Sourdough start-ups: the politics of the bread world

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

The enthusiasm for soudough is part of a broader middle-class reaction against mass produced food. Photo: Francis Storr on Flickr via Creative Commons
The enthusiasm for soudough is part of a broader middle-class reaction against mass produced food. Photo: Francis Storr on Flickr via Creative Commons

“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