The process of taking bread from seed to loaf is something both simple and complex. It’s something that we can all do, while simultaneously requiring a lifetimes work to understand the complexities. This is what I learnt at our Grain to Loaf event in St Davids.
Led by expert ‘peasant bakers’ Nicolas Supiot and Jean Marc Albisetti we were taken through a two day process of learning how to begin with healthy soil cultures, to produce wheat cultures, to create bread cultures which ultimately feed human cultures. Attended by growers, farmers, millers and bakers from across the UK, we gathered together around a desire to work on the diversification of grain production and the craft of turning this grain into regionally specific breads which reflect the regionally specific soils they grow in.
The event was hosted by Torth Y Tir, a community supported bakery in Pembrokeshire describing themselves as the part of the ‘peasant baking movement’. This year Torth Y Tir has harvested 9 tonnes of it’s unique regionally specific mixed population of heritage wheat. The wheat now sits in bags ready to be cleaned, milled and baked into bread for their community members in their wood fired oven. This is bread making in the way it was always done, from grain to loaf.
You can watch a short video about farmer and baker Rupert Dunn and Torth y Tir here:
As we gathered on the field where Torth Y Tir grow their wheat, we turned our attention to the diversity of wild plants growing in the margins. Nicolas explained to us his philosophy that all the ‘weeds’ the soil produces are the remedy to what ails it; dock grows to remedy compaction, while vetch grows to fix nitrogen. Counterintuitive to the culture of controlling weeds, Nicolas spoke to us of respecting the polycultures that grow in our fields. Instead of monoculture fields of a single grain variety, the peasant bakers embrace diversity even in the crops they sow. Nicolas harvests wheat, fava beans and camelina oil (‘false flax’) from the same field, using a low tech seed sorting machine to sort the seeds from one another once harvested.
Diversity doesn’t stop with the different species Nicolas grows together. Peasant bakers grow mixed populations of wheat, made up of hundreds of genetically different types of wheat all growing in one interacting population. Unlike a ‘variety’ which is uniform and usually grown as a monoculture, a mixed population is a community of wheats from the same species but with differing genetics and therefore different traits. Over time, the population adapts to the region it grows in, some of the wheat lines in the population will flourish while others dwindle. As the seed from a population is saved each year, it will slowly change and adapt to it’s locality. The population will also react to it’s climate, with some lines doing well in dry years and others doing well in wet years. Populations are therefore much more resilient to weather change.
As Nicolas described mixed populations to us, we started to challenge our understanding of wheat fields being genetically narrow monocultures. Each wheat line in a wheat community has a different purpose. A population that is good to bake with will contain some wheat lines that bring flavour and others that offer good texture, the unique mix creates unique bread. Over time, a grower or baker can add to the population, bring new lines in to create new qualities. This is part of the craft of the baker, to use evolving communities of wheat to be eaten by their evolving human communities. This relationship is complex and special.
Our event moved from threshing wheat seed to milling it from a portable ‘Moulan Astrie’mill in the back 0f Jean Marc’s van. Discussion led us to the importance of supporting small water powered mills in Wales, as well as the possibilities for portable mills to shorten supply chains. What was agreed was the importance of keeping diverse grains between the mill stones and the need to educate the public to buying diverse flours.
The final day saw us gather in silence around the wooden dough trough as Nicolas mixed the fermented starter with the flour and spring water to create our dough. The magnitude of this moment was amplified by having got here via a complex journey from seed to soil, grain to flour. The origins of this bread seemed deeper and more meaningful. While many industrially created breads contain added sugars, preservatives and chemicals, the sourdough bread we were about to bake would be simply flour, water, salt and wild yeasts. While industrial baking has found a way to extract particular yeasts and speed up the rising of the dough, we understood the need to wait for the bread to rise naturally over time.
Finishing the two days by taking home our loaf from the wood fired oven, we also took away a desire to bring the growing of our bread back to our communities. In Wales, there is a new energy to recreate the diverse mixed populations that used to fill our fields. Young farmers are looking to grow grains again and see them milled and baked within the same region. Millers are looking to use regionally specific grains. Bakers are looking to bake with new flavours from the fields around them. Bringing the entire seed to loaf process back to community scale we are able to reconnect with the importance of diversity. Far from being economically unviable, this process can also add value to our grains and keep money circulating in our local economies.
Article by Katie Hastings, Seed Sovereignty Programme Regional Coordinator for Wales. To get involved in grain growing training in Wales contact firstname.lastname@example.org
To look for heritage and mixed population grains being grown in the UK: UK Grain Catalogue