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Why a locally-made sourdough loaf costs £4.50 [WFJ #4]
Or rather, why a supermarket one costs £1.20
A sourdough loaf from Rye Bakery in Frome costs £4.50. The same loaf – or at least what might be considered similar – is £1.20 at Asda. Are people getting conned, or is this really the fair price of bread?
Though not always the case, a price tag can be a good barometer for the standard of ingredients in a food product, and the time required to make it. Cheap bread could suggest poor-quality raw materials, time-cutting methods, or that the retailer is doing a dodgy deal on someone – be it the farmer, miller, or baker. In the worst of cases, it’s a medley of all those things.
High time for better bread
‘Sourdough’ describes how a bread is leavened. That is to say, it’s what turns dough from a dense mass of flour and water into a larger, more pillowy mass of flour and water that, when baked, comes out as a soft, airy loaf.
A sourdough culture is a wild, natural yeast that starts to form when organisms in the atmosphere come to feast on a flour and water mixture. Eventually, these organisms fulfil the same function of baker’s yeast – breaking down sugars in flour and farting it out as CO2. This gas creates air pockets, which is how bread rises and gets its soft texture.
The main difference to baker’s yeast is that sourdough cultures work at a much slower rate. Which means we have to wait longer, and prep more in advance, for our bread. The upside is the distinctive, more complex flavour (hence ‘sour’ dough) the culture imparts. And it goes down easier – though sourdough cultures work slower than baker's yeast, they are more efficient at breaking down compounds, such as phytic acid, that our stomachs often struggle with.
More industrial methods of proving dough can cause IBS, bloating, or other digestive issues. Some people with a gluten intolerance experience milder side effects (or none at all) from eating sourdough – a good rule of thumb being the longer a dough has to rise, the less potent its gluten is.
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From raw flour to baked bread, it takes about three days to make a sourdough loaf, not to mention continuous upkeep of the mother as a ready-to-hand leavening agent. This is an issue for the industrial food complex. Supermarket retailers, knowing time equals money, want to do everything in their power to keep costs down. Bread, most of all sourdough, is at complete odds with the ‘cheapness to whatever end’ line of thinking. So what’s their answer?
Come forth the Chorleywood process, a breadmaking method that emerged in the 1960s. With the help of various chemicals and processing aids, including a crap ton of fast-acting yeasts, industrial bakers are able to make bread from flour to packaged loaf in three to four hours. It made bread 40% softer, and gave it a shelf life twice as long as before. The trade-off? Your gut might not be too much of a fan. Perhaps it’s just a coincidence, but celiac disease – the gluten-induced digestive and immune disorder – has been ever rising since the mid-21st century.1
Somewhere around 80% of loaves made in the UK use the Chorleywood method, with all the usual players – Warbuton’s, Hovis, Kingsmill – applying some version of the process in making their ‘bread’.2
These big brands have, like the rest of us, watched the rise of sourdough over the past decade with wonder. Not wanting to miss out on such an opportunity, Big Bread wanted in. But, since the time sourdough needs is even more an inconvenience for the industrial system than yeast-activated bread, what ends up on the supermarket shelf rarely, if ever, could be considered actual sourdough. At the moment, ‘sourdough’ is no legal term – a fact manufacturers are more than happy to exploit.
‘The dough for genuine sourdough bread is additive-free and made to rise using only a live sourdough starter culture, so it [can’t contain anything] like baking powder or baker’s yeast,’ says Chris Young, who heads up the Real Bread Campaign.
It’s common for manufacturers to add processing aids, like baker’s yeast, to their ‘sourdough’ loaves (which defeats the point of sourdough). It’s also common for them to make it deliberately unclear as to what is and isn’t in their bread. ‘Note that manufacturers can decide some additives are in fact “processing aids” and not declare them on the label,’ says Chris.
The recipe for success
And so onto the other thing that significantly influences the cost of sourdough bread: what’s in it. Bread should contain just flour, water, salt, and some sort of yeast. Like any other food that contains only a few components, those components need to be the best they can be.
For the majority of small-scale sourdough bakeries in the county, that means sourcing flours milled from grains that produce good flavour, are environmentally sound, and can be supplied in at least moderate amounts for commercial sale. Those in the region falling into that category include Stoates in Dorset, Sharpham Park near Glastonbury, and the relatively tiny Burcott Mill near Wells. The one that seems to hit the sweet spot, however, is Shipton Mill in Tetbury, Gloucestershire.
Bakeries such as Hobbs House (Bristol), Bertinet (Bath), and The Village Baking Co. (Rode) all use Shipton Mill (Rye Bakery is the notable exception, but we’ll get to them in a bit). These millers source their grain mostly from local biodynamic and organic farms, meaning no synthetic pesticides and herbicides (tick); retaining soil fertility and biodiversity (tick); wheat varieties like Maris Widgeon that, though yield half the amount of industrial varieties, are able to extract more nutrients from the soil and impart more flavour (big tick).3
Shipton Mill aren't forthcoming about which farms these are exactly (some specialty grains aren’t available in the UK, so not all the farms they supply from are local), but organic accreditation shows they’re at least a far cry from those furnishing demands for faster, cheaper bread that’s potentially doing us damage.
A case in point: in 2014, a study found that every two in three bread loves sold by big brand names carried at least some trace of a pesticide or herbicide. Glyphosate, an integral part of Roundup, was among the most common substances. The WHO says glyphosate is ‘probably’ a carcinogenic, or in other terms, can do you a mischief in a host of different ways, from mild fatigue and nausea, to cancers, neurological disorders, and birth defects.
Heritage or rare grains are, to some degree, the alternative to modern wheat varieties reliant on agro-chemicals to develop and bear fruit. Grains like spelt, einkorn, and emmer have been cultivated in Europe for millenia, and are, largely, untouched by modern refinement.
As such, they are often slower to cultivate, channel a higher proportion of energy into growing their stem rather than their valuable grain, and can, without the help of at least some white flour in a recipe, produce a dense loaf. But they do possess higher levels of nutrition, more depth of flavour, natural disease resistance (therefore not requiring fungicides), and larger root systems allowing them to reach deeper soil (therefore not as dependent on fertilisers).
This is where Rye, among a short list of other bakeries in the UK, come into a category of their own. Rye’s Heritage Sourdough came about in 2018, and has become a mainstay of what they do – the flour used is made from entirely heritage grains grown and milled within a 40-mile radius of their bakery in Frome.
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More recently, Rye has started to go even further, test-growing their own grain populations – then milling them in their own stonemill – as part of what will eventually become a local bread cycle.4 Rye’s first loaf using this approach emerged in December last year, and has not been entirely orchestrated off their own back – the bakery’s usual suppliers include Gothelney Farm near Bridgwater, and Stoates and Haye Farm in Dorset, but they’re more than just that.
‘Provenance is important with all the ingredients I use in my bakery and I like to be transparent about where they come from. Why should the grain we use be any different?’ Rye Bakery’s co-owner Owen Postgate told Wicked Leeks.
This idea has manifested as the South West Grain Network, a collective of farmers, millers, and bakers wanting to have more control over what grain can be practical and sustainable to grow; how it should be milled; and how it is baked into bread and at what price it should be sold. This chain, though, starts with the consumer – if people don’t register an interest for, say, a nutritious, resilient, grain requiring low inputs, then farmers won’t grow it.
When we don’t make it ourselves, it may seem unjust to have to pay £4.50 for a sourdough loaf. But for one that’s going to taste nice, have more nutritional value, be kinder to the planet, and not do a number on you – does it really?
Find good bread from:
At the Chapel
Any others we should know about? Chuck them in the comments below.
It’s suggested feeding bread to ducks is a bad idea because they can’t digest it. What’s failed to mention is we probably can’t digest it either.
Astonishingly, Warbuton’s are quite open about this, saying ‘we make bread like you do at home’ in the same breath as ‘we use the Chorleywood Bread making Process’ https://www.warburtons.co.uk/our-company/experts-in-baking/product-quality/our-baking-process/
On visiting their Badcox branch, I’m told Parsons Bakery source their flour from Shipton Mill. Their bread is baked at their Bristol facility before being dispatched across their numerous branches accross the South West. As to how exactly they produce sourdough at £2.45 a pop, no-one in their head office could give me an answer.
Stoneground is often the preferred choice of milling grain to flour for smaller bakers, as the friction caused by steel rollers conventionally used have a tendency to cook grain and remove much of its nutrition.