Why Bread Matters: An Interview with Andrew Whitley

Why Bread Matters: An Interview with Andrew Whitley
Staff Writer
From foodtank.com, by Tomas Vrba

For more than 25 years, Andrew Whitley ran the Village Bakery in Cumbria, a county of green fields and rolling hills in Northwestern England. It was one of United Kingdom’s first organic, artisan bakeries and for a majority of his time there, he was the only commercial baker in the UK using renewable energy by baking in wood-fired brick ovens. Increasingly concerned with the state of British bread, he completed a Masters in Food Policy at City University, London, researching the changes in grains, agriculture, and baking methods. Out of his studies came, among other things, his book Bread Matters, which teaches people how and why to make their own bread.

Food Tank (FT): Can you tell us a little bit more about how you started your career from running one of UK's first organic, artisan bakeries to cofounding the Real Bread Campaign and your research into nutrition and digestion?

Andrew Whitley (AW): In 2002, I left the Village Bakery Melmerby—which I started in 1976—to do a Masters in Food Policy at City University, London, under Tim Lang, the creator of the concept of "ecological public health." At the same time, I was invited to write a book about bread. These two assignments enabled me to research the changes in our wheat and bread that my former customers told me seemed to be causing gastro-intestinal complaints and a widespread revulsion from industrial loaves. My book suggested that the systematic (though legal) adulteration of industrial bread with additives and processing aids and a radical reduction in fermentation time, coupled with half a century of green revolution plant breeding for higher yields under intensive farming, might have made the bread most people eat less digestible and nutritious than it once was or could be. The public reaction to my book was, "let’s do something about this," and in 2008, my idea for a Real Bread Campaign was realised by Sustain, the UK campaign for better food and farming.

FT: What are some of the most important aspects of how modern farming and industrial baking have affected the quality of bread and what role long fermentation plays in this process?

AW: There is evidence that modern high-yielding wheat varieties can express more of certain protein epitopes (e.g. alpha- and gamma-gliadins and some high molecular weight glutenin sub-units) that are implicated in wheat and gluten intolerance and coeliac disease. High-input farming doesn’t help. One study showed how a routine practice in chemical farming—the late application of soluble nitrogen to wheat to boost its protein—can double the expression of omega-5 gliadin, a protein implicated in widely-reported allergic reactions.

Alongside such changes in wheat and genotype-environment effects, there has been a general reduction in mineral density. In simple terms, to get sufficient amounts of the important minerals such as iron, zinc, and magnesium that wheat contains, people have to eat more slices of bread than they used to—which isn’t great for weight control. Those minerals are located mainly in the bran layers of wheat, so industrial refining of flour removes most of them. Worst of all, almost all bread is now made from "no-time" dough. The clue is in the name: additives and high energy input have replaced time, preventing the slow maturation of dough that is essential to make minerals and other nutrients plentifully available and to aid digestibility. If you mix flour and water and wait a while, you get a spontaneous fermentation of natural yeasts and beneficial bacteria—what we call sourdough. This was how all bread was raised until concentrated yeast hit the market. All the evidence suggests that this process produces the tastiest, most nutritious, and digestible bread. But there are no shortcuts. Sourdough is a process, not an additive, and it takes time to work its wonders.

FT: One of your latest projects is Scotland the Bread. Can you explain more about the purpose of this nonprofit research and training organization?

AW: We are trying to address an anomaly: Scotland grows over a million tons of wheat per year but uses virtually none of it to make bread. It would take only a seventh of this yield to make all of Scotland’s bread. At the same time, the country suffers an increasing burden of diet-related ill health. Our idea is simple: grow more nutritious wheat and bake it properly close to home. Specifically, reward farmers not for their yield of grain in an over-supplied commodity market but according to the number of people they nourish per hectare of land. Get millers to leave more nutrients in their light flours. Ensure that bakers ferment their dough sufficiently to bring out the best in the grain. If everyone in the web pulls together, the resulting bread will go down well. There will be a big role for community bakeries: they can forge meaningful "fair trade" connections with farmers, they can enrich community life by offering more jobs per loaf, and they can reach the people who most need better bread more convincingly than the loaf merchants whose only appeal is low price and convenience

FT: What is your progress so far on working with plant breeders, farmers, millers, bakers, public health nutritionists, and citizens on making this project happen?

AW: Andy Forbes of Brockwell Bake Association in London kindly gathered several 19th-century Scottish wheat accessions from gene banks around the world. We’ve bulked those up and now have enough of three varieties to start trialing them. The first breads I’ve made with them taste terrific. Initial testing revealed above-average mineral density, so we’re on the right track. At the same time, I’ve sourced a couple of rare 19th-century Scottish varieties from the Vavilov Institute in St Petersburg, plus (thanks to Hans Larsson in Sweden) several high-mineral Nordic landraces and evolutionary populations. The aim is to develop diverse, locally-adapted, and resilient "modern landraces" that will do well in Scotland—in every sense.

We are about to launch Scotland The Bread as a Community Benefit Society so that this work will be held in common. The funds we raise will enable us to set up a unique assurance scheme that will inform people about the mineral content of every batch of grain, flour, and bread as well as setting standards for appropriate fermentation. What’s more, our commitment to food sovereignty includes reaffirming democratic control of the science agenda. Our Soil to Slice project has community groups growing heritage (and other promising) varieties, making bread with them and, crucially, contributing data to inform future breeding and selection decisions.

FT: What have been some of the biggest obstacles so far in making Scotland the Bread happen, how have you overcome them, and what challenges do you expect to arise in the future?

AW: Money is always an issue when you’re working for the public good as opposed to private profit. But perhaps the biggest obstacle so far has been to get support (and funding) for research and testing. Science budgets and (most) researchers are locked into a corporate-dominated agenda. We’re hoping to get people from the Health Service, agricultural research, farming and food processing, and public catering around the table to recognize the enormous benefits—to wellbeing and the economy—that will follow if we grow nutritious crops in healthy soils and strive to pass on their goodness intact. That way, science and research can make serious system-level contributions to reducing both carbon emissions and the cost of diet-related ill-health. Needless to say, there are some powerful vested interests involved. But the only way around them is to build the alternative together, one loaf at a time.

FT: Your passion and knowledge of bread are well known in Britain, but recently they have also been taking you all over the world. I believe you taught some classes in India and, at the moment, you are or have recently returned from a Scotland the Bread related grain project in Scandinavia—is that right? How are sourdough bread and the local grain economy faring internationally compared to the UK, and what are your most notable international involvements and achievements?

AW: Scotland is some way behind in reviving its local bread-grain economy, compared to the USA, France, and Scandinavia, partly because conventional wisdom has it that you can’t grow bread wheat in Scotland. This isn’t true, but it will take the right varieties as well as the skill and commitment of farmers and bakers to bring Scottish bread back home. Sourdough is the calling card of the new generation of micro- and artisan bakers in the UK, whose rise is more striking because we are starting from such a low base compared to countries that haven’t completely annihilated peasant agriculture and artisan baking. We noticed on our recent trip to Sweden and Denmark how many bakers are using organic heritage grains. But they are facing similar problems, especially over honest labeling. Unscrupulous bakers of all sizes are trying to cash in by using small percentages of heritage flour or dried sourdough in otherwise industrially-formulated bread, which deliver none of the benefits of the real thing. We hope to collaborate with like-minded bakers and organizations, particularly in the EU, to share research and to lobby for honesty and transparency in labeling. There is definitely a sense of a movement developing which aligns itself with the international peasant and seed sovereignty movements. In Scandinavia, and in a recent visit to Ireland, I found considerable interest in the UK Real Bread Campaign and in the community-supported baking principles that we have been developing for the past few years.

FT: Building a local grain economy is one of the objectives at your Bread Matters agroforestry farm in the Scottish Borders, where you live with your wife, Veronica. Can you expand some more on other activities at Bread Matters, such as teaching community baking courses and cooperation with other bakeries in the UK and Scotland?

AW: We’re keen to help people take bread into their own hands at various levels. That means passing on the skills required as well as responding to a growing feeling that real bread makers must take responsibility for more than just what happens in the bake house, for example, by seeking out more nutritious grains or by seeing customers as fellow members of the community with a right to be nourished appropriately. I suppose our approach is a fermentative one, in that we share ideas, practices, and materials in the expectation that these will multiply and flourish like the diverse micro-organisms in a healthy sourdough. So, apart from ordinary baking courses for amateurs and budding pros, we run "sourdough exchanges" where young people work on the farm for a few days in exchange for training in how to bake with naturally fermented grains. We’ve started a Fungal Network that links everyone who uses and shares our sourdough. Like the mycelium and mycorrhizae in the soil, this is an underground web for communication and mutual nourishment—and it’s open to all who love bread, the world over.

FT: What is your favorite bread to make and why?

AW: Probably Borodinsky rye bread, because it reminds me of my time at university in Moscow and how much Russia has taught me about bread. Its historical associations may be pure folklore, but they suggest a culture in which bread still matters. And it’s one of the world’s great sourdoughs.

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