A long time ago, nearly forty years ago now, I lived for a time in a village called Newbridge on Wye almost slap bang in the centre of Wales.
At the time, further up the hill from where I lived, there was a corner store with a big painted ghost sign proclaiming ‘Steam Bakery’.
When I lived there it was no longer a bakery, but rather a basic corner store with fresh bread (sometimes) run by two old ladies who would occasionally try and slip you an Irish or Isle of Man 10p in your change.
The store now is long gone, as is the sign, and the building, still the same, is an outdoor adventure store. I’m sure I once had a photograph of the sign, but a lot of my photographs and negatives disappeared in one of my moves, so unless it’s in one of my very old boxes of undigitised 35mm slides, I almost certainly no longer have a picture.
I did look on StreetView to see if the sign was still there, but no, and an image search doesn’t turn up anything in the way of matches, so I’m afraid you’ll just have to trust me on this.
Time moves on and I moved on to other jobs, but I’ve always wondered what a steam bakery is.
So yesterday when it was wet I tried a little research.
My first discovery was that the Skewen – Skewen is a village in South Wales near Neath – Historical Society has some information about the old steam bakery in the town on its Facebook page, which looked promising.
So, based on one Facebook post, I’ll hazarded a guess that steam bakeries were a late Victorian thing. How common and how widespread wasn’t clear at first but a search through Welsh Newspapers online turned up quite a few late Victorian adverts for steam bakeries, suggesting that they were pretty widespread including in rural towns as well as the cities
I did discover that the Newbridge on Wye bakery was called the Cambrian Steam bakery, but other than that it doesn’t seem to have left much of a trail behind it.
So what exactly was a steam bakery?
Well, steam baking was a technique popularized by the rather wonderfully named August Zang who introduced the technique to France in the 1830’s. Basically the bread is baked in an oven which has steam in it – originally from wet hay in the base of the oven, but later from a boiler, a technique that produced a better crust and was marketed as a better quality product.
I’ll hazard a guess that in late Victorian times having bread from a steam bakery was a step up from the ordinary, and something that advertised itself as a steam bakery was thought to be something special.
But obviously not that special to have one in a small farming village in rural Wales, so saying you were a steam bakery was to do with marketing as much as anything, just as some bakeries advertised themselves as ‘Hygenic Bakeries’ or even ‘Hygenic Steam Bakeries‘.
What I find interesting about this story is how the whole steam bakery thing has disappeared from memory …