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

Iain Cameron
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Meet Scotland's 300-year-old snow patch, the Sphinx

Snow patch watchers expect it to melt away by the weekend. 

This weekend, Scotland's most resilient snow patch, dubbed Sphinx, is expected to melt away. The news has been met with a surprising outpouring of emotion and nationwide coverage. Even The Financial Times covered the story with the headline "The end is nigh for Britain's last snow". The story has also gone international, featuring in radio reports as far away as New Zealand.

So what is it about Sphinx that has captured the public’s imagination?  Some have suggested it could be symbolic. The Sphinx represents how we all feel, helpless and doomed to a fate determined by leaders like Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un. 

Regular contributors to the Facebook page “Snow Patches in Scotland”  have their own, more prosaic theories. One tells me that the British are “generally a bit obsessed with weather and climate”, while another says snow-patches are "more interesting than anything Trump/May/Boris or Vladimir have to say”.

Those more interested in patches of snow than the existential consequences of international relations could be dismissed as having seriously skewed priorities, but there's more to the story of Sphinx than lies on the surface. 

For a start it's thought to be 300 years old, covering a small square of the Cairngorms for centuries with just six brief interruptions. Last time the Sphinx disappeared was 11 years ago. Though it may melt away this weekend, it is expected to be back by winter. 

Iain Cameron, the man who set up the Facebook page "Snow Patches in Scotland" and someone who has recorded and measured snow patches since he was a young boy, says that Sphinx has shrunk to the size of a large dinner table and he expects it will have melted entirely by this Saturday.

It came close to disappearing in 2011 as well, he adds. In October of that year, Sphinx at around its current size and only a heavy snowstorm revived it.

"They tend to keep the same shape and form every year," Cameron tells me. "It might sound weird to say, but it’s like seeing an elderly relative or an old friend. You’re slightly disappointed if it’s not in as good a condition."

But why has Sphinx survived for so long? The patch of land that Sphinx lies above faces towards the North East, meaning it is sheltered from the elements by large natural formations called Corries and avoids the bulk of what sunlight northern Scotland has to offer. 

It also sits on a bid of soil rather than boulder-fields, unlike the snow patches on Britain's highest mountain Ben Nevis. Boulder-fields allow air through them, but the soil does not, meaning the Sphinx melts only from the top.

Cameron is hesistant to attribute the increased rate of Sphinx's melting to climate change. He says meterologists can decide the causes based on the data which he and his fellow anoraks (as he calls them) collect. 

That data shows that over the past 11 years since Sphinx last melted it has changed size each year, not following any discernable pattern. “There is no rhyme or reason because of the vagaries of the Scottish climate," says Cameron.

One thing that has changed is Sphinx's title is no longer quite so secure. There is another snow patch in near Ben Nevis vying for the position of the last in Scotland. Cameron says that it is 50:50 as to which one will go first.