What you’ll find below is a summary of the keynote address delivered at the Kneading Conference West 2012 by Andrew Whitley, author of Bread matters: the state of modern bread and a definitive guide to baking your own. It is based on the notes I took as he was speaking. Any error or inconsistency is my own as I couldn’t write quite as fast as he talked (although I tried hard!)
Baker Andrew Whitley started his professional life as a broadcaster in the BBC Russian Service. He attributes his choice of a new profession to the deep influence of four writers on his world wiew: Leo Tolstoy, who challenged people born into privilege to work out for themselves what constituted a good life, extolled the dignity of labor and urged a reconciliation of the work of the brain and that of the hands; Anton Chekhov, who had little time for people paralyzed by hereditary guilt; John Ruskin, for whom artisan work was a creative response to the availability of raw materials grown in nature, not torn apart by excessive processes; and Rachel Carson, whose impeccable science and elegiac evocation of nature in Silent Spring led him to finally change his life for ever.
Coming as he did from a privileged background, Andrew was nevertheless a firm believer in the dignity of labor; he knew he wanted to actually do something about the problems identified by Carson; he also felt that working with whole grains (as opposed to the reconstituted flours sold in England under the label “wholemeal” which are often white flour with the bran added back in) was a search for vitality and connectedness that said something about the integrity of one’s personal and professional life. So he started growing wheat on an allotment in the middle of London. While the occupation was morally satisfying, he quickly realized that it wouldn’t allow him to pay the mortgage and when he heard of a watermill being restored in Northern England, he jumped at the chance of buying its flour and becoming a baker.
First he needed to figure out how to make bread. The learning curve was steep, especially because the local wheat was wildly unpredictable. Also, nobody was familiar with the kind of bread he was striving to make. As he put it: “I went to a part of the country with almost no population to make a product nobody asked for with a grain that didn’t have the right properties.” Against all odds, it worked and for this, he credits his early customers who were both encouraging and steadfastly supportive.
Bread matters to us as individuals because it is part of our nourishment. In certain developing countries, it is the main staple and people are still enormously dependent on it. In Great-Britain, the bread culture can be characterized by irreverence or indifference. There is no consideration for the nutritional quality and digestibility of wheat grown for human consumption. Poor choices have been made in terms of plant breeding since World War II, the goal being always to maximize yield through chemical and mechanical means. But the way we make bread as a society has huge consequences for the soil, agronomical methods and choice of seeds as well as for the distribution and consumption of the product and its disposal (in the United Kingdom, up to 30% of bread is thrown away untouched, still in its unopened plastic bag).
Agronomy has an interesting effect on the quality of grain: nitrogen is applied to the wheat after flowering (late nitrogen method) to boost the protein content. But what is the quality of this protein? Tests have shown that organic wheat with a protein level of 11% has the same baking properties as non-organic wheat checking in at 13% protein and that wheat treated with late nitrogen contained twice as much gliadin (for more info on the link between gliadin and coeliac disease, click here). In another experiment, scientists compared the nutritional quality of wheat coming harvested at the same time and from the same fields but milled differently: half was stoneground, the other half roller-milled. The stoneground flour contained many more nutrients than the roller-milled one.
Due to the combined effect of new wheat-growing technologies, milling methods which take much more out of the grain than traditional ones and the acceleration of the baking process itself, the industrial construct of water, flour, salt and additives that is now eaten by most people in the UK may be called a loaf but it should never be dignified by the name of bread. Although choices appear deceptively wide at the supermarket, the fact remains that, beyond superficial differences, all British loaves are actually very much the same.
When a baker allows flour to ferment for a significant amount of time especially in the presence of sourdough, changes happen in bread that seem to make it more nutritional. It is hard to research digestibility scientifically but anecdotes are reliable stories about how people feel when they eat something. The Real Bread Campaign – which Andrew Whitley helped launch – was born of the desire to make bread better for ourselves, our families, our communities and our environment. It calls for honest labeling of all ingredients and processes. The bread industry accuses the campaign of seeking to drag it down. But isn’t its coming clean as to what it does and uses a reasonable thing to ask? The industry refuses to list the enzymes it uses routinely, for instance. Why?
A fervent believer in the need to re-localize the food chain, Andrew seeks to be an agent of revitalization of the local supply chain for grain and flour. Most of the grain grown in Scotland – where he now lives and works – goes to the commodity market where it is subject to investors and speculators. Andrew himself owns five acres of land on which he grows several varietals with the goal of evaluating their baking properties. He is involved with a project run by Martin Wolfe of the Organic Research Centre to produce multiple varieties of seeds and combine them in order to help them resist pests and other adverse conditions. He hopes that one day he’ll be able to bake from wheat entirely grown in Scotland.
He seeks to encourage community-supported baking through a system of donations or through novel forms of community funding, for instance ‘loaf loans” under the terms of which 7.5% of the interest due is paid in bread vouchers; or “bread basket” systems under which one customer buys one basket of ten loaves, gets one free and sells the other nine to colleague and friends, making it possible for the bread to reach people who would otherwise never think of walking into an actual bakery.
The cultural context needs to evolve: dietary changes will come from a combination of changes in regulations and actions at the individual level. Minimum nutritional standards should be set for minerals and vitamins in flour. No additives should be allowed. The pressure should go all the way from the consumer to the breeder. Last time the UK tried to raise the standards for bread was during World War II when it instituted the “national loaf”. Today’s bread, based on the values of simplicity and common ownership, could be rebranded and promoted as the “common loaf”.
In fermenting dough, many transformations come together to yield a flavorful and healthful bread. At the time of the French Revolution, “le pain se lève” (the bread is rising) was both a password and a call to arms among the insurgents who prepared to storm the Bastille. Today British consumers still have a long way to go to free themselves from large corporate interests that do not have their best interest at heart. As Andrew sees it, the move towards real bread is light-years ahead in the United States. Events such as the Kneading Conference are an essentiel ingredient in the fermenting process. The bread is definitely rising!
A field of heirloom wheat at WWU Mt Vernon Research and Extension Center
with orchards in the background and the snowy peak of Mt Baker in the distance
(the Center is the seat of the Kneading Conference West)