Michael Hanson cradles the freshly baked loaf of bread he has just taken out of the oven and places his ear to the top. He is listening for the crackling of the loaf as the air is released. The smile on his face is the embodiment of contentment.
I’d just arrived at The Hearth – his bake house and pizzeria housed in the bus station in Lewes – and had already experienced a sensory overload with the aroma of tomatoes and garlic cooking for the pizzas – as well as a damn fine cup of coffee from the shop downstairs. Now Michael had brought me upstairs to take a look at the only bread oven in Lewes and watch a master at work. Not that he put it that way. Michael, although prestigiously talented at what he does – and confident enough to tell you – has a humility that puts you at ease within seconds of meeting him.
He converted the disused 1960s-era greasy spoon café in the bus station around three years ago and now plies his trade baking the bread – some using the grains from his own wheat fields just down the road – and then serving his critically acclaimed pizza cooked in the same handmade oven in the evening. One of his bakers has rung in sick so he is covering him the morning I meet him but it doesn’t seem like he sees this as a chore. He lovingly bakes the bread while enthusiastically telling me how he came to be in this part of the world, his views on artisan bakers and how the government is employing the classic bread and circuses routine to keep the populace docile, amongst a whole host of other topics.
Michael hails from Lincolnshire, “where there is wheat everywhere”, and is a baker like his father, and his grandfather. His aunt is a big cereal grower as well, so farming and baking seem to be in the blood. But he didn’t always understand the finer aspects of the business. “I always thought wheat was generic. Wheat is wheat. Flour is flour. It wasn’t until I met John Letts when I was working as a thatcher that I understood how it should be grown. If you plant a whole field with one variety and you get an infection it fails. But if you have a land raised mix with maybe 50 varieties some will always survive – it’s the natural way.”
Thatching was strenuous work though and before Michael aggravated his back injury any further, he started building mud ovens in small communities in Wales and then making pizzas. This sparked just one of a series of lightbulb moments that have directed Michael throughout his life. With a small oven that he kept under his bed in the Mercedes bus he called home, he travelled the music festival circuit at a time before pizzas became the food of choice at such events. It was when his bus was attacked while he was living in London that he spoke to a friend who he knew from the festivals who said that he should go down to Lewes and park up there. “Now there are more pizza makers at festivals than bloody artisan bakers! You go to Glastonbury and there are 15 pizzerias there”, Michael explains.
I had wanted to ask him what he thought of ‘artisan’ bakers. Not so much his highly skilled peers, but the prevalence of the term ‘artisan’ used as a selling tool by so many companies these days. “I wrote something about this a while ago. I was getting really fucked off with everyone becoming an artisan schmartisan. Everyone’s an artisan baker! To become an artisan you have to do an apprenticeship that might take three or four years and then when you’ve learnt as much as you can from the master baker you become a journeyman baker to develop your craft. You can’t become an artisan in two days. There’s so much kidology.” Although this is something that obviously irks Michael there is still that ever present mischievous grin on his face. He does enjoy telling a story!
Although he readily admits that baking is in his blood, Michael doesn’t want to get to the point again when he is having nightmares about the business side of things like when he ran successful pizzerias in Leeds in the 1980s. “I don’t want to get to that burnt out phase where I don’t want anything more to do with baking.” The social element of bread making is his overriding area of interest – the anthropology, ethnography and spirituality surrounding bread. “Creating ceremony through bread is something that I am really passionate about. I saw this video of some old Bulgarian women making bread. They had these big loaves of dough and when they put them in the basket they made the sign of the cross as a blessing. It was like a little bit of sacramental magic. And sacramental magic is all about intention. It’s not about following a doctrine; it’s about having an internal spirituality. It’s cultural anthropology. And that’s what runs the whole thing for me.”
It’s this idea of the bread oven being the centre of the village that seems to drive Michael. How you can create community through bread – and how people have been doing it for thousands of years. He plans to take his interest in the ceremonial aspect of bread making even further when he steps away from The Hearth by organising special workshops and courses exploring ancient customs. “We will be recreating and reinventing the bread ritual ceremony. So we will be doing a four day bread making course but using old songs and dances from Bulgaria, Macedonia, Hungary, and include them in the workshop.”
It seems a shame, in a way, that such a talented baker won’t always be making bread and pizzas in the converted bus station in Lewes for all to enjoy. But it is exactly this passion and drive that Michael possesses that has taken him through life finding different ways to bring people together using his illustrious talents. “This notion of rounding off my knowledge, it seems like that’s just what I have to do in order to complete my spiritual journey”.
Words: Dan Roberts / Photography: Tsvetelina Ivanova