Once our ancient ancestors had got a handle on fire and established the principles of agriculture they had the components to create that staple of the human diet: bread. And whether it’s with a hand-kneaded artisan loaf, nutritionally-questionable sliced white or a communion wafer, the practice of sharing bread with our fellow man is as old as the hills.
While some people prefer to eat in private, for the majority dining is a shared experience. And nowadays – even if you haven’t eyed your family across a table for months – you may find yourself compelled to eat with strangers at one of the new-fangled refectory-style eateries. Matt and Cat are big fans of both the delicious food and the communal environment of mainland Japanese restaurant chain Wagamama. They have also waxed lyrical about the simple, church-like seating arrangements in Newport’s Foundation Bakery. And now those two concepts – breaking bread and noshing with strangers – have been fused in Well Bread, Cowes’ bakery-cum-café.
Matt and Cat were in Cowes looking for a late lunch when they wandered up to Well Bread. This unusual venue has been open for a couple of seasons, and seems to have garnered quite a reputation. The Telegraph says it’s one of the finest food shops outside London, yet there has been a mixed reception from locals – with some patrons a little dubious about it and others reporting that it was the best thing since, well, bread. That’s normally a cue for M&C to investigate.
The shop was prominently positioned on the High Street and looked not dissimilar to a traditional bakery from the outside, with a striking and huge enamelled sign covered in text. This delivered what appeared to be some sort of manifesto, but read as though somebody had run out of things to say long before they’d filled all the available space. Still, Matt and Cat are not literary reviewers, and they were hungry, so in they went.
It was, as promised, somewhat similar to being in someone’s (vast) kitchen. There was a huge counter groaning under the weight of acres of tray-baked cake – as this was the middle of the afternoon it was particularly impressive to see so much cake, presumably this is a popular item. There was also a variety of signs, boards and special offers written on card, on scraps of brown paper and on blackboards. Matt and Cat were quite overwhelmed by the initial experience – certainly this was unlike any place they’d been to before, and they were slightly perplexed by it. After they had been lurking vaguely for a while a kind lady from behind the counter took pity, and invited them to help themselves to the food and drink on offer. This is, you see, the unique feature of Well Bread – you take what you want, keep your own tally and give the details of what you’ve consumed when you pay. It’s all done on trust, which is quite a cute trick, and presumably, in Cowes, a successful strategy.
There wasn’t a vast choice of food – unless you wanted cake. But what was on offer was simple and plentiful. Some hearty-looking quiche was laid out in slabs, and a vegetable soup steamed gently in a kind of cauldron. Loaves of the eponymous bread were stacked up round and about – each loaf was pretty big, and some were rather startlingly priced at £10 each. Encouraged by the chummy lady, Matt gingerly dipped a ladle into the cauldron and filled a bowl with soup. He looked expectantly at the loaf of bread nearby, and she confirmed that yes, he could take what he wanted from it. This was an idea Matt thought he could get used to. Cat selected the field mushroom and pesto quiche, a rectangle of which was heated up for her. They each took a bottle of Fentimans from the nearby fridge to wash it all down, and set off to find a place to sit.
Two long wooden tables were set out with pews either side, one of which only had access at one end. Anyone who wanted to get up or down must, by necessity, oblige the other diners in the row to get up too. This was reminiscent of M&C’s experience of being wedged into a booth at Nando’s. In a venue where one is encouraged to serve oneself the result of this arrangement isn’t hard to predict – constant interaction with other people. Matt and Cat shuffled along the bench and sat down opposite a group of holidaying pensioners. The visitors were obviously Well Bread aficionados – they soon fell into conversation with M&C and explained how they had explored the range of delights that Well Bread offered. The gigantic bacon breakfast bap, confided one lady, was a bit too much for ‘him’. She gesticulated with a butter-knife at her husband, sitting at the end of the pew stoically reading the Daily Mail. “But we still come back every day”, she added, as if in mitigation for ‘his’ bacon-eating failings.
Matt dunked his bread in his bowl and sipped enthusiastically at the hot soup. Like the bread, it was simple to the point of blandness. If there were any bits of vegetable in there he didn’t get any – but then perhaps he only had himself to blame for not delving deeply enough in the cauldron. But the soup was nourishing stuff, and with all the bread one could eat he didn’t go away hungry. Speaking of bread, the arrangements for buttering it were also unconventional. On each table was a font-sized bowl of jam and a vast anvil of butter, and the diners were able to dig their jammy knives in and help themselves as required. One of the holidaymakers expressed some concern that the butter mountain was left exposed to the elements all day, but on tasting it, it seemed to be fresh, and clearly with the amount of bread on display this venue gets through an awful lot of of the stuff.
Dandelion & burdock £2.75
As is the trend these days the warmed quiche was delivered on a wooden platter, although without cutlery. Cat was quickly able to procure some from the baketrix but had briefly wondered if she was supposed to join in with the self-service theme and forage for her own from one of the many counters and shelves, or embrace the rusticity of the venue and eat the slice with her hands, like a segment of pizza. Although it was unadorned – no salad or, surprisingly, bread were offered – the quiche was delicious. The big mushrooms were filled with tangy pesto and it was interspersed with chunks of potato: a pretty filling slice. Nonetheless, a fiver seemed pretty steep.
Whilst they ate, Matt and Cat observed a few people enter the venue and, as M&C had done, stand bewildered on the threshold. Some persisted, others left. The two bakery staff who had previously offered guidance were by the ovens, having a conversation that drew the attention of the nearby diners when it strayed into an detailed exposition of the perils of laser eye surgery. “I could smell my own eyeballs singeing!” The line of pensioners opposite raised their heads. “You should have smelt my teeth when they drilled them,” was the retort. If the tutting from the pews had been inaudible before, it now began to reach perceptible levels. Usually, there’s nothing a senior citizen likes better than a good natter about unpleasant medical procedures – but there remains an unspoken social rule that precludes such conversations at the dining table.
Finishing off their dinners, Matt and Cat had to disturb a couple more grey-heads to get off the bench, before standing across from the huge array of cakes to make their self-certified payment. Although the lunches were a helpfully fixed price at £5 each, the fizzy drinks were a purse-pounding £2.75 per bottle, and had they gone for a cup of coffee they would have risked drinking what could be a candidate for Cowes’ most pricey Americano at £2.90 a cup. All this, mind you, for food and drink that you have to serve yourself. Matt and Cat couldn’t help but compare this to the far less prestigiously-located but equally characterful Foundation Bakery in Newport, where a bowl of delicious soup with bread costs £3.75 and a cup of coffee is £1.80 – and they bring it to you.
So Well Bread certainly has a charm of its own, and it’s a place that is popular. It didn’t really suit Matt and Cat. The food was basic, the tables were crumby, the prices were high, the service was distant. But that’s maybe simply a matter of taste. The place is unusual, attractive, homely and is making a real effort to do something new and different in Cowes.