Toast of the coast!
Here at So Southwold we recently had the pleasure of meeting Simon Middleton, a fascinating character bringing a new quirky service to Southwold. His 'Blackshore' brand and his passion for sourdough bread are about to hit the town by storm!
Here Gill Bendall interviews Simon to reveal is eclectic career and his new passion.
From brand guru to bread-maker… Simon Middleton’s CV features both, plus lots of other jobs before and in-between. He trained as a teacher but went into PR and business journalism straight out of Uni, joining the NHS five years later where he trained to be a registered nurse working with people with severe learning disabilities. A decade on he decided to try freelance writing: “A move that worked out well, and within a few years I was the Creative Director of an advertising agency – experience that got me interested in brands and branding, and I left the agency in 2005 to set up my own specialist consultancy,” he says.
Simon worked with a huge range of brands – from Adnams to Harris Tweed – and is the author of several books on the subject, including Build A Brand In 30 Days which led to him speaking about branding all over the world. In more recent years he has set up a banjo factory – “weird, but we don’t have enough time here to explain,” he says – a business which ultimately became lifestyle and clothing brand Shackleton, inspired by the Antarctic explorer and focusing on British-made, men’s outdoor clothing.
“I’ve had a pretty varied career, and turning 60 this year has made me reflect on it more than a little!” Simon says. No longer a shareholder in Shackleton, he moved close to Southwold in 2016 but, finding retirement a little too quiet, he launched another business last year: called Blackshore this, too, is focused on British-made menswear but with its inspiration coming from the coast, it’s a range of clothing Simon describes as ‘casual rather than technical’.
“Meanwhile, to keep myself amused when not working, I started baking, particularly focusing on sourdough bread” …and there begins another chapter in this workaholic’s story. “It turns out I’m pretty good at it and it’s become something of an obsession. That, and home-roasting coffee!” explains Simon. “So I set up a little website, and people started to buy the bread and the coffee! It’s going so well actually that I’m now going to combine the baking and coffee with the Blackshore brand to create a ‘lifestyle’ business, inspired by living on the Suffolk coast.”
The clothing goes into production next year and the initial Sole Bay Sourdough website has changed to Blackshore branding: www.blackshorebakery.co.uk. “There’ll be a coffee and baked goods trailer (towed by me on an electric bike) in Southwold, Walberswick and neighbouring villages. And soon – perhaps early next year – we hope to have a pop-up shop/café as well,” says Simon.
Simon’s business acumen is undeniable. But talk to him about baking, or coffee beans, and it’s clear this is much more than about making money. “I think baking is part art, part science, and part just getting your hands sticky and making a glorious mess,” he says. “ It’s pretty primal actually. Taking a simple ingredient like flour, adding only water (in the case of sourdough bread anyway) and heat, and almost miraculously creating something delicious and nutritious… it’s like being a magician. And turning green coffee beans into roasted beans, then grinding them just right and making delicious coffee has a similar feel of alchemy about it. I’m addicted to both!”
Simon bakes around three days out of seven and says: “It takes up a lot of evenings too. I’m expanding beyond sourdough bread now, to bake brioche buns, croissants, brownies and cakes.”
So what’s so special about sourdough? “It is a kind of magic. It’s the most ‘real’ of breads,” Simon enthuses. “It starts with flour – I only use organic flour because it has no additives or pesticides, and I use stoneground because that process is slower and more gentle on the grain, so it is more ‘alive’. The flour is mixed with water and allowed to ferment using the natural yeasts that exist in the grain. That becomes the ‘starter’ and then more flour and water is added to create the dough. That’s it: flour, and water. Nothing else except care and nature.
“But it’s much more labour-intensive and time-consuming than shop-bought bread. It ferments very slowly, over at least 48 hours, sometimes longer. That’s why it’s so much better for the digestion. It tastes better. It has a much more engaging texture. And it’s so much more easily-digested, because the fermentation has already happened. Even people who are gluten-intolerant find sourdough can be digested comfortably.”
If your tastebuds are tingling but you’re not in Southwold right now, Simon sells his bread, coffee beans and even sourdough starter kits online, for delivery anywhere in the UK via Royal Mail. “The lovely thing about sourdough is that it lasts much longer than yeasted bread, despite having no preservatives,” he explains. “So I can receive an order, prove and bake it over the next two days, send it first class and it will arrive perfectly fresh.
“One of the most important things with coffee is freshness, so I roast to order. When people buy coffee from me they know it’s been roasted no more than a day earlier.”
It all sounds rather romantic, and Simon admits he’s in a very happy place in his life. “Branding fascinates me intellectually, and all of my branding experience has gone into the creation and telling of the story about my baking and my clothing brand,” he says. “But baking feeds the soul as well as the body! If I had no business or assets at all and had to start over from scratch, I would simply buy some flour and start baking!”
The next six months are all about building the baking and coffee business, then the following six months will see Simon developing his clothing line. “After that I’d love to have someone run the business so that I can be out back, baking and roasting!” he says.
And it’s all managed from his home in Reydon – a house he bought after moving from Norfolk in 2016. Simon still journeys back over the county border to visit his grown-up children and close friends in Norwich, but says: “I’ve been visiting Southwold for over 30 years and had always imagined I might end up here. I bought a tiny house, but it’s five minutes by bike from the beach, and five minutes on foot to the marshes that lead down to the Blackshore, so it’s perfectly placed actually.
“I love it here more than I can say. The landscape is extraordinary. The ‘small town’ vibe is delightful. And I’ve made some good friends. I’ll never leave.”
I imagine that with bread-baking and coffee bean-grinding in full flow, his house must smell amazing. “Well yes, I guess it does,” Simon replies. “But it’s also more than a little untidy!”
Written by Gill Bendall