The miracle worker
INSIDE STORY: The week chef CARL RENNICKS was laid off due to the pandemic was the same he began his new business. Word of mouth has seen him grow the Backyard Bakery to the stage where he physically can’t fit any more dough in the oven. DAMIAN MCCARNEY hears all about the importance of touch, his decision on the Backyard’s future and the miracle of sour dough...
It wasn’t the most auspicious of starts to a business, as Carl Rennicks recalls.
No launch event. No fanfare. No grinning minister cutting a ribbon. No photo ops. And worst of all, no customers.
Carl’s opening gambit in business saw him arrange brown breads and currant breads on a table along with an honesty box outside his Virginia cottage on the Oldcastle Road. As amateurish as it sounds at first, in reality it was an impressive act of defiance from a man who, like so many across the country, had just been robbed of his livelihood by the pandemic.
It was March 2020, and restrictions shut the door on the entire hospitality sector, including The Central Bar, a popular gastro-pub in Navan’s town centre, in which Carl had been cheffing.
“I’ll never forget the first day because it was absolutely lashing rain,” says Carl. “I had a big Tupperware box with a little message in an A4 cellophane folder sellotaped to the box about what we were trying to do and what we were trying to achieve, which was: don’t let Covid beat us! Let’s turn Covid into creativity, and isolation into incentive.
“We sold nothing the first two days because of the rain.
“I wasn’t disheartened because my expectations weren’t that great. It was more a mental strength thing to keep myself busy and hopefully something would come out of it.”
A change of fortune came with the easing of rain, and the decision to relocate just across the road to Deerpark Forest, a popular beauty-spot for walkers and families.
“We could see the flow of people out walking – especially with Lockdown.
“We bought a little table, left an honesty box on it with a price list and the rest, as they say, is history,” says Carl.
Backyard Bakery’s been a success story built on word of mouth.
“It’s purely from being out and about, and one person tasting it, which led onto ten people tasting it which led on to twenty people tasting it...”
Talk about the stall brought him onto the radar of Deirdre Donnelly, then of Cavan Food Network, who introduced him to the ‘Created in Cavan’ project. Involvement in this saw him selling at farmers’ markets - Clonmellon, Collinstown, Ballinacree. Interest from restaurants and hotels followed - The Oakroom in Cavan serves his sour dough breads to diners. He’s also had an enquiry from a major hotel in the county for his breads - and now Carl’s also selling pastries - Danish pastries, muffin and brownies - to the burgeoning trade of coffee trucks at park amenities.
To create all of these delights Carl has a designated corner of the kitchen – with a view of the backyard that gives his business its name - where he has his newly acquired baking convection oven and large industrial mixer, and other utensils. These allow him to scale up his produce.
“To me it was all about the volume – there’s no point in baking five loaves of bread when you can sell 20,” he says.
However, even with these additions, he’s pretty much reached full capacity, with the option of juggling priorities from breads to pastries seemingly the best way to maximise output.
Currently he can meet his baking orders with schedule of working two hours from dawn break, or two hours at night. This suits Carl’s current lifestyle as just a fortnight ago he became a father for a second time, with Emily Margaret a new play pal for his two-year-old, Mark.
The Navan native’s defiance in the face of Covid is no surprise when you hear the passion with which he talks about culinary matters – a trade in which he has been working without break since qualifying out of Cathal Brugha Street in 1999.
“It was definitely my vocation,” he declares.
Obviously with a working knowledge of cooking professionally he started baking from a high level, but he perfected his bread making technique through a “hands on, mistakes-made” process.
“I know how to bake, but it was to get that individual bake – that special bake that I was looking for.”
The bake he can’t make enough of is the “notoriously difficult” sour dough.
“The country has gone sour dough crazy. I could bring 20, 30 with me and they’re gone in 20 minutes, half an hour.”
He’s happy he sells out, but adds: “To keep them a bit longer would be ideal, because I hate saying ‘I’m sorry’, ‘I’m sorry’ to people when they come up and there’s still an hour’s trading left.”
The demand from customers mirrors the passion Carl invests in his sour dough baking.
“I have a starter culture which I feed, and then on the Thursday and Friday I will start making the dough and that goes into a huge container where it is let rest for another day. Then we make the dough into bread on Saturday morning/Saturday evening. Then on Sunday I would begin to feed the remaining sour dough starter for the following Thursday. It’s an ongoing process.”
Carl’s not complaining though. When he speaks of sour dough it’s with awe.
“It’s miraculous how it happens, the end product. Flour and water is what it starts out with – that’s your starter culture, and there’s a natural yeast present that develops - there’s no added yeast. That gets mixed with some salt and a bit more water. I put a small bit of treacle in – then all of a sudden a few hours later you’ve got some bread.”
You could be forgiven for thinking it doesn’t sound that complicated - you’d be wrong.
“You are dealing basically with a live product that has a mind of its own. It can vary from being too aerated to be being too dense and you never find this out until its baked.
“It’s notorious. You’re dealing with a live culture and once the heat hits it, it’ll either kill it or it’ll do what it’s supposed to do and actually bake bread. From that aspect it was a learning curve.”
He insists there are breads labelled ‘sour dough’ and there are authentic sour doughs, and betwixt the two lies “a phenomenal difference”.
“Proper sour dough should have that taste, but also have that chew. And the crust should almost cut the inside of your mouth it should be that crunchy – proper bread that we might have tasted on holidays in France 30 years ago.”
He’s branched out to make his own “phenomenally delicious” butter too, and speaks of the intensive work in equally impassioned terms.
“I churn it over the course of up to three hours before it separates. Then I rinse it with cold spring water, then I fold malt and sea salt flakes through it at the very end, roll it and let it mature for three or four days in the pantry before I refrigerate and cut it and then sell it.”
This week long maturation process sees him make just 4kg of butter, but it seems it’s worth it:
“It’s extra tasty it’s just so deliciously creamy,” although he concedes it’s not to everyone’s taste.
“Old country butter is completely different from the butter you buy. But in my opinion it tastes like it should, which is butter. The colour, the natural yellowness in it is insane.”
He finds this ‘slow food’ approach “very therapeutic”.
“Even the kneading of the bread, it’s all about touch: touch is texture and texture is taste. You feel it when it’s right – you can read every recipe book in the world, and think: you knead this for five minutes. But every flour is different, and every water is different and every kitchen is different, so you won’t know until you have that feel in your hands - that bread is ready to go into the oven, or ready to go into the pan, or ready to go into the stove. It’s definitely all about touch and that comes about from experience and knowing your own particular recipe.”
As restrictions ease, his gastro pub gig is back on the horizon and a decision looms on returning to his former job. To take the Backyard Bakery further, Carl accepts it would involve relocating to a unit separate from his domestic setting.
“To be honest my loyalties still lie with the employer I had. He’s been very good to me over the years. I might go back in a reduced capacity that will still enable me to continue doing what I’m doing to some degree,” he says.
For him to return to a hot kitchen making hundreds of meals a day, he acknowledges, would be “a definite change of pace”.
“The decision will only be made when I go back to my other job and see how things are faring out with Covid and restrictions and what’s going to happen in the near future. But I’m going to continue the bakery in some capacity with what I’m doing now and hopefully with the coffee trucks I can maybe expand on that end of it and possibly keep on the bread production to one or two loaves – but do them in greater quantity.”