The enthusiasm for soudough is part of a broader middle-class reaction against mass produced food. Photo: Francis Storr on Flickr via Creative Commons
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Sourdough start-ups: the politics of the bread world

There are few limits to the passion that sourdough can excite.

“Would you like to see my starter?” Adam Newey asks, already leaping out of his chair. He lifts the lid off a large plastic tub, revealing an off-white gloopy mass that emits a tangy, beer-like smell. Newey began growing his sourdough culture in 1997 when he mixed water with flour and left the mixture to react with wild, airborne yeast spores. “It is its own little ecosystem. As long as you keep feeding it and keep the conditions right for it, it will just keep breeding.”

Some bakers in San Francisco – the “pinnacle” of sourdough, according to bread aficionados – claim they are using starters over 150 years old. Alaskan miners are said to have slept with their starters to keep them active in the arctic conditions. There are few limits to the passion that sourdough can excite.

Newey’s starter is central to his new business, the Hill Bakery, which he founded in October last year. I meet him at its headquarters, his basement flat in south London. One wall of his open-plan kitchen and living room is stacked high with huge sacks of bread flour and piles of proving baskets. The remaining walls are covered in bookshelves. Newey, who is 49, has worked as a journalist for over 20 years; he was the New Statesman’s poetry editor from 1999 to 2006. He often used to bring his bread in to work. “Eventually people said, ‘This bread is really good. You should be doing this, forget the journalism’ – which I think is a bit of a backhanded compliment,” he remembers. He took their advice, however.

“I felt the digital revolution was probably one that I didn’t want to get that involved with,” he says. Instead, he’s chosen a different rhythm. You can’t rush baking: “You learn to look at the dough and you’ve just got to wait until it tells you it is ready.” He hand-prints all of his labels, and once a month he selects a poem to include with each loaf.

Long before he started his bakery, Newey was deeply involved with another sourdough culture. On the discussion forums of a website run by the baker Dan Lepard, he began chatting with other breadmakers. The online community just “grew and grew until eventually it wasn’t about Dan any more, it was just lots of bready types”. In 2007, they arranged their first meet-up in the real world, hosted by Mick Hartley, a “sourdough guru” who runs cookery classes and a micro-bakery in Wales. Since then the group has met every year to bake. “It’s almost all sourdough. Mick is absolutely anti-baker’s yeast – he wouldn’t dream of touching it,” Newey says.

His own breadmaking is part of a “broader reaction”, he believes: a move by some middle-class consumers away from mass-produced foods and towards smaller producers. At the same time, TV programmes such as The Great British Bake Off are stoking a renewed interest in home baking. Does he ever watch them?

“In a word, no,” he replies, looking uncharacteristically agitated. “There’s a surprising amount of politics in the bread world.” He reserves his strongest criticism for the “Real Bread Campaign”, which promotes additive-free bread and bad puns (it champions an “Honest Crust Act” to improve food labelling, and one of its recent reports was titled Are Supermarket Bloomers Pants?).

Newey objects to pressure on bakers to be “certified”. “And maybe it’s just me. I’m not a joiner. A lot of bakers are like that,” he says. “Everybody who sets up their own business to do what they want to do is implicitly rejecting the roles that are predefined . . . So I imagine it does attract slightly odd people. How alarming,” he adds, with another self-deprecating laugh.

You can order Adam Newey’s bread from: thehillbakery.co.uk

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 14 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Why empires fall

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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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