Scratch beneath the surface of our city and you'll find some real hidden gems. So we have set out to explore the best-kept secrets and unsung heroes of Birmingham. This week, Ellen Manning ventures to Peel and Stone Bakery in the Jewellery Quarter...
If you’re thinking of going to Peel & Stone Bakery in Birmingham, I’ve got one bit of advice - get in there early!
People rave about Peel & Stone. It’s got a loyal following who swear by its cakes, bakes and loaves that are guaranteed to be a far cry from anything you’ll buy in a supermarket. Not just that, you can pick up your lunch there too - if you get there in time!
Hidden under the railway arches in the Jewellery Quarter, Peel & Stone is a wholesale bakery that promises to do things traditionally. Slow-leavened bread, made on site using traditional techniques to create a small, but perfectly-formed range, that’s packed with more TLC that you’ll find in your local mainstream shop.
Opening hours are 11am-3pm Monday to Friday and 10am-2pm on Saturday. So in line with this, I planned my trip to make sure I wouldn’t miss the boat when it came to some baked goods.
They helpfully also post their lunch menus on Twitter so you can see what’s on offer. On the day I had my adventure planned there was everything from sandwiches to tempting salads including watermelon, cucumber, tomato, chilli and spring onion, or roast corn, quinoa, spinach and roast chilli. And that’s before you get to the hot dishes of meatballs or mushroom soup. So much to choose from. But again - only if you get there on time.
I know what you’re thinking - why the constant mention of timing? Well, for my first visit to Peel & Stone, I had it all planned out. Schedule a trip into Birmingham, ensure arrival far ahead of the 3pm closure. Check Twitter, choose lunch, reserve lunch, go to Peel & Stone. Once there, soak up lush aromas of freshly-baked bread, feast eyes on stacks of bread, cakes, and treats, and then fill belly with anything and everything I could find.
Best laid plans and all that. Yep, you guessed it. As sod’s law would have it, despite my carefully choreographed adventure, cancelled trains meant I found myself heading to Peel and Stone’s home in Arch 33 far closer to 3pm than I had hoped and perilously close to missing you.
It’s testament to the popularity of this place that as I burst through the door, rather than stacks of bread and cakes I was greeted with near-empty surfaces. Just a few rogue crumbs indicated that where now there was nothing, there had once been a feast of epic proportions. Like the buffet at the end of a party, just a handful of slices of cake and a few loaves were the sight I was greeted with.
The empty tiled surface teased me with its handwritten descriptions of the loaves, cakes and tarts that had once stood there, and I could see pity in the eyes of the staff as they apologetically told me: “It’s just a bit late”.
Maybe it’s the resurgence of Britain’s love of baking in general, or maybe it’s Peel & Stone’s development of a hardcore of followers won over by its dedication to bread that’s baked, in its own words, “without adding anything that you don’t need” or its “delicious, colourful and healthy” lunches using British produce.Whatever the reason, the result is the same. If you’re too slow, you run the very real risk of missing out.
Yet despite its clear popularity, Peel & Stone’s location still screams ‘hidden gem’. It’s a small, concealed nook tucked in the darkened railway archway, with just an understated sign guiding you to the treats inside. Once there, one wall is decorated with a stash of wood guaranteed to keep its bread oven going for a fair while. Various artisan products are arranged below, while a counter on another side is home to what I can only imagine must be an impressive array of cakes and breads.
And just beyond the main counter, again the home of loaves and tarts and all manner of good things, is a door into the back through which you can just about glimpse the bakery where the magic happens, though that’s mainly overnight, ready for P&S to deliver its bread across the city.
Lucky for me, despite my tardiness, there was just enough left to assemble a perfect picnic of Peel & Stone’s eclectic offerings to enjoy in nearby St Paul’s Square. In fact, it proved to be a bit of a feast and there were definitely no complaints here.
In one simple cardboard box - a generous portion of roast corn, quinoa, spinach and roast chilli salad with a bit of slaw on the side. A mixture of soft quinoa, crunchy slaw, and a warmth of chilli, it oozed ‘healthiness’ but in a good way - full of sunshine and ingredients that you just know are doing you good.
A portion of the mushroom soup came with a thick slab of one of Peel & Stone’s beautiful slow-leavened loaves and a wooden spoon to shovel the rest in. Perfect for dunking in the rich, sweet soup. The kind of thing you can imagine eating hidden in a woodland cottage on a chilly winter’s day.
No picnic’s complete without a bit of pudding, and I wasn’t let down. I’d chosen the very last slice of fig, pistachio, orange and frangipane tart that was left with a few other remaining sweet treats. A rainbow of colours, it combined the moist sweetness of fig and orange with crunchy pistachios and the sweetest, lightest melt-in-the-mouth frangipane I’ve tasted in a long time.
Of course, I couldn’t help but take a whole loaf home as proof of my adventure to this hidden gem and that, too, went down a treat toasted the next morning.
I left Peel & Stone with mixed emotions. Over the moon that I’d managed to salvage a nearly disastrous trip by walking away with what proved to be a more-than-generous lunch, but slightly bereft that I’d missed out on what I still imagine is a sight to behold at 11am when the counters are heaving with freshly-baked goods just ready for the taking.
Peel & Stone has got another outlet, its Harborne bakery where bread and beer apparently “go hand in hand”, with the bread baked on site daily and a 28-seat craft beer bar below the shop. Again this serves a seasonal menu created with fresh ingredients, as well as patisserie, coffee, tea and other provisions.
But I have to confess, I’m not as tempted by this. The beauty of Peel & Stone in the Jewellery Quarter is that despite its clear popularity, it’s retained the magic that leaves you feeling like you’ve found somewhere that nobody else knows about. As you venture under the railway arches you’re just not sure what to expect, but a walk through the door feels more like a foray into an Alice in Wonderland world of baked goods than your average city lunch stop.
Just remember, don’t be late!