Bread making is “uniquely powerful as a catalyst for change,” says Andrew Whitley. And as an organic baker, teacher, entrepreneur, and campaigner, it’s a statement that he has devoted his life to. Whitley, 60, founded the award-winning and pioneering Village Bakery in the 70s, which became one of the UK’s leading organic bakery brands.
Today, Whitley runs a series of bread making and baking courses from his home in the Lake District in North West England and is one of the founders of the nationwide Real Bread Campaign, which is due to launch later this year. It aims to inform people about where to buy real bread, put them in contact with the country’s best organic wheat farmers and millers, and encourage them to share recipes and even sourdough starter cultures. (These can be made from water and flour and are used instead of yeast in certain breads. Whitley still has one that he brought from a Russian bakery a staggering 18 years ago.) His basic tenet is that “What’s made in the kitchen is better than what’s made in the factory.”
Whitley has a list of concerns about factory-made bread, but chief among them is what he considers to be the big secret of modern baking: enzymes. These are proteins that come from various sources – animal, vegetable, fungal, microbial – and are added to bread to make it lighter, softer and, above all, to give it that all-important longer shelf-life. “We are eating things that in the entire history of Homo sapiens we have never eaten” says Whitley. “At best this is an experiment, but it’s not an honest experiment.”
Since enzymes are viewed as processing aids that are not strictly speaking “present” in the final product, they do not have to be listed as additives on the ingredients panel. These enzymes may be harmless, Whitley is willing to concede, but no-one has “set out to look at the long-term effects of eating them,” or the toxicity of using a cocktail of enzymes. (“How do you digest a bread that never goes off?” he wonders aloud at one point.) Above all, Whitley says we should “examine if we really need them.”
Delving into the oft unsavoury goings-on in the modern and commercial baking industry is one aspect of “the Whitley project,” if you will. He even wrote a book about it—a compelling and clear-minded tome—called Bread Matters--the state of modern bread and a guide to making your own that came out in 2006.
Although the quality of homegrown UK wheat has improved considerably in the last thirty years and we are now much less reliant on imports from North America, Whitley believes that the national wheat supply is less nutritious than it could be due to maximum-yield farming practices that have reduced the grain’s level of nutrients, such as magnesium, iron, zinc and calcium. He is also concerned that current wheat varieties are vulnerable to environmental disturbance, a belief that lead him to collaborate with Professor Martin Wolfe of the Organic Research Centre at Elm Farm in Berkshire. Wolfe is studying ‘populations’ of wheat varieties as a way of coping with some of the “serious threats posed by climate change.” Crossing different varieties, and growing the results together, improves yields, partly because pests and diseases cannot rip as easily through a more diverse crop.
Despite the real urgency Whitley feels for a more sustainable way of eating and making food, the courses he runs are anything but gloomy. I attended a weekend course in February and left armed with various loaves, buns and cakes, and the overwhelming feeling that baking bread was a noble and fundamental calling. In fact Whitley believes that instead of putting young people in depressed areas to work in vast and alienating call centres, they “Could be making good and healthy bread for people.”
It is a vision that echoes Whitley’s own transition from a career in the BBC Russian Service to organic baking in the mid 1970s. He set up the innovative and forward-thinking Village Bakery in 1976 in the shadow of the Pennine hills with little knowledge or expertise, but a burning desire to make healthy and tasty bead and cakes using organic English wheat, long fermentation periods and renewable energy (in the form of wood-fired ovens). He was also, rather uniquely, open to making less profit if it meant making a better product, and says he was often viewed as a “hopeless romantic” by people in the bread industry.
He saw the bakery through a period of rapid expansion in the 1990s, when the bakery started supplying to Waitrose—a UK supermarket chain with a commitment to organics—and finally decided to sell it in 2002 to concentrate on his writing and teaching (he holds the courses in his professional kitchen). In all this time, Whitley has never added a chemical bread ‘improver’ to anything he has baked; he has relied solely on natural fermentation processes and fresh yeast to do the ‘lifting’ work and has always been “committed to not using machines if that meant changing the product.”
Next, Whitley and his social worker partner Veronica, have plans to use hands-on bread making as a way to improve nurturing and nourishment for low income and socially disadvantaged families and children. Baking, he says, can be an empowering experience. In part it’s about communicating the physical and mental health benefits of better quality food that saves money. But it’s also about removing the barriers – personal and social – to making and sharing real nourishment. “Show someone how easy and rewarding it is to make a loaf, some rolls, or a pizza and they may get the habit.”
I don’t think I will ever look at the humble loaf in quite the same way again.
Story by Giovanna Dunmall. This article originally appeared in "Plenty" in March 2008.