I have seen plenty of bakeries over the years and as long as they made real bread, I don’t think I have ever forgotten any of them. The thing about bakeries making real bread is that they have a soul. And the soul is what stays with you. Small Food Bakery (SFB) in Nottingham, Nottinghamshire, is a case in point.
From the outside SFB looks nothing like a bakery. We passed it twice before we thought to actually walk through the door of what looked like a school (it used to be one).
But as soon as you enter, all thoughts of your not being at the right place disappears. Gorgeous bread everywhere! All made with organic flour, all sourdough, using mostly local ingredients. Founder and owner Kimberley Bell‘s goal is to make each bread with some flour that can be traced to a British farm. Listening to her, you know that she isn’t riding or exploiting a fad. Kim is a believer.
Convinced that our global food system is among the root causes of many of our environmental, health and social problems and keenly aware of the role bakers can play in shaping it (everyone eats bread,) she believes that direct trade is key. People can only buy her products directly from the bakery and in turn she only buys her ingredients directly from farmers she knows (with a few exceptions like coffee and tea which are all nonetheless thoroughly scrutinized).
Originally a home baker, Kim knew the minute the space became available that it would be a great spot for the type of bakery she had in mind: it used to be a school kitchen.
SFB is open on Fridays and Saturdays and produces 200 loaves and assorted small products per week. Everything is retarded during the night and baked during the day. And just in case you think two days a week means a life of leisure for the baker, consider this: on Tuesday, Kim builds the starters and makes croissant dough; on Wednesday, she laminates the croissant dough, makes granola, biscuits and some breads; on Thursday, she fills in on bread production; on Friday, she fills in on bread production again and does sales; on Saturday, she does sales until 2 PM. On Sunday and Monday, she is officially off, except for computer stuff.
For now SFB’s best seller is the Radford Wild (20% rye/wheat whole-grain.) Sourdough crisp breads are also very popular.
SFB is a business about real relationships, and that is the most important thing Big Food cannot provide, hence the name Kim chose for her bakery. “Our team work on rotation – there are four of us and we all mix, bake and retail on different days. So whoever may serve you at the counter, they will always be able to explain how everything is made and where our ingredients are grown. When you remove human relationships, bad things happen to your food.”
“Big faceless businesses use harmful additives for economy or practicality, they rely on comparative advantage, externalizing costs and overriding peoples intuition regarding taste and nourishment by blinding us with manipulative marketing and fancy packaging, all the while being evasive about the reality of the manufacturing process. If you remove personal relationships, you remove accountability and pride. Two very important ingredients in a loaf of bread – or any food for that matter.”
“When customers visit us, they see our real production space. They can see the baker at work and should they wish to, ask questions about where their food comes from. They can see all of our ingredients, we have nothing to hide. To the best of our abilities, the ingredients we use are traceable back to a healthy soil and to good people, many of them local. I don’t believe that bigger businesses can ever provide this, even with the best of intentions their business model is designed to work against this level of integrity. I want to see the proliferation of many small food businesses, with the right kind of values opening up across our towns and cities. In my view , this is the best starting point for building communities that feed people better.”
By choosing flour from grain grown and stone-milled in the United Kingdom, Kimberley is foregoing the ease and comfort of working with the lovely flour she has been buying for years from Shipton Mills. But then while Shipton uses some British grain, it does import wheat from as far away as Canada and Kazakhstan.
The bakery has been adapting slowly, gradually introducing breads made with flour from local farms and mills. Back in February Kim came across Wakelyns Population, a wheat whose story captured her imagination. The Wakelyns grain (breed and grown at Wakelyns agroforestry by Dr Martin Wolfe) is a biodiverse population of wheat with a huge genetic pool that makes it resilient to pests and climatic changes in an organic low-input farming system. Could it be the answer to the problem of monocropping?
To find out more, do check out this story: Innovative organic wheat variety helps baker produce sustainable loaf and this video by OF&G:
But there was a catch: the resulting flour was challenging to bake with. Kim again: “I decided early on that the flour should only be used whole-grain. Stripping out the nutrients by making white flour out of it would completely disrespect the intentions of the breeder to provide a nourishing crop for both soil and humans! It has taken some time to get close to a loaf that I can present proudly to my customers, and we have had some ups and downs but when it works it is so, so good… that it makes the effort worthwhile.”
“We call this loaf the ‘YQ’ because half of the wheats selected in the original cross-breeding exercise were selected for quality (Q) and half for yield (Y). Working with this wheat has taken us on a journey, to understand farming systems, plant breeding – even our country’s seed laws (which prevent impure varieties from being traded). We have recently commissioned a local organic farmer to grow this crop for us and will work with a local windmill to build a market for the grain. We will also continue bake with it of course.”
It would be hard for a farmer to make a living growing wheat for just one bakery. So in a few weeks Kim will be hosting a small gathering of interested bakers. She hopes that together they can convince others to use the wheat and forge local farmer-miller- baker partnerships in order to help get this biodiverse wheat into the food chain.
Now guess where I originally met Kim? At the Grain Gathering of course! Besides the local farmers, Gilchester Organics will be her main source for flour. They are in Northumberland and actually work with Steve Jones at the Bread Lab. Who says this is a small world though? I am telling you, the real-bread, slow-food revolution is gaining ground. And Kim is very clear about what the end game is: getting a loaf of bread into the UK Ark of Taste.
As a real-bread lover, I say: Hurray to that!
And kudos to all the bakers, farmers, breeders and millers anywhere who strive to make it happen.