Bells of Lazonby build the UK's newest gluten-free bakery

Michelle Berriedale-Johnson takes the train to Cumbria

Back in 1946, at the end of the war,  demobbed John Bell returned to his native Cumbria and decided  to open his own bakery in the village of Lazonb , high in the fells. The bakery flourished and by the early 1960s had outgrown its premises. So when Dr Beeching, in his notorious massacre of the railway network, decide to close Lazonby station (on the dramatic Carlisle to Settle line ) the goods yard struck John Bell as the ideal place to build a new bakery. Along with the goodsyard came the station and for the next 30 years, the station was used as an all purpose storage dump, while the bakery spread its tentacles – and sent its vans – throughout the Lake District and the North West.
Enter the Village Bakery     

Meanwhile seven miles over the fells in Melmerby, ex-BBC world service Russian language producer, Andrew Whitley had got bitten by the baking  bug. He built a wood-fired oven in the shop next door to his house and started to sell his home crafted, organic artisan bread to vistors to his shop and the local community.

Initially the Village Bakery just made old fashioned, properly made bread from local organic flours but Andrew’s interest in the craft of baking led him to experiment with other flours (Russian rye in particular) and other raising methods, such as sour dough. Gradually the Village Bakery became known to food intolerants in search of wheat and gluten-free baked goods. By the end of the 1990s they were making a full range of gluten and wheat-free and other special diet cakes, biscuits and breads that were being sold as far field as London

Co-operation to amalgamation   

Back in Lazonby the Bell family (father John, now officially retired although to this day he opens  the daily post, has lunch with his son Michael, now MD and son-in-law Phil who runs the bakery,  and scans the bank accounts weekly) were realising that the bakery business in Cumbria had expanded as far as it could go and were looking for pastures new. The ‘special diet' market into which their neighbour, the Village Bakery, had fallen almost by chance, seemed to offer an interesting prospect.

Discussions with Andrew at the Village Bakery, with special diet groups such as Coeliac Society and with the big three supermarket chains, all of whom had recently launched ‘free from’ sections persuaded the Bell’s that yes, here was a very interesting market opportunity for a bakery. However, they realised that, to address it seriously, they would need to be able to provide levels of contamination control which could only be achieved in a dedicated gluten and wheat, dairy or nut free factory. 

Logic suggest that Bells and the Village Bakery should combine forces. In fact, Andrew, who already had many committments in the organic world, was beginning to feel that 20+ years running a bakery were maybe enough, so, in 2002 he sold the Village Bakery to Bells. He continues to act as a part time consultant on new product to design and runs craft bakery courses (including gluten free baking ones) in the old Village Bakery (check to know more).

Building a gluten-free bakery

What might strike the average reader as Herculean task, creating a totally allergen-free bakery was made a great deal easier by the size of the still only half used goodsyard that John Bell had originally bought from Dr Beeching - and by the fact that they were starting from scratch. If no gluten or wheat had ever been allowed on the premises, there was none to get rid of. None the less. It was neither a trouble free - nor a cheap - undertaking.

Much early discussion had centred around whether they should make a new bakery not only gluten, wheat and dairy free but nut free as well. However it was decided that nuts played such a substantial role in the type of craft baking which the Village Bakery specialised, and that nut flours were so valuable as alternative flours, that excluding nuts from the new venture would be to limit it too greatly.

Whether or not the new bakery would make bread, the holy grail of most gluten-free manufacturers, was also a matter of much discussion. Although bread is what their customers continue to ask for, Bells decided that, at this stage (and so that the new factory could also remain yeast free), they would concentrate on cakes biscuits, snack bars and 'counter lines’ (individual portions of cake etc. for the takeaway and food service market).

They also decided to establish a new brand OK Foods which would run in tandem with the existing Village Bakery lines. While the latter would remain they would be largely organic and craft baked goods. OK would aim at a wider market which did not necessarily want to pay for organic but did want a guarantee of quality in this specialist area.

What does 'free from' really mean?

The whole area of free from is fraught as there are neither generally accepted standards for gluten etc contamination not generally agreed rules as to what should or should not be declared.

The widely accepted level of 200ppm (parts per million) of gluten is far too high for serious coeliacs and certainly for those austic children doing well on gluten and casein-free diets. Bells have set themselves standards of 10ppm of gluten, 2.5ppm of dairy proteins (as low as can be tested) and 20ppm of lactose. Lactose presents a particular problem to testers as at these kind of levels it is currently impossible to reliably distinguish between the different types of sugar - lactose, glucose, fructose etc).

Suppliers are thoroughly vetted and ingredients are independently tested before they arrive at the bakery. The products are then tested during production both per batch and by spot check using these Tepnel tests kits. Finally, random samples of finished products are sent for testing at independent laboratories. 

All this testing adds substantially to operating costs - as does the fact that in order to get some of the more esoteric ingredients needed for their products, they need to order in much larger quantities than anticipated, so a larger investment and the need for even more storage space. The storage section of the new bakery is already running out of space.

None the less Michael Bell and Tim Brown, his Key Account Manager, are pleased with the way the new brand (launched in the spring of 2003) and the new factory are developing. The staff, all of whom are drawn from the local area, have become very involved in - and very knowledgeable about - their products, several of which have already got listings in the big supermarket chains as well health food and independent stores nationwide. But, as they admit it is a steep learning curve – and they still have a long way to go.   

The products                        

The gluten/dairy-free cakes on offer include three OK Foods  and two Village Bakery organic cakes. OK also do Apricot & Cinnamon and Wild Blueberry snack bars and sweet and savoury biscuits.

Village Bakery offer a fruit cake and Chocolate & Orange Brownies . There are also a range of biscuits for cheese and a Village Bakery ginger biscuit.
Over the last year we have tested all of the new products and with very few dissenting voices. We  have liked them all. The OK Almond & Apricot and Chocolate Hazelnut, and the Village Bakery Ginger and Orange & Vanilla are all sponge ‘loaf’ cakes. Their textures are very good (all use a combination of ground almonds, brown rice, manioc, chickpea and buckwheat flour) – very similar to a ‘normal’ sponge cake. In flavour terms we were particularly taken with the Almond & Apricot and the Ginger, although the Chocolate & Hazelnut went down well with a visiting taster. We found the Chocolate & Orange Brownies a bit sweet  but the cereal bars are pleasantly unsweet and filling (what a cereal bar is meant to be!) Look for them in your local Sainsbury, Waitrose, Booths, Asda or Boots) - or order them direct from the Village Bakery on 01768 881811

But meanwhile, what of the station... Well, as Bells were building their new bakery they noticed that the old Lazonby station in which they had been dumping their unwanted everything was getting seriously dilapidated. Application to a Railway Heritage Trust and the local planning office both proved fruitful and, along with the new bakery, in 2003 they opened a new business centre in the old station - now re-burnished and returned to its Victorian glory .

So if you want to go and visit them, take the Settle to Carlisle line from Leeds (or Carlisle), enjoy the spectacular ride through the Yorkshire dales, the Pennines and the fells and get out at Lazonby station. You only have 10 yards to walk off the platform to find yourself in the heart of the bakery. 

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First Published in 2004

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