From a Field of Wheat, To Bread on the Table.
“It was a spiritual and ethical decision”
That was the moment Andrew’s logical, scientific and reasoned standpoint was suddenly given life; the sap had risen and a vividness accompanied his ideas, like a squeeze of lemon over salad.
Apologies if I have appeared to have jumped the gun, to update those of you who are new to this tale, I will quickly summarise what the decision being made was and who Andrew is. On a trip up to Northumberland with my flat mate Rory and sister Tilly, (yes this was during a time when we were able to leave our homes), we, or I, had decided a visit to a local mill called Gilchesters was in order. The visit ended up significantly shaping my ideas about bread, community and the sustainability of food production (you will have to look to the earlier articles for the full story, but this is its conclusion if you feel like naughtily skipping to the end). So, to answer myself, the decision being made was to move away from the industrial model of food production and Andrew was the man behind that decision. At the start of the trip I’m not sure I could have written three sentences about flour, but it has taken me three articles to make any sense of it. Anyway, I hope that clears everything up, back to the action.
“Those two things satisfied the way I wanted to farm this land and there lay the ability for me to enjoy what I was doing and the possibility find a better financial solution.”
The production of grain is not simple, it is a complicated process of nurturing an understanding of the land and then farming in reaction to that. Our over-industrialised farming system makes this seem a novel idea, but this close understanding of the land is how humans tended to farm for thousands of years, with thought and care, rather than domination and plunder. Knut Hamsun, a relatively unknown Norwegian novelist who I stumbled upon in my Mum’s packed bookshelf, wrote that the ‘“Growth of the soil was something different, a thing to be procured at any cost; the only source, the origin of all.” Old Knut continues to explain the ‘growth of the soil’ for seven-hundred more pages, so I wouldn’t recommend it as a holiday read, but his point is still a prescient one.
Andrew, who had been showing us around Gilchesters Organics Farm, looked at his mill with a hint of deference, like the Doctor with his Tardis, he grabbed a handful of flour and sifted it through his fingers. Wheat farming was historically a collective enterprise, it was a community creator. An inter-dependent system of the thoughtful farmer, the grateful miller, the inventive baker and the hungry eater; if one connection was severed then the whole system would collapse. This system is holistic, it mirrors the interconnections of the land it is built upon: to understand nature is not to compartmentalise it, it is to really see, and appreciate the whole. Andrew’s model of farming is focussed on the stewardship of the land and on the health of future generations; we start feeding a child 100 years before they are born.
Tilly and Rory looked as if they were expecting more bread from the trip and the rumblings of their stomachs betrayed their flagging interest in the flour. How would Andrew’s farming, ethical or not, affect the taste? The answer was that it tasted like Northumberland. “Tell me what you eat and I will tell you who you are”
“Everything has terroir, it is the taste of a place,” Andrew explained pointing out the window to the blue sky, still air and fecund wheat fields. I immediately thought of wine. My dad, a self-awarded wine connoisseur used to lecture me about Burgundy’s ‘earthy bottom’, Champagne’s ‘chalky finish’, and Mosel’s ‘minerally mulch’ and at the time, I thought he was talking complete nonsense. “There is a holy trinity whether you grow grapes or grain, particularly up here in the north east.” The father, the son and the holy ghost represent, according to Christian doctrine, not three distinct persons, but one ‘substance, essence or nature’. For Andrew, the three parts which make the whole are the grain, the soil and the climate. The first member of this triad is the grain, the tall straw wheats which Andrew picked specifically for this region. The second is the soil, whose importance Andrew explained, “you have to have soil that is as nutritionally rich as possible, the soil is the be all and end all of your grain quality.” They’re not disparate elements, they need to be interwoven symbiotically: you need to find the right varieties to benefit from that nutritional density in the soil. Andrew’s winter-sown tall straw wheat takes 6-7 months longer to grow than conventional wheat grown in the south, “It is allowed to grow for 11 months. You are going to get a much more complex gluten structure from a winter sown plant.” The grain is allowed time to mature, to become intimate with its home and become rich with all the goodness of that dark, indescribably complex universe beneath it.
The third and final element is the climate. The sun outside was an equivocation, in Northumberland it rains, an awful lot. It pelts it down, it drizzles, mizzles, spits, tips, buckets and teems, both cats and dogs. But the region's traditional weather pattern is changing, like many around the world. Andrew calls this phenomenon “weather weirding”, a slightly friendlier and softer sounding euphemism for what I’d call the climate catastrophe. Andrew explained the changes he was seeing, “we now tend to get unusually heavy rainfall in July and August, which is when most farmers harvest their chemical crops”. Obviously, what goes on above our heads, affects what happens beneath our feet and much of the quality of the spring sown cereal is determined by the temperature at very specific times of the year (high temperatures in June and August). The logic behind using winter crops is that much of the quality is determined by the soil: good soil, right sowing conditions and correct plants, because Andrew sows later, his plants aren’t harvested during the heavy rainfall. The heavy rain and warm temperature actually allow for a huge increase in natural blooms of yeast which plaster the crops. With a satisfying coherency Andrew summarised the amalgamation of the three elements, “the plant has the right nutrient density because of the soil, the right structure because of the plant, and those natural blooms of yeast which haven’t been killed off by roller milling. Everything is preserved.” The end product makes bread which in comparison to a supermarket loaf, has an emphatically better taste and nutritional content, but it is also an expression of the region it comes from, it would shout ‘howay pet!’ if it could.
That is how we get the flour, but what use is flour without the baker and the eater? There is another element to this little story and one which is delicious. Skilled and passionate bakers are fundamental to Gilchesters, without the knowledge of the craft, all the time and effort in the growing cannot be expressed properly. There is an Italian saying that ‘Bread that comes out of sweat tastes better,” and there is barely a droplet of sweat when bread is industrially produced, the human hand and the natural diversity of properly made food is absent. There is certainly an increase in appreciation for good bread in Britain and I have, as you can probably tell, become a most ardent convert and proselytiser for real bread. Why has this change come about? Andrew explained it was a ‘painfully slow process to try and convince bakers to do something different”, but once again, change was born out of necessity.
A recession, this time in 2008, sent the price of bread through the roof. Food prices increased by almost 25% and people were suddenly confronted with losing their job, having to pay more to eat and consequently they had to think inventively about how to make ends meet. Andrew looked tolerantly at Tilly, Rory and I, all three of us were just starting the stormy seas of adolescence when the recession hit, but we are probably just about to face one again. He explained ‘customers started baking for themselves, working out that they would get more value for money’ and after some iteration, they would also get much tastier bread. Some of the bread got so tasty that a few people began selling loafs to friends, at farmers markets and a couple even opened bakeries. People started buying Andrew’s flour and playing around with it, one new customer boldly stated “I may be one of your most important customers in the future’ and it turned out she was. The story was quickly becoming one of good and evil, a fable, a tale of underdogs, grafters and craftsmen. A little underground movement of bread makers, a fantastically human enterprise and an example of making something beautiful out of despair. Soon after, baking hit the headlines with the help of a preposterously quaint sounding show. The Great British Bake Off, a show where an incoherent amalgamation of members of the British public congregate under a tent in an idyllic green field, inexplicably became a success. It was the perfect escape from austerity and cuts; the worst possible scenario was an unset mousse, a dropped fondant or a baked Alaska being thrown in the bin. Most importantly, it got people interested in baking and once you start cooking, you start caring about what you cook with.
We moved outside and looked across the fields of grain. The hum of the mill continued and was accompanied by the whispering grain. Once again, Andrew inspected the three millennials stood in front of him, Tilly was in cord dungarees, Rory, a green and well-worn plaid shirt and my rolled up linen trousers and espadrilles, only confirmed his preconceptions. “Your generation came out of university, you studied psycho-Literature or something like that, but you took these degrees and went into cooking and baking.” He laughed to himself a little and then continued, “you brought with you questions about food sourcing and provenance. We farmers were waiting for a generation like this, you shopped locally, worried about environmental impact and cared about taste. Collectively, we were looking at retaining the value of the landscape and the communities which surrounded us.”
Gilchesters has a great story and it is one which needs to be told, but every great story has a volta, an after-taste. Andrew showed me the twist in this particular tale just before we hopped in Rory’s car to head home. It came in the form of a mountain, a gargantuan, almost absurd abundance of bran. A pile of wasted food, a monolith symbolic of a broken food system, one which sees 30% of the volume of grain in the UK thrown away each year. That is almost the entire nutritional content of the grain going to waste, all because people insist on having white flour and because blinded by abundance, we have forgotten the intimate relationship between producer and eater. Dan Barber calls this eating ‘Nose to Tail’ of the farm, embracing the ‘waste’ and understanding what the land around us can produce sustainably. Andrew pointed at pile of food in front of him, “this is completely and utterly ridiculous and is a level of waste that is unsustainable. To feed the nation, we do not need to grow more grain, we need to eat more wholemeal bread, instead of insisting on eating white.” This is why the baker is so important, why we created food communities who offer mutually beneficial skills. To make delicious wholemeal bread for the consumer, you need to skilled baker: they need Andrew’s grain, he needs them, and they both need us to eat what they produce. The lucky thing is, our job is exceptionally delicious.
In a very mild-mannered and British way, this all felt like an act of liberation. From the economic and cultural environment, I had been born into, it was a way of supporting the natural world, supporting small rather than big, community rather than atomisation and deliciousness rather than blandness. Most importantly, food started to carry a story and one which resonated. Food no longer had to be a homogenous, plastic wrapped, or faceless, it could represent diversity, care and community. We look for narratives in the world, we want to see humanity, love and melody in our lives and with food we have opportunity to witness and create great stories every day.