A little over 10 years ago Nick, William and I began working with Transition City Norwich on the Resilient Food Project, a community initiative that asked whether the city could feed itself in a low impact, low input way from the fields around its walls - it was the catalyst for Hodmedod. One of the many things we needed to get to grips with was grain, flour and bread (we're still on that journey). Here Charlotte Du Cann, writing in 2009, records one of our early explorations into fields and bakeries.
There are seventeen of us in a room at the Baptist church on Botolph Steet – a farmer, a miller, several bakers, wholefood shopkeepers, members of Transition Norwich, Professor Martin Wolfe of the Organic Research Centre and Andrew Whitley of the Village Bakery and author of Bread Matters. We are meeting to discuss Resilient Bread, the project that aims to create a sustainable supply of bread for Norwich, using locally milled flour from English wheat, grown on Norfolk farms.
There is a plate being passed around and on it are not wafers but slices of real wholemeal bread, baked by a neighbourhood community store. Everyone is looking at each other as if we can’t quite believe we are all in the same room together, eating those slices and listening to these lectures about peak oil and agriculture, about the natural selection of wheat genotypes that can thrive in eco-systems undergoing climate change. It’s hard somehow to get all those graphs and words about the future to relate to the rough brown food in our mouths.
Andrew Whitley, master baker, has worked with organic flour milled in a local water mill for many years. He is a neat and compact man with a keen intensity and a round face. Whereas the other speakers stood in front of us as they spoke, he remains seated within our circle and leans forward to reveal the secrets and horrors of the industrialised bread trade. Maybe it’s because he was once in the BBC Russian service that he emanates such a conspiratorial air (he is famous in bread circles for bringing a Russian sourdough culture into Britain 19 years ago that has since spawned thousands of loaves throughout the land). It was his rediscovery of the sour dough process that eventually led to the Real Bread Campaign which he launched last year (2008).
It is half-way through his speech about the infamous Chorleywood baking process that I find myself suddenly looking at a universal truth. It’s one of those moments that opens like a door sometimes when you pay attention, notebook in hand. One minute the speaker is talking about their subject and the next they are talking about Life. Whitley was talking about time. Bread is all about time: time to mix, time to prove, time to bake. The key to real bread is in allowing enough kneading time so the gluten in the flour is activated, and enough proving time for the yeast to expand the dough to twice its size.
Gluten is a protein that when kneaded makes an elasticated web, “like a series of tiny balloons” that become filled with gas from the fermentation. Yeast is a tiny mushroom, arguably the most successful symbiont with man. It is born to ferment. It ferments our food and drink and transforms them - wine, asses' milk, bread and beer. Wild yeasts appear naturally in sour dough starters (made from fermented water and flour) as well as lactic acid bacteria. Sour dough was how all bread was made until the manufacture of commercial yeast. The longer you leave these agents to do their work, the greater the nutritional quality of the bread.
Industrial baking, invented in Chorleywood in the 1960’s, has not got time to spend on the niceties of natural alchemy, on these subtle relationships between gluten and yeast and lactobacilli, and has invented deviant ways to by-pass them. Whitley is listing them: high-speed mixers, addition of hydrogenated fats and water, increased use of commercial yeast, bleach, preservatives, a cocktail of artificially-mixed enzymes, as well as countless additives and emulsifiers (the so-called flour improvers). All these deny bread its natural fermentation time. And it is this cheating of time, he argues, that leads to the malfunctions within the Western diet: all its disorders of stomach and guts, its huge ballooning of bodies.
Robbed of time industrialised bread brings disorder into the digestive system. Robbed of its rough coat of wheatgerm, the grain gives no nutrition. We keep eating but nothing satisfies our deep hunger. We pay 19p for something that should cost us £2.50. The staff of life has become an industrialised commodity without any connection with our physical beings or our intelligence. Our minds are no longer paying attention to what is on the plate but are elsewhere fixed on the cheap fast dreams of cities. On escapes and fantasies. Caught in a treadmill of hard labour, we are grabbing breakfast toast and lunchtime sandwiches, pizza, hotdog rolls, burger buns to go. We are so busy we don’t even know what we are eating.
To reverse this 50-year-old habit would require a restructuring of our outside and inside lives. It’s where the grassroots movement of Transition and master bakers like Andrew Whitley meet. We meet in unlikely venues and discuss ways of bringing real food back into the hands of people and places: community baking in local hubs “where good transactions happen between people,” reskilling of home bakers and the creation of the Local Loaf (paralleling the National Loaf of the 1940’s) using local millers, bakers and shops and locally distinctive varieties of wheat.
The ingredients for real bread are simple - flour, water, salt, yeast. Bringing a resilient local loaf into Norwich is more complex. The mega-distribution system of the big three industrial bakeries have trucks perpetually on the road travelling 200 miles transporting ready-sliced to the city’s 122,000 inhabitants daily. They are roaring across East Anglia from Stevenage, London and Enfield. To feed Norwich sustainably would require over 40 tonnes of wheat a week and several local mills. On the agenda that day in January were questions about the supply chain: quantity of flour, storage and transportation of grain, the price of a loaf, the feasibility of setting up and maintaining an electric mill in the city, the packaging and marketing of the loaves. Should the flour be stone-ground or roller-ground? Tin or round? Could Canadian wheat be used as a last straw (sic) in times of bad harvest, or grain kept back? Was the Norwich Loaf initially an everyday item or a speciality one-off?
East Anglia has arable land for growing the wheat but few working mills. The first challenge for the project is to find a mill in the city to grind the corn. The nearest wind or water mills are 25-30 miles away. The other is the quality of the wheat. The gluten content of bread is a key consideration in baking. Wheat has a very high gluten content (between 12-15 per cent) which gives the dough its extraordinary elasticity and ability to be moulded into the hundreds of shapes in which we have historically consumed it – from the heaviest of wholemeals to the airiest of croissants. Artisan bakers in England have been using commercial Canadian flour for decades because its exceptionally high gluten levels makes the light and fluffy white loaf we have got used to. The lower gluten content of our native wheat is compensated for by the Chorleywood method. The Norwich bakers’ main concern with using local flour was one of consistency (“No one is going to buy a bad bloomer,” one said rather gloomily; “You could call it ciabatta,” another quipped to much laughter) and there was a long discussion as to how we were going to get over the fact that life was unpredictable and that white and fluffy was not the future. It felt like it was going to take some time for all of us to get used to the idea.
You could tell the bakers. They had a physical presence in the room that was quite distinct from those whose business was in words and figures. They seemed familiar though I had never really considered bakers before, or even talked to one. They existed in my imagination as mythical figures with white hats and aprons. Suddenly I realised they were men who worked with their hands and worked at night. And this was why the meeting that day had begun at 2.15pm.
One of the lesser known facts about Charles Darwin is that when he bought Down House (where The Origin of Species was written) it was not for the house but for the chalk grassland that surrounded it. The species-rich habitat provided the man who was about to shake the paradigm of the Western world with the perfect opportunity to observe bio-diversity and see how its elements worked together. It was here he saw that everything in the natural world is connected and that the greater diversity that exists in a place the greater its abundance.
At the same time as the naturalist was looking at biological complexity in the field, chemists were singling out individual components in their laboratories and developing the first nitrate fertilisers that would lead to the appearance of a very different kind of grassland. And a plant that once grew wild around the Fertile Crescent began to be bred as the basis of the global diet: modern wheat.
Professor Martin Wolfe is a plant pathologist who has spent the last decade working at his organic research station outside Metfield developing what are known as Composite Cross Populations of wheat. The evolution of wheat is a complicated business and requires your absolute concentration. Where once we ate thousands of different plants, the human species mostly lives off half a dozen crops of which wheat is now the top one.
Outside the window of the Institute’s meeting room small green spikes are everywhere on trial: in a conventional agricultural field and in organic strips bordered by timber and fruit trees (a layout known as agroforestry). The Composite Cross Populations have a complex origin: three populations that come from 20 varieties and 200 intercrosses and a random male sterile genotype who acts like the joker in the pack. As a result the plants contain thousands of variations. It’s these variations that give the wheat the ability to produce consistent yield and quality of grain under a wide variety of conditions.
“Natural eco-systems are complex because they evolve that way for a damn good reason. The whole way of developing agriculture around the world depends on functional diversity. What evolutionary breeding showed was that if you dissemble the elements (in an eco-system) you find that yield increases with the positive interactions occurring. The more complex the connections, the better everything responds.”
We sit in the Institute meeting room, Mark, Josiah and I facing Martin. The biological history of cereal crops, he explains, goes in two directions: one that concentrated on a simple system using synthetic fertilisers to boost yields that led to the separation of agriculture and the natural world around 1850, and another known as evolutionary breeding that began in California in 1929 which introduced variation and worked within complexity.
His story veers from wild barley in Israel to the development of maize in Africa and traces a familiar shape: the taking of heritage seeds out of farmer’s hands and putting them into the fists of seed merchants, the manufacturers of pesticides and herbicides and finally the corporations who patent rights for certain genes and focus on their monoculture (as well as produce the agrochemicals that support the varieties that contain them).
“Oh, I’ve got a story about Monsanto,” says Mark breezily who was taking notes. I shoot him a fast look. We haven’t got time for asides, even good ones. We have another meeting to go to. Martin is an ex-professor and has that smooth ease of delivery honed from years of lecturing to Cambridge students for exactly one hour. Although there is something bristly and creaturelike about his manner I can’t quite put my finger on. It’s a creature I know, a tusky fellow, one not to be crossed.
Wolfe has no time for simplificaton and bristles academically about evolution being side-stepped by global corporations. The memory of how to thrive in different conditions – light and shade, temperatures, with plant pathogens and insects - persists in the genetic structure of naturally evolved seed. It has an inbuilt multifunctionality. But in the millions and millions of hectares of monocultural wheat these shared memories are not available.
“What happens if the weather is different from the weather it experienced during its ten years of selection? Modern wheat is bred to react maximally to input from fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides. But in the future the environment will be much more variable. How do we deal with that?”
Amongst the Composite Cross Populations there are answers to these questions, as well as an ability to function without agrochemicals based on fossil fuels. Because of their diversity and ability to complement and compensate for one other “there are huge amounts of variable phenomena emerging.”
As Wolfe points out: “There are lots of things breeders can’t see which are being affected by the environment.” Scientific plant breeding depends on things that can be easily measured such as height and leaf shape and so on. But the strength of living systems depends on things that cannot be seen in this way. “Inevitably the natural world is a much better selector than the trained human breeder. We have to be humble in these things.”
For 150 years however, sanctioned by the “Darwinian” assertion that nature is red in tooth and claw and inherently competitive, we have gone in the opposite direction. From Darwin we have taken the image of animals fighting for survival and justified all our aggressive acts against nature and each other. We consider evolution in terms of exotic birds far away in South America and conveniently forget his ecological analysis of the native grasslands of England that tell quite a different story. The plant world shows that nature is essentially co-operative and the success of eco-systems depends on a complex weave of relationships, as well as a long genetic memory. The simple system science behind modern agriculture, most explicitly expressed in “the crude plant technology” of GM, is one of control and domination. But this control has now, according to Wolfe, reached its ultimate, and is about to face the music in the form of climate change and peak oil.
“The question we are posing (or that is being posed for us) is how has evolution coped with a huge variety of conditions? It’s coped by lots of variation, lots of diversity, lots of different answers to potential problems.“
Maybe it’s the word population but every time Martin starts talking about the CCP that door begins to swing open again: he’s not just talking about wheat diversity, he’s talking about human diversity! We are, after all, what we eat. In a Westernised industrial world where human populations are forced to become increasingly monocultural and dependent for their survival on artificial conditions, our own evolutionary moves are now being called into play. What is happening to wheat is happening to ourselves. What would it mean for us to become composite cross?
We are on our way to talk with a baker in Stanton, where Josiah went to school. If Wolfe represents the biological thought at the beginning of the supply chain, the bakers represent the working craft at the end. It’s mid March, after a long and relentless winter, and there is not one cherry plum tree in blossom. The land still wears last season’s coat and the hedgerows are twiggy except for sudden bursts of golden-tasselled hazel. A low grey sky hems us in as we hurtle down the small roads that wind along the border country between Norfolk and Suffolk. It’s already bleaker here. The clay fields are giant-sized and empty, punctuated by the occasional spinney or solitary oak. Apart from the rooks, we are the only thing moving amongst the swathes of blunted green barley and darker rosettes of rape.
On the wooden shelves at the back of the Hillcrest Farm Shop in Stanton we find a quote from Felicity Lawrence’s Not On The Label on Radio 4: “Only a small number (of Britain’s independent bakers) genuinely bake from scratch, many depend instead on factory ‘premixes’. Today there are only 3,500 individual craft bakers in the UK, compared to about 35,000 in France . . .” In between crusty white and crunchy granary loaves, a round face is beaming at me from the kitchen.
The smile belongs to Mick the Baker who has been baking from scratch for 37 years. “You can talk to me as I’m working,” he says. It’s probably the only time we can talk to Mick as he is definitely a man on the go. As he works ten pans of dough into hundreds of hot cross buns, he gives us a run down on his working schedule, baking, singing with a band at the weekends and driving long-distance trucks. Most of his days start at 4.30am, Saturday begins at 1.30am. Do you ever get time to sleep? I ask. “I don’t get a lot,” he says, “I used to survive on three hours. The only way is to keep going and not sit down. The trouble is I’m fifty now. The mind says you can but the body says maybe not.”
We’ve come to talk with Mick because he has just started baking with locally grown and milled flour. He bakes “the old-fashioned way” entirely by hand (except for the mixing), uses natural ingredients and is one of only nine traditional British bakers left in the Waveney Valley. “I’ve always done it natural. Slow mix, slow dough. Throw it in and hope for the best. I’ve got it right for the bread, I’m not sure for the rest of the life!”
Mick is “an old East End boy” who began his apprenticeship at 15 and came to East Anglia in 1991 to run the Swan Bakery in the neighbouring village of Garboldisham. He chose baking because he was waiting until he was 21 to follow his dream of being a long-distance lorry driver.
“I’m more into quality than money. I’m not motivated by money, I’m motivated by music.”
Mick is a motivated man. As he whirls his two hands around 360 buns he talks non-stop about bread, about bread making machines, about his old-style baking equipment and the necessity of hot ovens, the time John Peel almost came to interview him but then he died, how sweeping up is the most important part of the job, how he likes to barter, swapping bread for customer’s eggs, surprising children with a box of cakes when they hand him a picture, how he holds the peace between the scrapping artistes in his band (“I’m in the middle of it,” he laughs) and sings almost everything – jazz, blues, funk, soul - just not country (even though he is a trucker), how he hasn’t got time to teach, has never read a book in his life and the reason he likes baking is because it’s creative: he creates everything from start to finish.
“I use Canadian flour which isn’t very patriotic but it makes the best bread. The organic English one comes up quite small and heavy but that suits some customers. I don’t mess around with fancy stuff. Mine’s the proper old English bread. People like a bit of crust.”
Like most hands-on craftsmen he learned everything by watching people. “If anyone asks me anything technical, I can’t tell them. I know what happens if you leave yeast out but I couldn’t tell you why. I know when the salt is left out because the dough moves quicker. In the summer it’s a nightmare in here because the bread keeps moving and you can’t stop.”
We stand in the tiny back kitchen, peering at Mick busily not stopping with the currant-spotted dough, occasionally swerving out of the way as he whisks a tray into the fridge or freezer. I want to ask him when do you have time for life? And then as I listen to him, hands spinning, talking about gigs and whacking everything in the bowl, knocking it on the table, whacking it back in the prover, I realise this is Life, this whirl of activity, creating, producing, bartering, sweeping up. On the wall there is a photograph of Mick singing with a hat on (“I always wear a hat”), a smiley T- shirt and rainbow trousers. He’s carrying a giant sunflower in one hand.
Mick tells us a story about working through the night. At the Swan Bakery he had a chill-out room and at night people used to drop by: policemen came for a quick kip, firemen on call, young boys without anything much to do. One night a couple came on their way from the Glastonbury Festival lured by the lights of the chill-out room. “They said they could not believe it.” You could imagine it then, stoned out of your head in the small hours, finding a light burning on a dark road, and a man working in the kitchen mixing yeast, flour, water and salt, cooking up the kind of bread you might like to eat. What did they see when the door swung open?
“It’s time to decompress,” said Josiah as we reeled out of the shop. We chewed our buns as we walked about the garden centre. Everything after the intensity of the kitchen didn’t seem quite real: the stiff and clipped box trees, the flashy petunias in their pots, silently waiting under a grey and cold sky. “What’s the story?” he asked, as we climbed back into the small car. We had come out on an adventure the three of us for the day. I don’t know what we had expected from either the scientist or the baker. We all felt rather dazed.
“I don’t know yet,” I said. I was thinking about what I had first seen, as I glimpsed Mick’s round face between the shelves of bread. It was like the sun was smiling at me.
When I came to the story I realised that we live in a culture that keeps everything separate and that when you start to assemble the components back together again, it requires a way of thinking about life and engaging in it that is not just a matter of graphs and statistics. The bakers and millers and shopkeepers once appeared in our imaginations as part of life. These people operated in the fabric of our daily lives: they lived in songs and in fairy tales, as characters in children’s picture books and playing cards. They were apparent and lived in the brightness of day.
The processes of industry and science and agriculture are hidden. They recognise no people, only machines and numbers. They operate secretly in the dark and rely on our not joining up the dots and connecting the facts. Even when investigated by determined journalists like Lawrence, knowing facts about the global food industry does not actually shift our ways of thinking about them.
What shifts our awareness are the door-opening moments, when those connections start cross-referencing and self-organising inside you - those revelations about time, about Life. Suddenly you get the whole picture. You know that when the time is out of whack, everything else goes out of whack. How when you side-step evolution there is a price to pay. And that’s the moment you start asking yourself who exactly is paying.
At this point, I don’t know which way the story is going. It’s still fermenting: the faces of the three men appear before me and need time to reassemble themselves into a coherent shape. What I do know is that when you look at wheat, you find yourself looking at civilisation. The ability to domesticate wild grasses and feed thousands of people happened at the same time in different continents – rice in Asia, millet in Africa, maize in the Americas. Wheat, with barley and rye, was the main cereal crop of the Middle East and clearly marks the shift from the nomadic and hunter-gatherer world, to the city-ruled agricultural world of conquered and indentured populations. When you look at wheat you look at bread, and when you look at bread you’re looking at people. You’re looking at a certain kind of people eating for a certain kind of reason.
It’s not sacred anymore in the way we understand sacred - our daily bread - but it serves the same function. Modern factory bread is cheap and in a world that prizes convenience and availability and money most of all, the cheapness of bread means it is highly prized. For one section of the population of course. For cheap food is and always has been, since the city-states established themselves 5000 years ago, the fuel of the workforce. Though civilisations prize themselves on their architecture and technology and their high-flown ideals, all of them depend on a huge and expendable underclass. The daily bread that was apportioned to the city slaves in Rome is as vital to them as the ready-sliced bought by the urban poor of the global metropolis. And the contempt the modern ruling classes have towards the masses who eat junk bread is in proportion to their great and ancient fear that they will one day rise up and demand not wholemeal loaves, nor even croissants, but equity.
Sometimes I think that my intolerance to wheat, to gluten and yeast, is a symptom of my own revolt against the prevailing order. I used to think it was an expression of the imbalance between settled agriculture and the wild places of this earth – a shout of solidarity for all those medicine flowers and prairie grasses, sometimes as tall as a man, mown down and replaced by the millions and millions of hectares of identical corn. Our minds may acquiesce to industrialisation, to the maltreatment of nature, but our archaic hunter-gatherer bodies do not. They close down, blow up and start minor revolutions. But now I realise the body doesn’t just revolt in sympathy with the earth, but also with its own kind.
There are millions of people who are allergic to wheat. Some so allergic (the so-called coeliacs) they cannot consume one tiny speck of flour. It’s a phenomena that came with the industrialisation of cereals, particularly in the last 20 years. There is no medical cure for what happens to the intolerant body. Gluten is seen as a foreign invader by the immune system and it attacks the delicate lining of the intestine that normally takes in the goodness of food. As a result the micronutrients - the essential minerals and vitamins - are not absorbed by the blood. Without these vital ingredients we grow weak and tired and depressed, rashes appear on our knees and ulcers in our mouths. We sweat, feel poisoned and our bowels collapse.
White bread, the symbol of oppression of the dominant Western world in many cultures, is often blamed as a cause of malnutrition amongst the poor and indigenous. But gluten intolerance is widespread amongst everyone in a wheat-consuming world. Between 1 in 100 or 1 in 600 of people in the UK, depending which report you read. Allergies don’t just happen to the masses.
It’s difficult to look at food allergies like this. We want there to be scientific solutions, fixes and formulas. We want to be separate and blameless and live our lives in discrete units, as if our physical reactions bear no relation to the way we treat the earth or the culture we uphold. We want to cheat time and cheat each other and think we can get away with things forever.
But we can’t.
It’s a bowl my sister gave me years ago and has, for as long as I can remember, sat quietly in the corner or in front of fireplaces in houses I have lived in. It sat on the long table in my London flat for years. When I went travelling it was one of the only things I kept during a decade of perpetual moving and shifting. I just liked it for its great and useful form - a large deep pottery bowl, terracotta on the outside, creamy yellow on the inside with a hand-drawn ox-blood-coloured rim. I cooked up a lot of dishes in that London flat with its long table, and in all the places where I went travelling. Except bread. Bread was not my style: it felt way too domestic and slow.
But last Sunday I made my first loaf in the pottery bowl, and found out what it was really called: a panchion. My fellow first-time breadmaker took a snap of me holding it at my hip to send to her mother. “She used to use one,” she said.
It wasn’t a grand production, just a regular soda bread made with local spelt and rye. We were a small group of people in a neighbourhood restaurant, taking part in a bread making club that meets the last Sunday of every month. What was surprising was that when my hands went deep into the sides of the panchion, they knew what to do without any instruction. Push, pull, knead.
It was not like making pastry or anything else I’ve mixed in a bowl because the soda had activated the dough. You could feel the stuff living in your hands. Recorded somewhere deep in the bone-memory of those hands, in that bowl, in the spelt and rye, was the knowledge of people working with the staff of life for thousands of years. Knead, push, pull.
After kneading we waited. We had some tea and talked to each other. Then we put the round shapes into the oven. When we pulled our tins out forty minutes later, my two loaves were perfect. How did that happen? They were cracked in a cross shape - the distinguishing mark of soda bread - dusted with flour, chunky, sweet smelling. When I got home I went round and gave the spare loaf to my neighbour and the other I put in the centre of the table. I looked at that bread for a long time. And then I cut a thick slice and ate it the way I remember we used to in Ireland, with butter and hot tea. I did not get sick.
It’s something about craftsmen, about creators, that I’ve noticed. It’s not money that motivates them, or a machine that makes demands on their time. It’s something else. Wolfe remembers the strains of wild barley he saw once either side of a rock in a Middle Eastern field: short on the shadowy side of the rock and tall on the sunny side: beautiful! he declares and his face lights up (finally I recognise the creature, it’s a wild boar). Now I’m looking at those tough spikes of green outside his window in a different way, imagining how they can in a matter of months turn into pale golden fields of edible wheat on stalks of differing heights.
Mick is telling us he makes real English bread, that people like a bit of crust. Now I’m looking at his shiny loaves stacked on the shelf. How come I never noticed that English bread was crusty before, that it is square? I ate bread for years. I’ve gazed out across arable fields for years. How come I never examined those hairy ears of wheat closely, the stiffness of their forms? I could have missed everything, skimming on the top of what I saw or thought, and never delving deep into the place where time lives, where the cross currents of our lives make sense of everything, where what happens behind the scenes before dawn is everything that happens after sunrise.
What did these three men have in common that made me look at life with another eye? I realised it was a relationship with the material: the desire to shape the stuff of life with your own hands. If you talk to a man about his passion for making hats or chairs, or turning a bowl from a piece of old railway track or a cherry tree that has blown over, or to a man who knows how to turn the earth so that beans or roses will spring from it, or how to make a necklace of out of seaglass that reflects light all about your throat you will find a man with a deep satisfaction inside him. I’ve spent some of my life talking to such men, without knowing why there is a strong current that flows between us. And now I see it’s because we have something in common: their eye is on matter in the same way my eye is on the blank page. The possibility is that what manifests could go one way or another and your interaction in the matter is everything. It’s the kind of relationship you never tire of.
To be in life requires your utter engagement. Industrialisation switches us off. It’s only interested in people working like machines To put yourself in the centre of things is the position in which time starts making sense, whether you are a biologist, a baker, a writer or a musician. You are working with the substance of life. In those spaces created by the synthesis of gluten and yeast and bacteria, nourishment is forged from the seeds of the wheat grass. In the spaces created within the matter, the craftsmen glimpse a possibility of eternity. It’s a mysterious process that even deeply practical bakers like Whitley acknowledge. It’s being fully engaged in this daily alchemy that gives us the real rewards of life, that mere possession of things, or endless hours of leisure never can.
The industrial machine produces from life what can be bought and sold, demanding endless energy and life-force. It makes slaves of people and gives us money and entertainment and cheap goods in return. But you never get to engage with the fabric of life that way - with plants or bread or words - or find any kind of satisfaction. The craftsman is using his hands to making life beautiful, useful, delicious: he is putting his attention and his skill into those loaves and those loaves are coming up good. No one gets sick afterwards.
To find satisfaction you have to have an encounter with the real world and absorb its great subtleties. It’s difficult to make the deep connections about food without meeting the people that grow the plants or bake the bread, or doing those things yourself. You have to stand in the intensity of the kitchen and in the emptiness of the land. And then you have to go home and let those ingredients shift and move and expand together. Real bread takes time. Real stories take time. How many stories can you make with 26 letters? How many songs can you sing with 12 notes? How many solutions can you come up with with 17 people in a room? How many things can you make out of flour and water that are not the monocultural white sliced loaf?
The loaves of the old world are stored inside me: cottage white, granary brown, bap, bagel, pitta, naan, focaccia, ciabatta, pumpernickel, brioche. A man with a black face is gulping water from a bucket like a horse, his warm bread stacked on a rough shelf set in the side of a Greek mountain. I am standing by the door, a dish of Easter kid at my hip, about to put the dish inside his oven stoked with thornbushes. An old man takes my hand in a French patisserie in Queensway and puts a sweet roll in it. His name is Monsieur Pechon. He is eighty years old and blind. I am four years old and wearing a coat the colour of the sun. Each morning he waits by the door for us, les petits, to come and hold his bread baking hands. It’s a long time ago. It’s a long long way away from where we are now.
I am wondering as I write this story about wheat, whether we will make it back in time.
Charlotte Du Cann was part of the Transition Norwich core team, she's now online editor and part of the editorial team behind The Dark Mountain Project. She writes about mythology, metaphysics and cultural change and teaches collaborative writing. You can read more of her work on her own blog and on the Dark Mountain website.
Images: Organic loaves baked at the squatted farmhouse co-operative, Can Piella, in Spain (Philip Evans); Brockwell Baker Vincent Talleu, gathers Blue Cone Rivet heritage wheat at Perry Court Farm, Kent; baker from the community owned Handmade Bakery, Slaithwaite, Yorkshire; Ann-Marie Culhane and Corn Mask 1; CDC with the panchion and soda bread, Yoxford, Suffolk; Mark's first sourdough loaf made with local spelt and wheat, 2009, Suffolk.
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2020 was a difficult year in many ways and for many people. At the Bean Store we struggled with long hours, uncertainty and anxiety. But we were also incredibly lucky. We continued to trade and had our health where others were less fortunate, and we had time to reflect, re-group and make new plans. We’re really looking forward to 2021.