Just before Christmas, five minutes walk from my house, opened the most wonderful bakery – Ruben’s Bakehouse. I only had to look at it, peer inside the window at the rows of fabulous bread, to know this was very good news indeed. I’ve always loved good bread. I may even, it has to be admitted, have an addiction to good bread. It’s a bit like coffee for me: there’s as much chance of my biting into a slice of spongy supermarket bread as drinking a cup of instant coffee. I’d rather go without. But good bread … fantastic bread as is sold at Ruben’s Bakehouse, excites me. Good bread should be great on its own: the right texture, a good taste, a good smell … maybe you might want to add some olive oil or butter, but a piece of bread torn or sliced from a good loaf will taste amazing just on its own. It seems that the great poet, Robert Browning, agreed as a quote by him appears on the wall in Ruben’s Bakehouse:
Ruben’s Bakehouse is owned not by Ruben, in fact, but Igor. Ruben is his eldest son. Igor is an Italian and comes from Montecatini Terme in Tuscany, which lies between Lucca and Florence (in fact, when I looked through some photos when I got home, I discovered I stopped there with family 11 years ago while we were holidaying near Lucca and taking a day trip to Florence). Igor’s grandfather on his mother’s side was a baker; his father was a head chef in a trattoria dedicated to bringing back all the traditions of good classic Italian food. Igor’s father, however, discouraged him from entering the catering world as it’s a hard life where you work when others play and it doesn’t allow you to spend much time with your family. Igor did work in the cooking world though until he came to UK in 1996 and went to university, eventually becoming an Interior Designer. However, the family baking gene continued to exert its pull on him. When Igor’s son Ruben (now nearly 7) was an active toddler full of seemingly endless energy, Igor would bake with him (note: new way to tire out small children – getting them to knead bread dough!!). Igor started baking at home. This led to him taking a course at the School of Artisan Food: ‘my inspiration’. He joined the Real Bread Campaign and learnt baking from Emmanuel Hadjiandreou, who, Igor tells me, is his hero and he went to fetch the copy of Hadjiandreou’s book that lives at the Bakehouse.
Now firmly committed to reclaiming his baking heritage, Igor decided to ‘go for it’. He designed flyers and business cards; he advertised locally and began selling bread from his home. It all took off well from the start. Soon it became a community project. As Igor’s outlets increased with him starting to sell in local farmers’ market, butchers and delis, he would have to take bread on trays into neighbours’ houses to use their ovens as well as his own. The neighbours loved it, he said; their kids would become involved, and they’d help him all they could. It was Igor’s dream of baking artisan bread for the local community that led him to start looking for a shop. Finally, the right premises came up in central Twickenham (luckily for me!!).
On a blackboard, Igor proclaims his philosophy and what you’ll find in Ruben’s Bakehouse.
There’s a fantastic range of breads: gorgeous sourdough (my usual buy), rye, Twickenham cottage loaf, Ruben’s ciabatta, pane al farro, malthouse crown loaf, brioche, fruit loaves and seeded bloomers.
And these Italian baguettes.
Word is getting round and when I went to Ruben’s on Saturday morning to buy bread, the shop was crowded out and people queuing to get inside. As I stood in the queue a woman behind me said, ‘This is my idea of heaven.’ There’s no doubt that Ruben’s Bakehouse has come to Twickenham at just the right time with a growing interest amongst people in buying local artisan foods and good bread, not to mention the interest in home baking inspired by The Great British Bake Off on TV. But it also links with that other thing the growing farmers’ markets and specialist shops offer: a sense of community. You go inside and you’re soon known as a regular. I haven’t been into Ruben’s yet without some conversation taking place between customers. Some days, especially weekends, the different loaves will be laid on the counter and you can ask for tastes to see which you like best. As the demand grows, Igor adds to the things he has to offer. For instance, they bake the most gorgeous chocolate brownies. I shared one with my daughter – I couldn’t resist when I saw them while buying bread – and we thought they were the best brownies we’d had.
Last week when I was in the shop, Igor told me they’d been experimenting with croissants to get the right recipe and he thought they were almost there. He gave me one to try with a coffee – you can also buy a good coffee while buying your bread and there’s a small counter with a couple of stalls.
What I thought was that the croissants are very good indeed. And more goodies are to come. This morning I had to go back to the shop an hour or so after the interview with Igor as the chocolate brownies were still in the oven when I left, so I couldn’t photograph them (it’s usual to walk home with warm bread straight from the oven too!). My friend Sabine was there buying bread when I returned and we were shown the buns just coming out of the oven: Chelsea buns – one stuffed with raisins and cinnamon, one with hazlenuts and cinnamon, and the third with marmalade. There were also hot cross buns.
Sabine asked if she could buy one. Igor said they weren’t for sale, they were just experimenting so he hadn’t worked out a price. She convinced him they should still be enjoyed so he gave us some to try; another couple of customers walked in and were soon testing buns too. This is what’s so fantastic about Rubens: going there is about much more than buying good bread – it’s a joyful experience and buying food like this is something that enriches life rather than just picking packets up in a supermarket.
Meanwhile, as we ate buns, David, Igor’s fellow baker was busy still making bread.
Igor’s passion and enthusiasm shines in his face and voice as he talks about his plans. Coming soon will be pizzas from his pizza oven.
Igor wants to turn his shop into a little corner of Italy, selling fresh pizza, eventually at all times of day. Meanwhile, more pastries will be available from next week. Given that I have to pass Igor’s shop nearly every time I go out, quite how I’m going to resist all these wonderful baked treats looking out invitingly at me from the shop’s window, I don’t know, but I’ll have to set myself some limits if I’m not to expand along with Igor’s business! What a fantastic addition to Twickenham Ruben’s Bakehouse is, and I’m pretty certain that Igor’s ambition to have his bakery become a destination place will be fulfilled because what he’s making and selling is of the highest quality and there’s no doubt that I’d be willing to travel quite far to buy bread from him. Though I’m very pleased and count myself lucky that for me he’s only a short walk away from my house …