There was a time when the term “artisan baker” would not have been used, simply because all bakers fitted the dictionary definition. Artisan: worker in a skilled trade making things by hand. Then, after a man called Otto Rohwedder developed a bread-slicing machine in 1912, the baking world entered an age of wall-to-wall mechanisation.
Within a few decades, the entire bread-making process - from milling to baking - had become so industrialised the US government was forced to decree that white flour should be fortified because so many nutrients like thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, and iron had been lost. By 1961 the UK had taken things further with the famous Chorleywood bread process dramatically reducing the time dough needed to ferment.
And so the basic sliced-white came to dominate our daily requirement for bread.
Given the eating-experience offered by the average slab of the industrial loaf, it was hardly surprising that artisan bakers eventually began setting up shop.
I was thinking about all this one day recently as I stood in a field of wheat looking at a crowd of artisan bakers. They were studying the grain upon which their livelihoods totally depend - and they were listening to an expert who was explaining the very different ways in which such cereals can be grown.
Later, the bakers were taken a mile down the road in a vintage double decker bus so they could visit the Matthews Cotswold Flour mill and witness the processes which convert grain into the lifeblood of their trade.
So what? You might ask. Surely bakers of the artisan-kind are forever visiting cereal farmers and trawling around flour mills?
Well, no, they’re not. At least, not the bakers I spoke with at Matthews Cotswold Flour’s open day. For a start, bakers are busy people who haven’t the time to go sniffing around the countryside looking at growing systems, root-depths, quality-control robots and milling stones. Then there’s that primary ingredient - flour is either white or wholemeal and it comes in varying strengths. Full-stop. An artisan-baker will select the flours they prefer and, as long as there’s consistency, they will probably go on using the brand to which they’ve become accustomed. Flour is just flour, you might say. It’s not like potatoes which come in differing sizes and boast a whole plethora of varying textures and flavour profiles.
Wrong! So says the managing director who was showing the bakers around his Matthews Cotswold Flour mill. Bertie Matthews will argue that there is flour, and there is flour. Supporting this notion is the fact that his company mills and sells nearly 50 different flours.
“All our products have different attributes and merits and of course they are used for very different purposes,” says Bertie, whose company has been featured in these pages several times before. “An open day like this shows bakers the range and also explains how our family-run mill here in the Cotswolds has the ability to make so many different high quality flours. To some extent it’s about the technology we have here - but really it’s about the skills which our staff have evolved over generations.”
“It also comes down to the raw material,” adds Bertie. “The quality and the diversity of our products is reliant on the ongoing relationship we have with our farmers. For example, we work closely with the Cotswold Grain Partnership (a group of local farming families and businesses) and we are connected by a shared desire to collaborate directly and share new ideas - developing new growing opportunities and promoting sustainable food sources and farming techniques.”
Which brings us to the man who was showing the bakers his wheat-fields. Ian Wilkinson is founder of FarmEd, a not-for-profit organisation based on a farm just up the road from the Matthews Cotswold Flour Mill in the Evenlode Valley - and he was demonstrating the difference between modern high yielding strains of wheat and much older “heritage” varieties.
It’s fair to say the bakers were pretty much taken aback when they heard the different stories behind each stand of wheat. The modern variety offered the farmer a much higher yield, but it came with increasing costs, such as multiple passes with diesel-guzzling farm machinery - along with a requirement for expensive fertilisers, pesticides, herbicides and the like. Moreover, the roots of the short-stalked modern wheat only descended an inch (if that) into soil which had been parched by recent drought.
Conversely, the deep-rooting, but lower yielding, heritage varieties required just two passes with farm machinery (i.e. planting and harvesting). It tended to be far more resilient to pests and diseases and - having been under-planted with clover - the soil remained reasonably damp ensuring the deeper roots could withstand much drier weather conditions. That came with the added bonus that it would not be so easily washed away during exceptionally heavy rains.
In addition, it is probable that deeper rooting varieties are capable of taking more minerals and trace elements into the grain, making it more nutritious.
But Ian’s real message, while also focussing on wider environmental concerns, was about resilience and future food security: “What was the predicted future of climate change is happening now, so we need to be thinking very carefully about the way we produce the crops which give us our daily bread,” he told the bakers.
Brothers George and Henry Herbert run the award-winning South West based Hobbs House Bakery shops, and they told me: “We are really interested in feeding the next generation, which is why we have been looking at regenerative farming - so we’ve set a goal that we want to make all our bread from healthy soils.
“We know it’s a journey,” said George. “And we need to ask how we define healthy soil. A day like this helps us understand that. All this not only applies to the interesting sourdough type of products, but also to how it translates in your burger bap and your sliced-white.”
Henry added: “If you think about chocolate or coffee, the origin of where it’s coming from is well known nowadays - whereas the story of bread or flour tends to be under the radar. We’ve always had a great relationship with our miller - we order and he provides. We didn’t ask many questions. Now we are learning that isn’t enough - we need to have a better understanding about the impact of where our wheat comes from. And we deal with the end customer, so it falls on our shoulders to educate people.”
Baker Tim Goodwin recently won the UK Baker of the Year award, and he told me: “A day like this creates an awareness when it comes to the difference in quality - and to the ecological difference it (the farming and milling process) can make.
“Today has encouraged me to search out different flours. I started off making sourdough bread because of the nutrient value after I learned it was easier for us to digest and more nutritious. Now I am seeing that how the wheat is actually grown will affect the nutritional benefits of the bread and pastries we make. Learning about that makes absolute sense in the way we bake.”
Charlotte Pike, chair of the Guild of Food Writers, had also attended the open day to learn more about wheat and flour. “This has been an immersive experience, helping us understand what is involved in the production techniques which bring the flour and ingredients we need to our plates. It has been fascinating to see how that plays out in the fields and in the mill.
“A lot of people do not understand the difference between a mass produced chemically sprayed flour and something that is produced in a regenerative manner. There’s a lot to tell consumers about - most of all that the flavours are really fantastic and superior.”
Fellow Guild committee member and professional nutritionist, Joy Skipper, added: “What is interesting is that people are now talking about nutrition - years ago it would have all been about the yield and how quickly they can grow it… Now they are talking about the actual nutrition of the food - and the soil, because that is where the nutrition is going to come from. Not only did we hear from Bertie and FoodEd, it was useful to listen to all the conversations in between. This has been the start of a conversation - now we need to get the word out further.”
I am delighted to oblige in writing about the conversation. Joy is absolutely right… It’s all very well our being interested in the origins of things like chocolate, coffee, olive oil and other items on our pantry shelves - it is high time we thought more deeply about the basic essentials, such as the flour that makes our daily bread.