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News article created on 18 February 2015

My life on the canal

Carl Heer teaches bakers in an exceptionally narrow classroom.

Tell us about your canal-side business

I run the Bakin' Butty – a bakery school aboard a narrowboat moored at Trinity Marina in Hinckley on the Ashby Canal. The business came about after a life-long love of Britain's canal heritage and my 30 years as a baker. I sold my bakery business in 2007 and found myself with lots of time on my hands. The idea of combining my two passions culminated in the purchase of my very first narrowboat Sandra in 2010.

What courses do you run?

I've been lucky to have worked in all areas of baking; from dough making and pastry work to confectionary and making wedding cakes, so I offer courses in all aspects of the trade. I prefer tailoring courses to suit the client, but in general I offer beginner courses in bread making. For those with more experience or who are just more adventurous we can do sourdoughs, continental breads and enriched doughs for making tea cakes and Danish pastries.

How many people can you fit in your narrowboat kitchen?

Three is the maximum. This enables more one-to-one tuition but we can stretch to five or six for purely demonstration purposes. I had to remove the seating that converted into a double bed so I could extend the galley to fit the extra oven and fridge. This gave me extra worktop space.

What's the most challenging thing about running your business aboard a narrowboat?

Space! I've worked in some small bakeries in my time but they were cavernous compared to the Bakin' Butty. There's also problems with generating our own electricity (if we're out of the marina and up the canal), having to adapt to a limited water supply and using ovens that are fired by propane gas and are not fan-assisted. Baking is not as straightforward as in a fan-assisted oven as the heat isn't so evenly distributed.

What should people bear in mind before attending one of your courses?

If you're a bit on the claustrophobic side, it might not be for you, but it is a very cosy environment that makes for a unique baking experience. We're obviously afloat so there's a certain amount of movement, which we try to keep to a minimum. If the weather's good on one of the full-day courses we even go for a little ride up the canal.

What's your favourite thing to bake and why?

Bread – it's the stuff of life! And it's always a joy to see the look on someone's face when they take their first loaf out of the oven and see what they've created. Everyone should experience the flavour of a crusty loaf, made by their own hands.

Does your family have a strong baking heritage?

I took up baking after leaving school at the age of 15 and found out that my grandfather, who died before I was born, emigrated to Britain from Switzerland in 1901 and settled in Cheetham Hill, Manchester where he opened his own bakery. He had to sell his share of the business during the Depression of the 1930s and like so many immigrants at the start of the Second World War, he ended up being interned on the Isle of Man.

Where in the country would you most like to tour your narrowboat?

God's own country – Lancashire, where I grew up. Some of the canals go through magnificent countryside up there and when I have time I'd love to get up that way, teaching baking as I travel.

What's on your bedside table?

A copy of Rick Stein's Under A Mackerel Sky, Tony Benn's A Blaze of Autumn Sunshine, a family photograph and my bedside light.

Interview: Abigail Whyte


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