Multi-award winning baker John Agnew produces the tastiest traditional Irish fruit and wheaten loaves in the British Isles. He earned that recognition at the recent World Bread Awards in London.
John, who runs Ann’s Pantry in Larne with sister Helen Porter, tickled the taste buds of a panel of bread experts in the awards and collected two major category awards for his fruit loaf against competitors from across the UK and Ireland as well as his traditional Irish wheaten bread for entries mainly from Northern Ireland and the Republic. Helen looks after management and promotional activities for the small family bakery.
“Winning the award for the best traditional Irish wheaten was a marvellous achievement for us but much more significant was coming out on top with our unique fruit loaf.
“Both winners are based on a family recipe dating back 53 years to when Sean, my father, and mother Ann set up the home bakery on Larne’s Main Street,” John says. “We were up against hundreds of bakeries, small and large, from many parts of the British Isles in the awards. I believe we are the first local bakery to win a major open category award. In addition, the fruit loaf was placed third in the overall award for the World’s Best Bread,” he adds.
The World Bread Awards this year was “more competitive than ever,” according to chairman of the judging panel Stephen Hallam, whose fellow judges, all 100 of them, included Apollonia Poilane of the legendary Paris bakery Poilane, Dr John Foster of BBC’s Victorian Bakers and Harry Lomas, executive head chef, Wembley Stadium.
Launched in January 2013, the awards celebrate the very best of bread baking especially the creation of original breads. Among sponsors of the competition is Andrews Ingredients in Lisburn, a leading supplier to the bakery industry. Promotion agency Food NI is a key sponsor of the wheaten bread category.
Hundreds of loaves were delivered by entrants by courier, taxi and in person on the morning of the judging at Cathedral Hall, Westminster Cathedral, to ensure maximum freshness.
Bread is a huge industry in the UK – 12 million loaves are sold every day. The phenomenon of the artisan bakery has also taken off in the last decade. Not only is commercially-made bread popular, but home-baking is massively on the rise too, encouraged by a host of TV and radio cooking shows.
John started working in the family bakery in his school holidays at the tender age of 12. “I helped my parents and learned how to bake traditional local favourites such as soda farls, potato bread, wheaten, cakes and biscuits,” he continues. In 1980, John joined the bakery from school and has since moved up to become the master baker.
“I loved working in the family bakery and joining my parents there was a ‘no-brainer’ for me. It’s such a creative and satisfying role. I also enjoy talking to customers and getting their feedback about the products especially the original baked goods we develop on a regular basis,” he says.
He works alongside his uncle Liam Agnew in the company’s modern bakery behind the shop that’s been popular with shoppers from Larne and the surrounding area for generations. It’s one of the excellent and innovative home bakeries that Northern Ireland has managed to maintain.
What sets his bread apart from other local and national rivals? “All our breads are based on old family recipes. While the wheaten uses traditional ingredients favoured by all home bakeries across the island, I’ve developed a baking technique that gives the bread a distinctive flavour. There are also a couple of secrets involved in the baking process.
“We’ve also responded to market concerns about obesity and diabetes by creating sugar-free wheaten and other breads. The decision to go sugar-free followed a request from the customer with diabetes. We value greatly the contacts we have with customers in the shop and endeavour to react quickly to their requests,” he adds.
The fruit loaf that the judges loved is made using orange and lemon juices and zest with the added ‘kick’ provided by a “touch of brandy”, he explains.
Married to Catherine with Emily, the couple’s eight-year old daughter, John, in addition, has an impressive track record in other national food competitions over the past five years. Baked goods from Ann’s Pantry have earned the ambitious bakery, a Food NI member company, an unrivalled 49 Great Taste Awards in what is widely respected as Europe’s most influential competition for artisan and smaller food and drink enterprises.
The Co Antrim business was also named Northern Ireland’s best bakery at the BBC Food Show in 2016. It’s now Northern Ireland’s most decorated home bakery and among the most creative in terms of trends including sourdough and spelt breads.