How to bake a perfect loaf: Author offers a deep dive into the world of baking as he grows his own wheat and harvests it by hand to make bread
- Robert Penn gives a deep dive into world of heritage baking in Slow Rise
- He grew own wheat, harvested it by hand and milled it the old-fashioned way
- He sowed two ‘heritage’ varieties in an acre of land borrowed from a neighbour
- He, who lives in the Black Mountains in South Wales, read poetry to his crop
SLOW RISE: A BREAD-MAKING ADVENTURE
by Robert Penn (Particular £17.99, 240 pp)
Is there any smell more delicious than that of freshly baked bread? No wonder supermarkets pump the aroma through their stores to entice shoppers to spend more.
As a nation we love our bread, gobbling nearly 12 million loaves a day. Humans have been eating it for almost 15,000 years — the earliest version was probably baked in the Middle East, although harvesting the wheat and making the bread was so labour-intensive that it would have been eaten only on special occasions rather than as an everyday food.
In ancient Egypt, state workers’ wages were paid partially in loaves; the French Revolution was triggered in part by a lack of the stuff, and Napoleon, whose armies travelled with field bakeries, once declared: ‘To defeat the Russians is child’s play, provided I can get bread.’
Although so familiar to us, there’s something mysterious about bread. Scientists still don’t completely understand the sequence of physical and chemical reactions that happen to bread mixture when it’s in the oven, rippling and rising before finally developing that lovely crust.
Robert Penn gives a deep dive into world of heritage baking in Slow Rise, as he grows his own wheat, harvests it by hand and mills it the old-fashioned way when he makes bread (stock photo)
As a child, journalist Robert Penn was addicted to ‘medium-sliced, white velvet slivers of tasteless bread’, and well into his adult years he remained partial to the spongy supermarket kind.
He gave up eating bread after a spell of illness, believing he was gluten intolerant, although nobly kept baking loaves for his family. When his resolve cracked and he tried his homemade bakes he found, to his surprise, that he suffered no ill effects. It wasn’t all bread that had made him ill, he realised, but poor quality bread.
Penn, who lives in the Black Mountains in South Wales, became so obsessed with bread that he decided to go back to baking basics; he began growing his own wheat, harvesting it by hand and milling it the old-fashioned way. He also built an oven in which to bake it.
‘Do you really want us all to live like Amish farmers?’ his wife asked plaintively.
Penn sowed two ‘heritage’ varieties in an acre of land borrowed from a neighbour and read poetry to his crop as well as bringing a speaker to the field so that he could play music for it (stock photo)
Penn chose two ‘heritage’ varieties of wheat and sowed them in an acre of land borrowed from a neighbour. As he waited anxiously for his crop to grow, he read poetry to it and took a speaker into the field so he could play Beethoven and the Ramones to the wheat.
Finally, ‘the field turned tawny, then gold. The plants became recognisable as wheat.’ Harvesting it with a sickle — ‘unknown muscles in my lower back raged’ — then threshing, winnowing and finally separating the grain from the chaff, he achieved a mere 100kg of flour, barely enough to make his family bread for the year.
SLOW RISE: A BREAD-MAKING ADVENTURE by Robert Penn (Particular £17.99, 240 pp)
‘If I had been a Bronze Age farmer,’ he reflected gloomily, ‘a crop failure on this scale would have meant disaster.’ But at least his flour was something special.
With a flourish worthy of the most pretentious of wine snobs, Penn describes it as smelling of ‘hazelnuts, fresh grass, the earth’.
The first few loaves he made were so flat and hard that his son compared them to a Stone Age frisbee. But soon Penn was turning out perfect loaves, and he discovered that he could lure his teenagers away from their computers when the smell of fresh bread wafted into their bedrooms.
He even won first prize at the fiercely contested Llanthony Valley and District Show.
Although most consumers still opt for industrially produced white bread, Penn says optimistically that we are slowly becoming more discerning about the bread we eat, and points to the increasing number of artisan millers selling varieties of flour with names such as ‘Kent Old Hoary’ and ‘Devon Orange Blue Rough Chaff’.
Slow Rise is never less than entertaining, but there is something slightly contrived about Penn’s deep dive into the world of heritage baking. Yet reading it is a reminder of how remarkable bread is: familiar though it may be, a loaf of bread is also ‘an everyday miracle’.
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