20 Feb 2021

Andrew Whitley: Flour to the People

From Saturday Morning, 8:30 am on 20 February 2021

For over 40 years Scottish man Andrew Whitley has been on a mission to change the way our bread is made.

He says the spongy white stuff that dominates supermarket bread aisles, originally developed to fuel hungry mill and factory workers through the Industrial Revolution, just isn't nutritious or healthy.

So to fight back he co-founded Bread Matters, and more recently Scotland The Bread, a collaborative project to grow better grain and bake better bread with the common purposes of nourishment, sustainability and food sovereignty.

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Photo: supplied

With lockdown came an explosion of interest in making sourdough and Whitley tells Kim Hill they had to close their mill for two weeks to catch up with orders around the United Kingdom.

“It turned out a lot of those people were using our flour to make sourdough because, at the same time we started selling more flour, we started selling more sourdough starter.”

Whitley says he never made sourdough seriously or for sale in his Cumbria bakery until 1990 because British consumers thought it tasted odd.

“I knew what it was like because I’d lived in Russia in the 1960s when I was a student at Moscow University and I’d gotten an affection for that kind of sourness and flavour. I was really surprised when people started buying it in quite large quantities in the 1990s.”

He believes the reason for its popularity was that it was made without wheat or instant yeast.

“There were a lot of people who were putting some sort of explanation for their digestive discomfort at the door of conventional bread made with wheat and yeast and very fast fermentation.”

Rye, he says, was the grain of choice for his sourdough and is commonly used in north and eastern Europe where it grows more easily in the colder climates.

“People were finding that digestibility factor which is built into rye was overcoming whatever it was in modern wheat or modern breadmaking that was really screwing up their guts.”

Humans have been eating wheat for around 15,000 years with, more or less, no trouble. But modern breeding and domestication of wheat has lent towards higher gluten to make for stretchier dough which rises with more air in it.

Added to that, in the last 50 years industrial bakers have stopped fermenting wheat.

“For all of the history of human wheat eating, when people have made it into bread, they’ve had to ferment it because there was no other way of rising it other than to allow natural yeasts occurring in the wheat to slowly puff it up into something.”

Instead, people today use fast-acting dried yeast which – comparatively – blows bread up like a balloon.

“That sort of double-whammy meant that modern bread was tipping some people over a line of tolerance.”

Whitley says bread is an important part of our diets and people should avoid gluten-free alternatives which are pumped full of additives and starches that similarly can lead to digestive issues. Instead, he says, people should seek out better wheats which contain less gluten.

He rejects the assertion that better wheats and breads are a middle-class pursuit and poorer families will be priced out of the option.

“It’s a common criticism usually made by people who are very likely to be interested in eating our bread; they take on the right themselves to judge what people who don’t currently eat our sort of bread might want in the future.

“My view of that is that it’s patronising in the extreme to pre-judge that issue. What we want to do is to reveal to everybody, ourselves included, the historic injustice that the deal with bread since the early nineteenth century, and probably before that, was that if you were poor, you had to eat the crappiest bread.”

In the past, that bread had been the dark brown siftings left after the white flour had been taken by the rich.

“Then there’s this inversion where white bread, plus a whole load of additives which were deeply toxic like white lead were stuffed in to make it whiter and whiter because people aspired to eat white bread.”

That bread became cheaper and cheaper as economies of scale kicked in.

“And guess what, the people who were forced to eat that – because there’s no real alternative – were those who were paid a pittance because they worked in industrial mills and couldn’t grow any grain themselves.

“That cultural pattern, of being forced to eat the cheapest and worst bread is still with us. Many people will know that it’s not particularly nutritious and they can see their teenage kids eating slice after slice of this cheap stuff without really feeling full or satisfied.”

He says the price issue is partially resolved by the fact that more nutritious bread leaves people feeling sated and they will eat less than bread that doesn’t satisfy need.

“At what point do people sort of pluck up their courage and try something that looks and tastes and has a texture that’s a bit different from what they’re used to. That’s why we’re taking our flour out into the community.”

Whitley says that, with the explosion of popularity, people should be wary of supermarkets selling ‘sourdough’ on their shelves.

“I don’t call it sourdough, we call it sourfaux because it isn’t the real deal. It’s a cynical ploy on the part of supermarkets and similar large concerns to piggyback on the hard work done by artisan bakers to popularise real sourdough.”