In September 2019, Richard Scroggs, co-owner of the Old Post Office Bakery in Clapham, gave an impassioned talk at the fourth annual Brixton Windmill Lecture. This is one of two articles based on his notes.
When I asked Jean Kerrigan, the chair of The Friends of Windmill Gardens, what she wanted me to talk about, she said that she’d like to hear about my experience of running a bakery that produces Real Bread. So that got me thinking: What is it that makes our bread any more real than any other bread? It is of course actually a philosophical question, I guess. How can any one thing be any more real than another? Why is a sourdough loaf made with organic flour from an artisan bakery any more real than a supermarket basics sliced white? After all, we all know which one some of us sometimes rather use to make a chip butty.
What are we signalling with our use of the word real, which by the way we certainly use when describing our bakery and baked goods? The dictionary tells us it’s an adjective that describes a thing that is genuine, not imagined or artificial. So, what makes a small-scale craft bakery realer than a large-scale H*vis plant factory? What are we saying with our use of this word?
For my answer I began by thinking about what the pirate DJs, who used to broadcast from all the tower blocks around here in the 1980s, told us at least ten times a day: ‘keep it real, bredren’. I always took it to mean that they were telling us, yes to be genuine, but also to be truthful, to be honest, to be fair, to be open and not deceitful and to regard life as about more than just squeezing as much profit out of every transaction, human and commercial, as possible. I believe the best of the craft baking movement, of which our bakery was a pioneer, is actually about ethics, and I hope this informs our attitude towards both the craft of baking and the sort of ingredients we feel it is right to put into our bread, and crucially that it has influenced the type of business that we are.
The Old Post Office Bakery’s roots are in the organic, health and wholefoods movements of the 1960s and 1970s, which themselves emerged from the widespread counter-culture of those times and that were descendants of movements that had begun in the early 20th century, as people looked for an alternative to genetically engineered, mass consumption crops, only capable of being produced with the assistance of synthetic pesticides and other toxic chemicals. I hope we can all agree that these movements’ core principles are even more critically relevant today than ever. If we ever needed a moment to get real about the inter connectedness between the health of the people and the health of our endangered planet, it’s right now.
Karl Heinz Rossbach, our founder and guru, moved from Berlin to London in 1982 to study. To make some extra money, he decided to start baking a few loaves of wholemeal and rye sourdough bread from recipes that he had learnt from his mother. He believed that, as much as possible, all the ingredients he used should be as nutritionally wholesome and set about sourcing organic ingredients. The early 1980s was just when some of today’s biggest organic companies were first starting to get established. We were actually one of the original customers of Shipton Mill, which has gone on to be a transnational juggernaut, as perhaps the UK’s biggest organic mill.
Karl had grown up on a remote smallholding in the German countryside and was equipped with all the skills of self-sufficiency that are now sadly almost entirely lost. He could (and can) fix any machine. I can’t recall him ever being defeated by anything mechanical, be it a mixer, a slicing machine, a fridge, or a combustion engine. In the early days of the bakery, he built a rudimentary flour mill from a coffee grinder powered by a washing machine motor. He found an abandoned gas range, dragged it in from the street, and fixed it to bake their bread. He and John Dungavel, my current co-owner, kneaded the doughs in a bathtub by scrubbing their feet and marching up and down on them. If you’ve ever met Karl or John this is quite a terrifying concept! The homemade mill allowed them to buy wheat and rye grains from the old-school hippy hangout that was Neal’s Yard in Covent Garden (now a sadly bastardised corporate version of the original) and grind it into flour for the bread.
I feel it is no coincidence that as the human race faces environmental catastrophe there are less and less people with Karl’s skills around in the developed West. His is a dying breed of bodgers and fixers, make do and menders, who were natural environmentalists because it was so deeply ingrained into them by their upbringing and the necessity of survival. Our bakery store-shed is full of old bits of metal and wires and circuit boards that Karl has accumulated to use at a later date. Modern machinery is designed to be unfixable by ordinary humans. Nobody mends their car anymore because it’s become impossible. Karl was part of a movement without truly even realising it. His was a stand against the consumerist society, based on obscene levels of consumption, that was taking hold across a world in which every single thing is commodified, including all aspects of human activity. Karl and the other pioneers of the artisan bread scene in the London of the 1980s were also tapping into a long British tradition of resistance to mass industrialisation, from Captain Swing and the Luddites in the early 19th century, to William Morris and the early socialist and anarchist movements of the 20th century.
Another major culture and way of life in the 70s, 80s and 90s that enabled the birth of the bakery was the squatting movement in London and Lambeth in particular. The London that existed in those days is almost impossible to imagine now, with large areas almost abandoned and streets full of empty and boarded-up buildings. Karl lived in squats around Brixton for years, as did John and I, and that’s where the bakery was born: In an empty and abandoned sub-post office (hence our name) on Lyham Road, close to Brixton Windmill, where Karl was squatting. The bakery owes its existence to the fact that it could start in free premises, and then eventually move to others available for very low rent.
It’s so sad and detrimental to the life of London (and the life of the UK) that we are witnessing the loss of opportunities for anyone without large amounts of money to start any small business or enterprise. All the wonderful kaleidoscope of different cultures and worlds expressed throughout all the cheap railway arches, run-down warehouses, market stalls and family-run shops is vanishing before our eyes. They are our lifeblood and their disappearance will stymie creativity and innovation and the ability for myriad different businesses, artists, galleries and community groups even to exist. Rapacious greed and the turning of property into a modern-day version of gold is destroying our communities and making the possibility of business like our bakery starting up today almost unthinkable. Anyone with similar ideas and attitudes would find it virtually impossible in the current world.
Luckily for us the conditions were favourable and in the ‘noughties we were approached by Richard from the Friends of Windmill Gardens to join one of their very early festivals. They were reaching out to the local community to help save not just an historic monument but also to establish a resource for education and social interaction, a social hub. We had an immediate affinity for the community minded folk who had coalesced around the cause of saving the Brixton Windmill and who, through their campaigning, did just that. They are an amazing group of creatives, now lead tirelessly by our stalwart Jean. Not only did they save the windmill, but remarkably they have realised their dream of building a community education centre alongside it.
One aspect of what the Friends have done through their brilliantly tenacious campaign to save and restore the Brixton Windmill is to recognise the hugely powerful symbolism of windmills. Don Quixote recognised that power when he decided to do battle with the giants rising from the landscape in front of him. His faithful servant, Sancho Panza, then pointed out “what we see there are not giants but windmills, and what seem to be their arms are the sails that turned by the wind make the millstone go." One of the contributors to the Friends of Windmill Gardens’ booklet called Mill Memories was a prison visitor who ran writing workshops in HMP Brixton. She wrote that when she had asked prisoners if she could see any pieces of writing they had done, a high proportion had used Brixton Windmill as a symbol or metaphor in their poetry and diaries. It was a landmark they could see from their windows that symbolised to them hope and freedom and an ancient and real way of life.
Over the years we have collaborated on many projects with the Friends, including supporting their festivals and outreach work, which for years was led into all sorts of fantastical and imaginative areas by their arts director Magdalen. To help raise funds we created our special Windmill Loaf, which we now make with flour actually milled by the windmill, and donate 40p from every loaf sold to the group. I have had the privilege of being trained as a volunteer miller. What an amazing experience it was, as the ancient millstone shook and shuddered into life and the whole windmill creaked and quaked around us. We also provided food for a two-week project, when local artists and prisoners from HMP Brixton painted a giant mural next to the windmill. My personal favourite was a project where kids from local schools grew wheat in their playgrounds, harvested it, threshed and milled it and then brought the flour to the bakery where we made it into pizzas that they then took home for noshing with their families. For inner-city kids, who often have no access to their own green spaces and certainly not to growing their own food, this was an amazing way to involve them physically in all the stages of production. It also gave great openings to the teachers to explore connections to the environment and to healthy eating.
We call ourselves a community bakery because our aim is to be both an integral part of, and an asset to, our local community. Our ethos means we actively try to engage with local people in as many diverse ways as possible. Over the years we have provided apprenticeships for school leavers and worked with young people’s charities to give employment to young offenders. Through a collection tin on the counter of the shop, our customers have donated over £2500 to the charity Help Refugees.
For several years we provided office space in our basement for the local Pulross Area Playground Association (PAPA). The group had organised the regeneration of a dangerous abandoned piece of wasteland, only frequented by prostitutes and junkies, into a thriving playground and basketball court with loads of great equipment, a café and a centre that runs courses for local kids. Also lurking in our basement for many years was Past Tense, an anarchist printing press that produced pamphlets and booklets documenting the forgotten history of London’s rebellions, uprisings and resistance. We’ve had groups of refugee women apprenticed at the bakery learning basic baking skills and we frequently host parties of local school kids touring the bakery in order to experience a working bakery environment. We work closely with the Windmill Cluster Group, which incorporates ten Lambeth schools.
For the last 20 years the bakery has been partnered with Toucan Employment, a local charity that aims to find employment for adults with learning difficulties. Over the years we have had scores of workers with special educational needs and we currently have two workers from Toucan on a permanent basis who are absolutely an integral part of bakery life. We have found that our Toucan workers always bring something special to the bakery, not only through their loyalty and hard work but also how their presence at the bakery positively affects the lives of their fellow workers, introducing them to new experiences and giving them a buzz from being able to make a difference to someone else’s life. Many of our workers have become close friends with the Toucan crew, helping them out in their lives, taking them out and socialising with them. Toucan’s founding ethos is that to be in work is a fundamental human right that gives people not only financial independence but also connects them to their community, giving them the opportunity to socialise and gain access to support. People with learning difficulties are often isolated, lonely, easily exploited and living in poverty. Our experience at the bakery has shown how giving someone a job can truly transform their lives.
Of all our community collaborators, our most original, and perhaps the most important to the future of our beleaguered planet, is Andy Forbes and his Brockwell Bake Association. Andy is a true local hero, a man who has dedicated a large part of his life to research into, and the attempted re-introduction of, heritage wheats. These are varieties and cultivars grown before the 1960s (and in most cases prior to the mid-19th century) with evocative and poetic names such as Red Lammas, April Bearded, Blood Red, Blue Cone, Hen Gymro, Orange Devon Blue Rough Chaff and Kent Old Hoary.
It is Andy‘s contention that crop biodiversity has drastically decreased, with over 90% of wheat grown worldwide since the 1960s being the type of dwarfed varieties originally developed by International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, known by its Spanish acronym of CIMMYT. This loss of biodiversity increases the threat to our food supply from disease and climate change. Almost all modern wheats are dwarfed, intentionally bred to be shorter so that artificial fertilizers can be applied without the crop falling over before harvest. However, their stunted height makes them less able to out-compete weeds, leading to greater reliance on chemical herbicides. Because every wheat plant is a clone of its neighbour, and one field’s wheat tends to be identical (or closely related to) that in nearby fields, pesticides and fungicides are sprayed routinely to prevent epidemics of disease and pest attack. The use of these agrochemicals are prohibited by organic farming criteria, and so organic farmers growing modern wheats are often forced to substitute intensive, fossil-fuelled, mechanical methods.
By contrast, heritage wheats are landraces, varieties that developed in, and adapted to, particular local environments in which they were bred and grown. They have extensive root systems and have evolved to survive and to search out nutrients. They’re taller than modern dwarf wheats, and so better able to compete with and suppress weeds. They have a richer flavour, and many people believe they are more easily digestible and might create less gluten intolerance than more modern wheat varieties.
For years Andy and his colleagues have been scouring seed banks around the world to gather and grow heritage wheats. They have logged many more in their wheat:gateway database, the most extensive resource of its kind with over 430,000 gene bank entries. These wheats have degrees of extra flavour texture and colours lost in modern wheat and at the bakery we’ve experimented with Andy’s recipes and baked his bread with him. One of our most popular sourdoughs, the Brockwell, was developed from Andy’s recipe. Andy works tirelessly with very little material reward on his mission, organising wheat planting and harvesting and heritage wheat bread baking and tasting sessions. He and his colleagues at the Brockwell Bake Association epitomise the core spirit of unique, slightly eccentric, community-based activism and creativity that is, for me, the real lifeblood of London. It is the tradition our bakery has grown from, still embraces daily, and to which we will always strive to remain true.
The second part of this feature will be published in True Loaf magazine issue 42, which Real Bread Campaign supporters will get to read in January 2020.
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