having more time to browse the internet, Jasmine’s Flour has received more exposure.’

It’s not just the new baking businesses that are thriving. ‘Lockdown completely changed my business,’ says Hannah Plimmer, owner of Hannah Bakes London. ‘All my wedding cake orders stopped. Then I put out a message on my local Facebook forum, offering a selection of cakes to be delivered to people’s doors. The response was amazing. Everyone still wanted cake! Now, I’ve got so many new customers.’

So what’s the future of the baking boom? Those bakers for whom lockdown has boosted business hope that the nation’s appetite for baked goods will persist even after we are allowed out. ‘I’m really looking forward to bringing Jasmine’s Flour to market stalls and fairs,’ Hall explains. ‘I’m always working towards making it accessible to everyone.’

While Plimmer is looking forward to the resumption of social events in need of cakes, she hopes her delivery service will continue alongside. ‘Who doesn’t love a cake delivered straight to their door?!’ she asks. I for one can’t argue with her logic.