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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Britain's diversity crisis starts with its writers. Here's why

What happens on the casting couch draws the headline, but the problem starts on the page, says James Graham. 

I’m a playwright and screenwriter, which – pertinent to the issues we’ll be discussing in this enquiry – still feels weird to say. I get embarrassed, still, saying that, in a taxi or hairdressers. I don’t know why I still carry that insecurity about saying I’m a writer, but I do, because it sounds like I’m lying, even in my own head.

Obviously I’m completely biased, and probably overstating the influence and importance of my own profession, but I think so many of the problems surrounding lack of representation in the performing arts start with writers.

If we aren’t encouraging and generating writers from certain communities, classes or backgrounds to tell their stories, to write those roles, then there’s not going to be a demand for actors from those communities to play them. For casting agents or drama schools to prioritise getting diverse actors on stage. We need to create those plays and TV dramas –like the ones that I grew up with. I didn’t have any access to much theatre until I was fifteen, but I did have Boys From the Black Stuff, and I did have Cracker, and I did have Band of Gold. I think the loss of those regional producing bodies – Central, Granada – now all completely centralised into London, means that we just tell less of those stories. I remember a TV show called Boon – anyone? – which was set in Nottingham, and I would see on the TV streets I’d walked down, and think, Oh my God, that actor is walking down a street I’ve walked down. That sounds like it’s insignificant. If you’re from a town that is deprived, that feels ignored, it isn’t.

I was very lucky that at my school (which was, at the time, the largest comprehensive school in the country), from the headmaster down to the drama teachers, everyone just believed that working class kids should do plays. Be in plays, read plays, perform plays to the community. Both inside the curriculum of the school day, and outside it – drama teachers dedicating their time to staying behind. Our head of drama identified a group of us who clearly had a passion for it. We weren’t likely thesps. One lad’s entire family were made unemployed when the pit closed. Many lived on the big council estate. My parents and step-parents worked respectively in warehouses, the local council, or as the local window cleaner (incidentally, my first real job. Which I was terrible at).

Our drama teacher was encouraged and determined enough to launch the first ever Drama A-Level in our school. Based on that, about 10 or 12 of us got the confidence – or arrogance – to take our own show to the Edinburgh Festival. We were 16 or 17, and the first people in our community to ever go to visit the festival. We did a play up there, and after that, a psychological unlocking happened, where I thought: maybe I could do a degree in drama (it was the first time I had ever thought to do so) at university (the first in my family to go. Well, joint-first. My twin sister went on the same day, but I walked into my digs first).

I enrolled in drama at Hull University. A high proportion of my peers were middle class. A higher proportion from London or the South East. They talked often about institutions I had never heard of. They were talking about the National Theatre: I didn’t know we had a national theatre that my parents had been paying tax for that I had never been to. Many had performed with the (again, apparently) ‘National’ Youth Theatre, also in London. Paul Roseby, also on this panel, has made such leaps forward in getting the NYT producing in regional venues, and making auditions possible for people across the UK, but unfortunately, at the time, that wasn’t the case for me – and I was the ideal candidate to be in the National Youth Theatre.

I started writing because I had the confidence after I read texts by people like Jim Cartwright, Alan Bennett, John Godber, Alan Ayckbourn: Northern writers, working class writers that made me think it wasn’t just something that other people do.

After returning home, and working at local theatres, I moved down to London. I had to. The major new writing producers are there. All the TV companies are there. The agents are there. I was lucky to find support in a pub fringe theatre – though the economics meant there was no money to commission, so I wrote plays for free for about four years, that would get produced, and reviewed in the national press, while I worked various jobs in the day and slept for a time on a mate's floor. The first person to ever pay to commission me to write a play was Paul Roseby of the National Youth Theatre. I’m now very lucky to be earning a living doing something I love. In a way, compared to actors, or directors, it’s easier for writers who don’t come from a background that can sustain them, financially, in those early years. Your hours can be more flexible. Yes, it was annoying to miss rehearsals because I had a shift in a call centre, but it was still possible to do it. If you’re an actor or director, you’re fully committed. And if you’re doing that for nothing, there starts to be cut-off point for those from backgrounds who can’t.

I’m sure that local and regional theatres are the key to drawing in talent from less privileged backgrounds. But the range of national arts journalism that cover work outside London has been so significantly reduced. In our little echo chamber a few weeks ago, we theatre types talked about Lyn Gardner at the Guardian. Her coverage has been cut, which is very directly going to affect her ability to cover theatre shows outside of London – and so the self-fulfilling cycle of artists leaving their communities to work exclusively in London takes another, inevitable, turn.

I am culpable in this cycle. I have never done a play at the Nottingham Playhouse, my local producing house growing up – why? Because I’ve never submitted one, because I know that it will get less national press attention. So I just open it in London instead. That’s terrible of me. And I should just bite the bullet and say it doesn’t matter about the attention it gets, I should just go and do a story for my community. And if I, and others, started doing that more, maybe they will come.

I also want to blame myself for not contributing back to the state schools that I come from. I really really enjoy going to do writing workshops with kids in schools, but I would say 90 per cent of those that I get invited to are private schools, or boarding schools, or in the South of England. Either because they’re the ones that ask me, because they’re the ones who come and see my shows in London and see me afterwards backstage, or because they have the confidence to email my agent, or they have the budget to pay for my train ticket. Either way, I should do more. It would have helped the younger me so much to meet a real person, from my background, doing what I wanted to do.

I don’t know how to facilitate that. I take inspiration from Act for Change, creating a grassroots organisation. I know that there is a wealth of industry professionals like me who would, if there was a joined-up structure in place that got us out there into less privileged communities, we would on a regular basis go to schools who don’t get to meet industry professionals and don’t unlock that cultural and psychological block that working class kids have that says, that is not for me, that is something that other people do, I would dedicate so much of my time to it. That’s just one idea of hopefully better ones from other people that might come out of this enquiry.

James Graham is a playwright and screenwriter. This piece is adapted from evidence given by James Graham at an inquiry, Acting Up – Breaking the Class Ceiling in the Performing Arts, looking into the problem of a lack of diversity and a class divide in acting in the UK, led by MPs Gloria De Piero and Tracy Brabin.