Bread Heroes: Andrew Whitley

On 26 November 2009, the Real Bread Campaign celebrated its first anniversary. To mark the occasion, we tracked down the Campaign’s co-founder, Andrew Whitley. Here's that feature from our archives

Andrew Whitley © Bread Matters

Andrew Whitley © Bread Matters

When did you first realise that something had to be done about the state of bread in Britain?  And what inspired you to become one of the people to start doing it?

I first found out how industrial bread was made from the TACC (Technology Assessment Consumerism Centre) Report in 1974. It’s interesting that several of the additives highlighted in that report, all of which were deemed to be indispensable by the big bakers and passed as safe by scientists and regulators, have since been banned as dangerous to human health. But what really alerted me to the need for action was the sudden emergence in the early 1990s of various forms of apparent intolerance to wheat bread.

I started making naturally fermented (‘sourdough’) breads around that time, partly as a result of a return visit to Russia many years after I had spent a year as a student at Moscow University. Increasing numbers of people told me that while ‘shop bread’ made them feel bloated or worse, they could eat my rye breads and pain de campagne with impunity. What was going on? I started to look into it and realised that it wasn’t just the additives in industrial bread that were the problem. Everything, from the modern hybrid wheats to the absence of fermentation in the Chorleywood Bread Process, seemed to have combined to make our daily loaf less palatable to thousands of people.

As a former journalist, I was determined to expose the careless profit-seeking that had corrupted our bread. As a baker I discovered that doing it right – with good grain, no additives and long fermentation – produced wonderful results. And my tiny village bakery in the middle of nowhere found a market for 20,000 loaves a week of hand-crafted, slowly fermented bread.

Your mission to spread the Real Bread message seems never-ending, what are you up to at the moment? 

I’m preparing to move to the Scottish Borders to work alongside Whitmuir Organic Farm where I hope to help set up a community-supported bakery to complement their other wonderful enterprises. My wife Veronica and I will also run courses in a converted farm steading that we will move into in December 2009, all being well. In addition to the usual variety of Bread Matters courses, all using a new wood-fired oven courtesy of my friend Alf Armstrong, we will be developing new ways of purposeful bread making, especially with children and families where poor nourishment signals, and perhaps stems from, an inability to nurture. Making bread together means better nurturing and a first step towards greater independence from junk food.

You used to work for the BBC World Service.  How did you make the transition to Real Bread baker?

I read a few books, practised at home and started small, spending my first year baking for the tea room at the watermill in nearby Little Salkeld whose organic stoneground flour I used exclusively for the first dozen years or so. Among the virtues of being an amateur (i.e. someone who does something for the love of it) is that you never stop learning. But even more importantly, I never had to collude in the secrets of ‘professional’ baking - the additives and shortcuts designed more for the baker’s convenience than the customer’s good health. It was hard physical work, of course.

After a desk job, carting wood for the oven and heaving bags of flour around was so energetic that after a few weeks I burst out of all my shirts and jumpers. But nothing could be easier to embrace than the sheer satisfaction of pulling from the oven tasty and wholesome loaves that I had made myself, from start to finish.

Other than an imaginary sequel to a Gene Hackman film, what’s the Russian connection? 

I studied Russian at university and then worked in the Russian Service of the BBC. I loved the job but I wanted to respond to the emerging environmental crisis by becoming more self-reliant and I couldn’t afford to live anywhere near London. When I left to start the bakery in Cumbria, I imagined that my Russian-speaking days were over. But I didn’t realise how deeply the Russian reverence for bread had affected me. And when I got a surprise invitation to visit the country at the height of perestroika, I jumped at the chance.

Getting a bread recipe from a smiling border control officer and spending a weekend baking bread in a remote village hut were among the highlights of an extraordinary two weeks in February 1990. But the most lasting legacy was the little lump of sourdough that I swapped for some recipes in a bakery in Kostroma. Refreshed with organic English rye, this starter was mother to millions of Village Bakery loaves and helped put us on the map as one of the most innovative organic bakeries in the UK. There was one downside: the endless articles headlined “From Russia with Loaf”. But buns and puns are never far apart, it seems.

Prior to setting up Bread Matters, you founded the Village Bakery in Melmerby, which you ran for around 26 years. What were the main challenges you faced over that time and did it get easier or harder to make and sell Real Bread?

Apart from teaching myself to bake and learning to get up at four in the morning, the main challenge was finding enough customers (in a county with more sheep than people) prepared to pay for bread and cakes made with organic English wheat and baked in a wood-fired oven. But gradually, aided by regular food scares, a feeling grew that all might not be well behind factory food’s glossy surface and people began looking towards less industrial options.  By sheer good luck we were well placed to respond to the apparent growth of wheat and yeast intolerance and, more positively, to the growing interest in artisan bread. In that sense it got easier to sell the product. But running a business growing at 30% a year, as the Village Bakery was for much of the 1990s, wasn’t, as they say, a cakewalk.

How do you answer those who say that Real Bread is an elitist concept, available only to those with plenty of time and/or money?

There are some deeply patronising assumptions behind this kind of cheap jibe. For instance, that people on modest incomes are incapable of choosing any but the cheapest food, or of devoting any of their spare time to things other than TV or the Internet.  If disposable income really is a barrier to good food, then the remedy is to ensure that everyone has enough money, not to denature the food to keep it cheap.

The real cost of cheap food is paid, as many people have pointed out, not at the check-out but in the taxes and charges required to deal with environmental degradation and diet-related ill-health. But the accusation is an empty one, anyway. A 1kg bag of flour, a little yeast, salt and water and a surprisingly small amount of applied time are all that is required to make two large loaves of bread at a cost well below any equivalent available in the supermarket - not counting ‘loss leader’ loaves whose apparent cheapness is redressed elsewhere in our shopping trolleys.  

Real Bread is everyone’s right – how could it be otherwise? And, as a wise man said over a hundred years ago, “those who think they have no time for healthy eating will sooner or later have to find time for illness” (Edward Stanley, 1826-93). Our job at the Campaign is to spread the awareness and skills required to make real bread a reality for people of all kinds. The pleasure and satisfaction to be had from good bread made and shared near to home is, I would say, priceless.

What gives you the most hope that there is the will to allow Real Bread to take its rightful place in the sustainable local food systems of the future?

I take hope from the big changes that have occurred since I started baking for a living in the 1970s when people like me were marginalised and ridiculed. Many folk now realise that industrial bread is a filler not food. Nutritional science has proved the multiple benefits of whole grains and a growing number of studies are concluding positive benefits of longer fermentation, especially using sourdough cultures. Committed people are lining up to become Real Bread bakers in communities all round the country. You might say – we’re on a roll...

What advice would you give to small bakers wanting to produce Real Bread?

Just do it. You don’t need the additives and the enzymes. Time and care will take you a long way, as will a real desire to tell your customers honestly what you are doing. At the end of the day we all love a breadtime story.

You can read more about Andrew’s work and his views on Real Bread issues at www.breadmatters.com and in the book of the same name.


First published in True Loaf magazine issue 2, April 2010 


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