Baker Stephen Thompson is living a dream – it’s just not quite the dream he set out to achieve.
He is the owner and master baker of Da Kitchen Bakery, based in Burravoe, Yell, supplying loaves and pies across a large part of Shetland.
Having moved to the isle from the built up northwest of England he lives in a renovated croft house and is happy to tell Shetland Life that he is content with his lot. The community, he says, is fantastic and supports his venture.
But running a bakery, something Stephen had done all his working life, was not quite the plan when he and his wife Sarah decided to take the plunge and start a new life in Yell.
They had a notion to set up a firm making cheese from the milk produced by Shetland ewes and to operate it from a newly-built house.
He says: “We originally wanted to do Shetland sheep’s cheese. They’re not a milking breed, but you can get grants if you supply off island. It would be a limited thing because the milk runs out at the end of summer.”
Despite its limitations Stephen completed a course in cheese making and has not given up on the idea but, for now, his focus is firmly on the trade he knows best. And inspired by Shetland and its larder, he has launched several new lines recently. Chief among them is the lamb bridie – a variation on a well known theme.
He says: “Most bakers are doing a steak or beef bridie, I thought, ‘why not lamb, we are in Shetland?’. They’re going well.”
Another recent addition to his range are cream horns, using cream from Shetland Dairy. “Martin Lyth who works at the dairy drops the cream off,” says Stephen. “If you support the local businesses the money stays in Shetland, whether it’s paying their staff in wages, or paying the farmers that’s supplying the dairy it’s staying in Shetland.
“I don’t know whether people think about that, but I think you should support local where possible.”
Plus the dairy’s milk and cream is mighty fine, says Stephen , “it’s very rich”.
The cream horns seem to go down particularly well with customers at the Mossbank shop – “I think a lot of [workers] from Sella Ness pop in for their fags and they like cream buns.”
Of course, loaves and other bakery favourites like pies and buns are a stock in trade and Stephen also makes a cheese and onion pasty using Shetlandeli’s onion marmalade.
Like Shetlandeli in Skeld, Stephen’s enterprise operates out one of the network of local halls dotted across the isles. In his case it is the impressive Burravoe Hall that is home to his business.
When he first thought about launching a bakery he approached Lawrence Odie, who is a member of the Burravoe Hall Committee.
“They were pleased because although it’s used at night the hall is not used through the day. They don’t lose any bookings. I come in at 2.30am.”
It’s an arrangement that suits both parties – the hall gets additional income and Stephen gets a fully-equipped kitchen, although he did have to buy a pie blocker, pastry roller and food mixer. More recently he has also added a three-shelf bakery oven that should allow him to produce more produce, more efficiently.
With a wry smile he says: “The plan was to come in a bit later. It hasn’t materialised, I’ve just taken more work on.”
Originally from Lancashire Stephen had run several bakeries down south when he decided to seek a new challenge.
His last venture had been a shop in St Anne’s near Blackpool, which he said was “not a place I wanted to live”.
That sentiment prompted a Google search back in 2009 for “Scottish property and land for sale”. It identified a plot in Yell that was due to be auctioned and the couple “hopped on a plane”, visited the site and put in a bid that proved to be successful.
The rest, as they say, is history.
The idea was to build a house and plans were drawn up. But before that project got off the ground an “old house next door” at Cuppaster became available. It had belonged to “Old Merne”, said Stephen but needed a lot of work, meaning it was April 2011 before the couple could move in.
And the cost of renovation meant Stephen returned to the bakery business. “I wasn’t planning on doing that up here but I needed to do something after the house was done to get money in. I could do baking and thought I’ll do that for the moment. Three years on and I’m still doing it.”
Not that he has any regrets, though he has had to work out how to deal withw the logistical challenges of running a business in what is undeniably a remote location.
“Once you have got your head round the logistics and transport it’s the same [as running a bakery anywhere]. You have to make sure you don’t run low on your supplies.”
And like running a bakery anywhere you have to be prepared to get up in the middle of the night and get ready to put a hard shift in so the rest of us can enjoy our daily bread.
“You have got to enjoy your job to do it. If you didn’t enjoy it, you wouldn’t do it.”
It’s obvious that Stephen does enjoy it – and whatever the hours, it has to be easier than milking sheep.
Photos: Dave Donaldson