Lord Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon GCMG KBE PC otherwise known as Paddy Ashdown greets me at the door of his home in London. Suited and booted with a military bearing matched by a firm handshake and an open, steady gaze, I cannot help falling for him instantly. He is a busy man, yes, but he has made time to talk to a random stranger about bread – what he eats, what he likes, and what he associates with bread. But first things first: he offers to make me coffee.
“No milk I am afraid!” It’s Friday and he is heading home to the West Country in a few hours.
“Jane provides me with a pint of milk and a loaf of bread every Sunday night when I come up to London,” he explains. “The bread goes in the freezer and I toast two slices every morning. Otherwise, I eat at the House of Lords or have ready meals so when the milk runs out, it runs out, and I switch to black coffee. Being a soldier is great training for taking coffee any way it comes, any time it comes.”
Given I have the same attitude about coffee (don’t get me wrong I love good coffee but am perfectly content to drink instant when that is the thing on offer and don’t really mind how it comes) we get along just fine and take our interchangeable mugs up to the study. “Now tell me,” he says fixing me with that direct gaze, “what is it exactly that you do?”
I confess I am a bit taken aback. I expected to do the interviewing. I am not affronted, merely amazed that he is interested.
“Well, I run Virtuous Bread which is a social enterprise dedicated to changing the world through bread. In addition to baking, teaching, working with executive teams and helping people set up home baking businesses, we aim to make it fun – engage people in fun ways on the topic of bread. Hence, the interviews with famous people about bread. We want to attract people in lots of different ways and there will be people out there who have never thought about bread but they have thought about Paddy Ashdown and will be delighted to read about you – anything about you – even your attitudes about bread.” I gabble, knowing I only have about 30 minutes of his time.
“That sounds excellent,” he says, “more people should know how to bake bread but are you attracting a wide audience or are you limited to – well – the middle classes – people with money who can afford to take a baking class?”
“No,” I respond. “Our classes are very inexpensive compared to most baking classes and we do a lot of volunteer work and have set up a scholarship fund for the Bread Angels course so that people who really don’t have the money to do the course can get some financial assistance. Further, I would love to interview pop stars just as much as members of the House of Lords, to engage a broad audience: it’s just a matter of finding people who are willing to talk to me at all – much less about bread!”
Phew. That seems to have satisfied what is clearly a most tenacious brain.
“Well, I don’t know that much about bread,” he confesses, “or, indeed food in general. I am a dinosaur and a Royal Marine. If you give me some map coordinates, a rabbit, and a sack of potatoes I can rendezvous at the appointed place and provide the meal but I am hopeless in the kitchen!” He hoots with laughter. “However, I can make toast.”
In fact, Paddy Ashdown loves toast.
“It’s a childhood thing. Bread – good bread – was very much part of the culture of Northern Ireland when I was growing up. We had wonderful bread – wheaten bread, soda bread, potato farls- and many people baked at home as a matter of both pride and necessity. My grandmother baked bread every day and I remember getting home from school and just eating and eating hot bread with butter and golden syrup.” He sighs at the memory. “I try to cajole Jane into baking wheaten bread but she won’t have it. Given we can buy excellent bread at our local village shop, I don’t have a leg to stand on and then there is the fact that I would rather make a rude noise in the House of Lords than have any kind of opinion about the kitchen at home – that is very much her domain!”
At this point we raise Jane Ashdown on the computer so I can talk to her about the bread they eat at home in the West Country while Paddy Ashdown finishes packing his brief case for the day ahead. Jane Ashdown is great! She found it perfectly ordinary to be “facetimed” at 10 in the morning by a random stranger to talk about bread.
“We live in a tiny village,” she explains, “with one shop – a Spar. They sell fabulous bread: sunflower seed bread, granary bread, whole and white bread. It is baked every day at a local bakery in Martock and it just flies off the shelf. In fact, when we were snowed in and it was difficult to go long distances, people from nearby villages came in and there was a run on the bread!”
I asked her about the wheaten bread.
“Oh lord,” she sighed, “he does go on about it. His cherished wheaten bread…well, that’s just too bad!”
“Where is my coffee?” comes the voice from behind me.
“Oops, sorry,” I confessed, “I drank it.”
We laughed too and I went downstairs to photograph the fridge and freezer on my way out.