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Rebel alliance

Hannah-Phoebe Bowen reports on the Spring Grain Gathering of people rebelling against commodification of staple foods, learning from the past to build a better future.

Spring Grain Gathering 2023. Copyright: Ann Bodkin

Spring Grain Gathering 2023. Copyright: Ann Bodkin

On a suitably spring-like day in March, Real Bread bakers, farmers and millers of the South East Grain Alliance and East Anglian Grain Alliance gathered in the railway arches of E5 Bakehouse for a revitalising afternoon of knowledge and skill sharing.

The event began by Brockwell Bake Association founder Andrew Forbes presenting the questions “what is heritage wheat?” and “should we be baking with 100% heritage wheat?” Andy shared an overview of his comprehensive research into the history of hybridised, dwarfed wheats, concluding that heritage varieties are more likely to form complex mycorrhizal networks leading to greater micronutrient variety and flavour. He also introduced the history of the variety Florence Aurore, which shows potential for a heritage grain with the strength of the modern wheats.

Bakers’ insights

Then it was over to bakers to talk about how they work with heritage grains. Laurence Carroll from Dozen Bakery in Norwich spoke about the benefits of developing a direct relationship with a farmer who grows and mills heritage grain for the bakery. He shared his formula and process for working with 100% heritage wheat flour in both a sourdough boule and baguette made using a starter and baker’s yeast, revealing surprisingly little change to the process was necessary. 

Kate, co-founder of Hamblin Bread, shared a ‘third-hand’ method that was the key to incorporating more wholemeal, heritage wheat flour in her bread making. It had been passed to her by Andrew at Landrace in Bath, who’d learned it from Blair at Elmore Mountain Bread in Vermont. Kate shared the formula so that other bakers could take it with them and try it fourth-hand!

Dan Mountford from E5 Bakehouse spoke about working with fresh flour from their on-site mill, He also talked about the benefits of allocating time for bakers to experiment with different ingredients, recipes and processes. He said that the variety of grain milled on site changes roughly every three months, advocating the importance of the team coming together each day to talk about the dough, thus building everyone’s confidence in working with the changing flour.

The panel also included Wing Mon Cheung from Cereal Bakery in Bath. Wing Mon makes wholemeal wheat and rye tin loaves with fresh flour milled at Field Bakery in Somerset, saying that she relies on short bulk ferments and a dynamic relationship with her dough to ensure she gets the timings just right. 

In a true conversation between friends, the discussion ranged from mixer types to connections with farmers to how much customers really want to know about the grains in their bread. It revealed the ways bakeries were each working creatively in their local communities and within other networks available to them.

Taste test

Spilling out into the late afternoon sun, we participated in a blind tasting of Real Bread made with five varieties of heritage, long-straw wheats grown in different ways on different farms. The general preference was for bread made from grain grown in pasture planted with a herbal ley, seeming to support the idea that diversity in the field leads to a better flavour. It also showed of the potential of Florence Aurore wheat to bring height and structure to a heritage loaf.

Updates from a growing community

The second part of the day gave us the chance to hear about the newest additions to London’s bakery scene. Anna Higham and Paris Barghchi spoke about their plans for Quince Bakery to be a neighbourhood hub in Islington, with close ties to Landrace bakery and mill in Bath. They shared their vision of bringing a thoughtful approach to employment policies in their own business and helping other hospitality businesses develop practices that could change the industry for the better.

Maisie Collins and Bryn Timmis spoke about the first year for Hearth Bakery in Hackney Wick. Opening on a shoestring budget, with a zero-waste ethos, has driven a creative and resourceful approach. One example was replacing almonds with bran sifted from flour for the ‘brangipane’ they use in galettes. With refreshing honesty, Maisie shared the challenges in communicating that their wholemeal and rye tin loaves are sourdough bread with customers who were expecting a crusty white loaf. She also spoke of how their heritage wholemeal tin winning the Real Bread Campaign category of the World Bread Awards 2022 has been helpful in encouraging customers to give this previously less popular loaf a try.

We also heard from Rebecca Spaven about the first year of Toad Bakery, where they’ve been working tirelessly to meet the enthusiastic demand of their customers. Rebecca’s miche and malted wheat sourdough bring heritage grains to Camberwell, where she finds customers are loyal to their favourite loaf.

Sharing the challenges of establishing new bakery and bringing different styles of bread to a wider audience revealed the passion it takes to create a values-led business and the importance of a supportive community. The encouragement and transparency modelled by each speaker filled the room with a sense of excitement and possibility.

New custodians of a beloved mill

The day ended with Oscar Harding from Duchess Farms speaking about their acquisition of Gilchesters Organics. He reassured everyone that the pioneering brand, founded by Andrew and Bille Wilkinson, will stay the same. Though the mill has moved from Northumberland to Essex, it still sources grain from the same co-operatives and farmers – including the Wilkinsons. 

Oscar also shared his plans to have the facility to mill grain for farmers and bakers working with quantities too small for most mills to process. This seems an exciting opportunity for experiments in partnerships and the potential for small test plots of non-commodity wheats. The day ended with his enthusiastic invitation to anyone who wishes to visit to head to the farm and hopes for a true harvest festival in the Duchess Farm fields in the autumn.

Summing up the day, Bryn Timmis said: “This was my first grain alliance meeting and it was so lovely to be surrounded by people with the same interests, and to be reminded how many people are working to tackle these important issues around feeding and farming in their own ways.”

Hannah blogs at

See also

Published 4 May 2023

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