There was always bread,” says Elisabeth Mahoney. “When I was young, my mum was a night nurse in Hither Green Hospital, and she would come home in the morning, bake some bread in our teensy kitchen, then sleep while I went to school. She taught me how to make my first soda bread when I was eight.”
Mahoney and I are chatting as she teaches me how to make my first bread: not soda bread, but a nice white loaf, plus a seeded spelt and a plaited challah. Creator and founder of One Mile Bakery, she is whizzing me through her breadmaking course in the space of a few hours. One Mile, which Mahoney started in 2012, has two elements: first, it delivers, by bicycle, homemade bread, soups and preserves to any customer living within a mile of her Cardiff kitchen. (“It’s a bigger radius than I realised,” says Mahoney. “And we live on a big hill: the cycling nearly killed me at first!”) And second, it provides day courses for anyone who wants to bake good bread: whether experienced, or, like me, a complete novice.
One Mile Bakery is a success – it has been a runner-up three times in the OFM Awards best independent retailer category – but it’s one born of adversity. Mahoney started the project almost as an act of desperation. “I hit so many rock bottoms,” she says. “But if you’re really at your lowest ebb – and trust me, I was at my lowest ebb for so long – then, if you’re lucky, you find a new way. And mine was through doing what I knew already. It was through bread.”
As Mahoney and I measure and knead and shape and set aside, we talk. In 2008, she found her life was slipping out of kilter. Her beloved mother, Betty, had a stroke so big that she was read the last rites at hospital. Suddenly, the slow decline of her old age was fast-forwarded. Betty went into a home. “She couldn’t speak, she couldn’t write, she couldn’t stand up on her own,” says Mahoney. “She had to be fed through a tube. Everything about her – her voice, her love of food, her cooking – everything just went out of the window.”
Mahoney and her mother were close. The youngest child of five, born to Irish immigrant parents, Mahoney came as a surprise when Betty was 46 (“She thought I was the menopause”). She grew up happily, in Catford, south London. But her dad died when he was just 55, leaving her mum to bring up Mahoney, then 10, on her own. The other children had left home, and in the months after his death, mother and daughter bonded through cooking. They bought a magazine called Supercook every week and worked their way through the recipes; harder than you think, given they had to source exotic ingredients, such as garlic or fresh herbs, from Lewisham market, and Betty didn’t drive. “It was a big adventure, every Saturday,” says Mahoney. “We did it for years.” Betty taught Mahoney her own recipes, too: she rarely wrote anything down. (“I once asked her how she made apple crumble,” says Mahoney. “She said, ‘You get apples. And you get crumble. That’s all.’”)
All that knowledge, all that history … Family is often cited as the basis for small food projects – wanting to provide for young kids, keeping things natural, working from home – yet Mahoney felt as though her family was diminishing, not increasing. Not only was she coping with her mother’s decline, but another story was developing, and not as she had hoped. Mahoney and her husband wanted children. And she kept getting pregnant – “I was really good at it” – but then kept losing the babies – “I was even better at that.” The first time she miscarried was on Mother’s Day, when she’d spent the day with her mum. Mahoney miscarried in early pregnancy; she miscarried later in pregnancy. She miscarried just before her 40th birthday: she’d organised a big party and had to cancel it. Each time was a death, she says: “Because you have a thing that exists and you see that little heartbeat picture … and then it’s like it never happened.” Many of her friends didn’t know what to say after a while. “Better luck next time!” doesn’t work after the first two or three. In total, over a period of around six years, she miscarried eight times. She cries, a little, as she tells me.
When Mahoney was 43, she and her husband decided enough was enough. No more pregnancies. And for a while, she felt marooned, caring for her mum, knowing the dream of being a parent was over: “I had nobody below me, nobody above me. I just felt completely lost.”
But gradually, an idea began to take hold. “I was taught, by my mum, that homemade bread was a total staple,” says Mahoney. “Not tricky, or fancy, but just something you always had on the table. And I just adore bread: my favourite thing in the world is tea and toast, or cheese and bread, or soup and bread … It’s one of the core food staples in my life. Desert island food, basically.”
She decided to leave her job as a journalist and to make bread and deliver it, with a few bread accessories: soup, jam. She wanted to keep everything small, in order to keep it affordable, but also because it reminded her of her mum. When Mahoney was 46 – the same age as Betty when she had her – she launched One Mile Bakery. It was an instant success; the demand almost overwhelming, she remembers. Within a couple of months, she needed help and recruited someone who had been on her one-day baking course (a cyclist: much quicker than her at deliveries.)
But then, in February 2013, Betty died. “I was in the middle of making 38 loaves,” says Mahoney. “And I just sat there, and cried, and cried. I stopped. But the dough had other ideas and carried on rising, and even in the depths of that moment, when I could barely process what had happened, I thought: bread, you devil, you just keep going.”
Mahoney couldn’t bake for six weeks; she handed over to her new recruit. But then, the grief lifted, a little, and she went into the kitchen at 4.30am and made a loaf: “A simple seeded spelt tin loaf.” It was the loaf she’d made for her mum the last time she’d come to stay. Mahoney carried on making that loaf every two days for a year. “It’s still my favourite,” she says. “It got me through so much.”
Breadmaking is a strange voodoo. As a beginner, I’m amazed by its combination of science and magic. The precision of quantities (Mahoney has me weigh the water I use, as she finds weighing more exact), the accuracy of time (we set an alarm for kneading). The magic is, of course, the dough. The kneading is mesmeric: a sort of smooth stretching, like using the heel of your hand to iron out the creases in a crumpled piece of paper. And to see four simple ingredients – just flour, water, salt and yeast for the white loaf – mesh into a living mass that changes shape and grows of its own accord, well, experienced bread-makers may laugh, but it seems like witchcraft to me.
Mahoney agrees. She sees it in her classes. “I’ve taught people going through career challenges, toxic divorces, being new to the city, dealing with sleep deprivation because of toddlers, caring for parents,” she says. “I had a soldier with PTSD come in who was unable to be in a group. He sat with me to the side, and helped chop stuff and he just blossomed. People come with all sorts weighing them down, we all chat around the kitchen table and somehow, the kneading takes everyone’s minds off what they’ve left behind, and then the magic of what happens in such simple steps takes them out of their day-to-day.”
In the years since One Mile Bakery started, Mahoney’s mother-in-law died, then her father-in-law, then her niece. (“With bereavement,” she says, “you don’t understand until you get there. Once you’re there, you have a vocabulary, a way of thinking about it.”) Through it all, she kept teaching, baking, delivering. Now, 1,900 people have been through her courses; some have set up One Mile Bakeries themselves.
It’s the end of our afternoon: and I appear to have created three lovely loaves. I’m more excited than I imagined I would be. Mahoney isn’t surprised.
“Bread is exciting because it’s unpredictable,” she says. “It’s affected by weather, humidity, especially sourdough. You could say it’s affected by mood. It’s always an adventure, so if you need to take your mind off something, it is like magic. You have to totally focus on it, you make it by hand and forget everything else, and then you wait to see if it worked. These are all really good life skills. And then you get toast.”
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