Long days starting as early as 4.00 a.m.; work that is physically and mentally demanding; the rising cost of raw materials such as flour, butter, and eggs; skyrocketing energy bills; a cost of living crisis; intense competition for staff! Who would be a baker? Karen Shaw would! And 23 Old Street is where she makes the magic happen!

The location of Rise Bakery on Old Street, which is fast becoming a foodie destination, is perfect and will hopefully attract other foodie outlets. It is already home to Pauline at Sow and Arrow, a gluten-free, low carb and keto specialist health store with a national reputation; Carl and Mags at the Veg Box selling locally sourced fruit and veg and who are a fount of knowledge about everything they sell and how best to prepare and cook it; Laura and Martin at A Better Weigh a minimal waste shop who have just opened a second business A Better Weigh Deli & Bakery which also promotes their ethos of reducing waste and championing local produce. 

Karen shares their commitment to the community, sustainability and inclusion and their understanding that customers are becoming more and more socially conscious, health aware and concerned about the provenance of their food.

I was really excited about meeting Karen and learning more about her background and her motivation to open Rise Bakehouse and, of course, learning all about the bread.

Karen is a member of the Real Bread Campaign, co-founded by Andrew Whitley of Bread Matters and Sustain: The Alliance For Better Food And Farming, the charity that runs the Campaign, was officially launched on 26 November 2008.

The mission of the Real Bread Campaign is to find and share ways to make bread better for us, our communities and the planet, and Karen is one of their fiercest advocates. Check out their website https://bit.ly/3oMRyta

All of the Rise bread is made entirely from scratch.  All of their loaves and baguettes use a sourdough culture, so are made using just organic flour, water and salt and, of course, their key and very expensive ingredient, Time which impacts massively on taste, texture and digestibility.  Their doughs, from savoury to sweet, are made in stages and over time, most of their bread takes three days from start to finish. 

I was curious as to the salt content as there is so much in the news about the harmful effects of too much salt in our diet.  A  Rise Bakehouse loaf contains just 2.3g of salt per 1kg of dough, and the loaves range between 960g and 1100g, so the amount of salt per slice is tiny.

The issue of salt in bread is quite shocking.  The organisation Action on Salt, a group of specialists whose mission is to work with the government and the food industry to gradually lower salt intake in the UK to below the recommended maximum level of 6g a day, produced a very alarming report entitled “The Salt Content Of Packaged Pre-Sliced Bread.” 30th March 2023

They discovered that five types of sliced bread are so salty that they contain at least 0.9g per serving of two slices, which is more salt than that found in two small bags of McDonald’s French fries, each of which has 0.44g. There is also as much salt in two slices of Hovis soft white extra thick bread, 1.2g, as a McDonald’s hamburger. Check it out https://bit.ly/3n7jwPK

Their report on “The Salt Content of Children’s Meals in the Restaurant Sector” makes for even more disturbing reading. https://bit.ly/3n6wXzw

Hearing that Karen uses just 2.3g of salt per 1kg of dough was really good news! She also uses nothing artificial; no improvers, emulsifiers or any other form of ‘nasty’.  Everything she makes and bakes is of the highest standard, not just in terms of ingredients but also in terms of integrity.  She uses only top-quality suppliers and top-quality produce.  There is no similarity whatsoever between what is created  at Rise Bakehouse and what is sold in supermarkets.

I was interested in Karen’s background and how it had prepared her for such a change in career so late in life. I wasn’t surprised to hear that she  had spent decades working with food.  She was born and raised in the hospitality industry, and her life has been shaped by that.  Some of her earliest memories are of a large, bustling kitchen staffed entirely by women in a central London pub run by her parents. 

Each day they would prepare a two-course, set lunch menu from scratch for up to 100 people.  Using fresh, seasonal ingredients, they produced simple, delicious dishes day in and day out.  In those days, ‘safety’ in kitchens was based on common sense rather than formal regulations, and, as a consequence, Karen was welcomed into the space and given useful and meaningful small tasks.  As an only and sometimes lonely child, that kitchen and the women in it felt like a community, a community of cooks.  It is a feeling of belonging that has never left her and is something she seeks to recreate at Rise.

In recent years Karen took over Brockley Farm Shop in 2011 and really found her feet.  Renaming it Brockley Stores, she set about creating and developing a range of products prepared and cooked in a tiny space at the rear of the shop. In her six years there, she worked with a small, dedicated team and cooked tirelessly seven days a week, gaining a strong local following.  She described it as “both the hardest and most rewarding time of my life”. 

Having had time to rest and regroup, the idea for a bakery grew slowly.  Always a curious cook, she wanted to learn how to make bread, really good bread.  Lots of experiments and many, many failed loaves followed!      

Karen has also been fortunate to spend time visiting and working in bakeries, big and small, across the country, gaining valuable experience.  Learning from others, making connections and forming new friendships has been part and parcel of her bread journey.  Working out what it was she wanted to do with her new found skills has taken time.

Karen has found her niche at 23 Old Street with its big, bright, airy space and beautiful, original frontage. A project inspired by a love of learning and a relatively new enthusiasm for dough brought to life by friends, teachers, mentors, bakers, more bakers, suppliers, supporters and, more recently, two fabulous women who have come along and learnt, from scratch, to produce pastries of an exemplary standard.

After weeks of trials and a few tribulations, lots of planning, thinking, and re-planning…… Karen just decided to go for it and opened the doors to Rise Bakehouse for the first time on Saturday, 16th March. Proceeded by 30 hours on her feet, prepping and baking, she described it as both a marathon and a sprint! A test of endurance and spirit, and yet there wasn’t a single moment when she regretted what she had started.

Karen’s vision for Rise had always been to produce great products at fair prices and to engage with customers in a vibrant and welcoming space, and this is what she has achieved. An observer on that first day would have felt the buzz of excitement, seen the happy staff flushed with the rosy glow of success and the contented customers leaving with big smiles on their faces.   

Rise Bakehouse will evolve slowly; they will grow and develop their product range with great care over time. At the moment, Karen is just opening on a Saturday from 8.00 a.m. to 2.00 p.m., but she is happy to serve anyone out and about earlier than that as there will always be some bread and pastries available from 7.00 a.m. If you’re worried about missing out, just give the bakery a call on 01275 217557 to reserve what you want. I was pleased to hear that Karen is seriously considering the possibility of bringing in a Sunday morning at some future point.  It’s an unusual business model but currently proving very successful.

Like many business’, Karen had planned to open this Saturday, the day of the Coronation, with slightly reduced hours but despite their very best efforts the team have come up against too many technical and practical difficulties to overcome before the weekend. They have made the difficult decision to close rather than compromise what they offer. They’ll be open up again, all guns blazing at 8.00 a.m. on Saturday 13th May.

Karen and her team are a wonderful addition to Old Street, and if you haven’t yet visited, then you really should. If you’re not sure exactly where it is, make for the direction of the Veg Box and sniff!

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