Good Bread: Part 1: What is good bread?

Good Bread: Part 1: What is good bread? 150 150 Farmerama Radio
Field Bakery at Gothelney Farm

The first episode of Good Bread by Lucy Dearlove is out on Farmerama Radio and Lecker. This series is in response to the Body Lab, a participatory arts and research project by baker Kimberly Bell and artist Ruth Levene  which explores the industrial processes of grain testing. Over three episodes, Lucy explores what the Body Lab is, what the work around it has entailed so far, and what the outcomes might be. 

In part 1, Lucy explores the question – what is good bread? She speaks to Kim and Ruth about what makes good bread for them, and unpacks what the Body Lab is about, and why they started the project. 

We hear from farmer Fred Price and baker Rosie Benson from Gothelney Farm and Field Bakery about their understanding of good grain, and speak with Chris Hollister from Shipton Mill, about the different tests that take place when wheat arrives at an industrial grain mill, and some of the justifications for this process. With each of them, Lucy discusses why reimagining this testing system could be positive for bakers, farmers and Millers.

Also hear some of the responses to our Breadline – where we asked our audience what makes good bread to you – which will be woven throughout the series.


The Body Lab is funded by Farming the Future.  This episode was made by Lucy Dearlove and Jo Barratt. Thanks to the rest of the Farmerama team, Abby Rose, Dora Taylor, Olivia Oldham, Annie Landless, Eliza Jenkins and Lucy Fisher. The series music is by Owen Barratt, and the series artwork is by Hannah Grace

Episode Transcript:

Speaker 1 0:08
To me, the foundation of a good loaf of bread is the grain.

Speaker 2 0:13
My favourite bread is Oxford Hamlins bakery sourdough country loaf.

Speaker 1 0:17
It being grown without any chemical inputs.

Speaker 2 0:20
I love the tangy flavour light texture and flavoursome, chewy crust,

Speaker 3 0:25
Day to day, I love wholemeal and seeded loaves.

Speaker 3 0:29
Ideally, this is milled locally and the whole of the grain is used in the bread.

Speaker 3 0:34
I love their density, very filling and add necessary vitamins and nutrients to my diet.

Speaker 2 0:42
In addition to the flavour i often drive 30 minutes to Hamlin on a Saturday morning, because I love the attention to detail that Huga and Kate put into their bread from the soil itself, the grain variety and how it is grown to the milling and finally for the nurturing of the dough, the baking and the warm welcome I receive when I arrive at their bakery.

Speaker 3 1:03
As a fermentation enthusiast I gravitate towards the interesting flavours of sourdough, as well as the sick rustic crossed for dunking in butter.

Speaker 2 1:13
For me, this is what makes good bread. I can describe my favourite bread in one sentence. To describe what makes the bread takes a paragraph just as it takes a whole community to make it. Thank you so much for posing the question.

Speaker 2 1:28
Breadline – love it! Heron Holmes, from Flourish produce/ Waterlands CSA. As a grain grower, I think best bread is whole grain all the bran needs to be in, it needs to be bran-tastic 100%. Bye!

Lucy Dearlove 1:48
What is good bread to you?

Fred Price 1:51
So when you first said, what makes good bread, I thought oh my goodness, that’s a massive question. And then I remembered something Rosie had said to me. She was like, I’m not interested in baking a loaf of bread that is perfect. I’m interested in baking a loaf of bread that I believe in. And I don’t know if she’ll remember that. She said that. But Isn’t that brilliant. And I think you could apply that right back to the farmer.

Rosie Benson 2:17
Good suggests there has to be a demon or bad opposite, which can be very shame inducing around food. And I suppose that’s something that we try and avoid saying too much. We talk about the story of how it’s been farmed, or the system that it comes from in terms of a biodiverse system being something that we should be for. So that would be how I’d describe good bread. Good food would be food that makes you feel vital and energised, not too sluggish. You take a moment of contemplation and you enjoy and you really appreciate and the gratitude there back to where it came from and the people that were involved in. Yeah, it’s a rounded experience, isn’t it? Good food.

Lucy Dearlove 3:11
This is good bread. I’m Lucy Dearlove. I’m a radio producer who is obsessed with food. And I make a food podcast called Lecker which is about the space that eating and cooking take up in our lives, homes and more broadly, our society. This series good bread is going out and Farmerama, one of my favourite podcasts, as well as Lecker. So wherever you’re listening, welcome. This is episode one. What is good bread? I’ve been thinking a lot about this question recently about what makes good bread. This is a three part series and it’s in response to the Body Lab. The Body Lab is a participatory arts and research project by baker Kimberly Bell and artist Ruth Levene. The initial intent of the project was to explore the industrial processes of grain testing. Over the next three episodes, I’m going to explore what the Body Lab is, what the work around it has entailed so far, and what the outcomes might be. But I wanted to begin with Ruth and Kim’s own understanding of what good bread is.

Ruth Levene 4:28
I actually went straight to an image or feeling of what it means in terms of just sitting down in my kitchen with a slice of toast and butter and some flavour, I think. That’s what it kind of came to mind. So I think it’s, good bread to me is a moment to pause. Maybe it’s all of the hidden everythingness that goes into bread that um kind of demands a kind of slow, kind of quiet moment of eating, there’s a real level of satisfaction in eating.

Kimberley Bell 5:17
So good bread to me in the beginning would have been something like when you go to a really nice restaurant, and you’re really surprised with this warm basket of bread that comes with really good butter, and you just eat it. And you’re reminded, because you’re used to eating the supermarket stuff or whatever, you’re suddenly reminded that bread is really delicious. And it’s really, deeply satisfying and nourishing, and it feels like an amazing gift. But since I’ve been on a journey of becoming a baker, and thinking about what it is to be a baker, the meaning of bread, or the significance of bread has obviously changed a lot. And where I’m at, or where I’ve arrived at is that bread for me is a system. It’s not an object. And so I can’t untangle the idea of good bread from the idea of a good system. And obviously, the system by which bread is delivered, is really complicated. And so there would be many facets for me of what would go into a good system to make, therefore what I perceived as good bread. I’d add to that, though, I’m really interested to circle back to that original feeling. And the aim of my work, or the thing I’m most interested in is if we get all those bits right in the system so that intellectually I can feel that they’re good bread, can I still deliver that real sense of satisfaction and that that instant, wordless sense of nourishment that just comes from feeding somebody,

Lucy Dearlove 6:51
Kim and Ruth have both centred bread, or more specifically wheat in their work in different ways. If you’re interested in bread, you might have heard of Kim’s Nottingham based Small Food bakery,

Kimberley Bell 7:03
I think I’ve always been obsessed with food. I’ve done all kinds of like what I call food adventures. And then I had a bit of a career working in construction, and then run a construction company that was very dynamic and delivered very fast turnaround projects for supermarkets. So after 15 years of working for supermarket clients, that was a brutal awakening as to how food retail is done in this country. That led me to basically start Small Food Bakery. It’s a bakery that was started as an experiment in an art centre. And it gave me a platform to really unpack my feelings about being a feeder, and my responsibilities for the people that I feed. And that’s how I came to be a baker really the, I thought about doing lots of other food related businesses. But actually it was bread that became the anchor point, it became this sort of really simple, obviously, it’s complex, but simple baseline to unpack, the whole food system basically seemed to be right at the core of all the problems, and also an amazing emotive product to engage a community.

Lucy Dearlove 8:19
Ruth’s work as an artist has also approached bread as an anchor point like this, unpacking and exploring large scale systems.

Ruth Levene 8:27
So it’s never been driven by the food itself. I’ve always been somebody that questions, and someone who’s had a curiosity at the centre of everything I do. And then I became an artist, and that gave me permission to use those things as a basis for my practice. I started working with another artist called Enrico hain, and one of the things that we started to explore was food systems. But it was more for my perspective, at the time, I was really interested in large scale infrastructure, and how we relate to the ways that we do things, how we have agency over the ways we do things, when these systems by which we do them are so huge, out of scale of the human scale that we are, we ended up looking at wheat because it seems such a central, key focus – a lens through which to unpick the food system. And I think we knew that on some level and then we undertook a project where we brought lots of people on board and grew a field of commercial conventional wheat with a farmer and then unpicked that, and that year long learning alongside other people that we kind of framed under a project called ‘A Field of Wheat’ was quite spiral. We learned so much as people who didn’t know that much before. So that never quite left my system.

Lucy Dearlove 9:55
A field of wheat took place over a year between August 2015 and August 2016 and as Ruth has explained, was a collaboration between her, Anne-Marie and Peter, a conventional farmer based in Lincolnshire who was passionate about communicating ideas for a sustainable future for British farming. There were about 40 others who became stakeholders in the project too – people from the food industry, farmers, artists and members of the public.

Ruth Levene 10:22
It was really kind of like a way to focus in on the environmental crisis that we’ve been in, and we are in and that wheat was a very tangible, relatable way, especially when you get it to the bread stages of things, of enticing people into question and to take them on a journey back through the system and the processes to discover actually, this is problematic, we need to have another way of doing this.

Lucy Dearlove 10:54
From the beginning at the heart of the body lab was a desire to reimagine the way that we measure the quality of bread, or rather, the way we measure the grain that goes into the bread sold in tonnes across the country each day. To help me understand this desire for reimagining, Kim explained how the current system operates.

Kimberley Bell 11:17
Most simply farmers will be growing wheat, either in a chemical or in an organic system. When I came into examining the sorts of flour I wanted to buy, I knew I wanted it to be non-chemical. And so I started to visit farmers and organic farmers and try to understand what the challenges were with growing wheat and it quickly became apparent that they would try to grow wheat for milling quality. What I was getting was that it was almost impossible. And then I kind of happened upon a conference where they had a trial called Live Seed where a group of researchers from the Organic Research Centre were trying to test wheat varieties that were not bred for organic systems. But they were trying to test them in organic conditions with a view to try and offer advice to farmers as to what varieties might work for them. And so I was just left feeling like there was this incredible challenge where organic farmers wanted to grow wheat for human consumption to go into the food system. And that was what sat within their values, as farmers they wanted to feed. But what often happened is that the wheat didn’t reach the quality standard required for milling and would end up inadvertently going into industrial animal feed. And that’s the risk to then have it essentially just chucked into a really devastating industrial animal food factory was obviously a problem for many people and something that they couldn’t really get their head around. There are metrics that are set by the industrial Millers in the UK, which determine whether or not they will buy a crop from a farmer and those metrics range. But two of the ones that get held on to by bakers are called protein and hagberg.

Fred Price 13:09
Three way it was a moisture hagberg and gosh, is that this is a great sign that I don’t even know this anymore. There’s moisture and hagberg. And then I feel like there was another one.

Lucy Dearlove 13:23
Fred price is the farmer at Gothelney farm in Somerset. He now grows diverse population wheat that Kim bakes with. Milled by fellow baker, Rosie Benson at the farm’s on site field bakery. But Fred used to grow commercial wheat predominantly for animal feed, which would be transported to an industrial mill and quality checked on arrival.

Fred Price 13:42
No, it wasn’t even hagberg. It was moisture and specific weight, for feed wheat, then milling, we was moisture, specific weight, hagberg and protein, obviously.

Rosie Benson 13:50
So hagberg tells you the level of amylase activity in the flour, and that’s like how far it’s gone into wanting to germinate again and to become, take it cycle on to the to into growing again.

Lucy Dearlove 14:05
This is Rosie the baker field bakery on Gothelney farm

Rosie Benson 14:09
We technically want feed to be not into germination at all when you harvest and when you start to mill it. A little bit of germination is good for fermentation but not too much.

Fred Price 14:19
Hagberg falling number, so falling number because you make a kind of flour suspension, and then a plunger falls through it. And if the sugars are intact, it’s all kind of like syrupy and thick. It takes a long time for the plunger to go down. Conversely, if they’ve already started to germinate, they they’re a bit sort of loose and it falls down quite quickly.

Chris Hollister 14:40
So it’s like every hour a new lorry comes in we have like a weigh bridge which weighs the lorry in and when it’s on that we basically jump into the lorry and then use like what’s called a grain spear or grain lance. And it lets grain into it. And you do that and multiple points in the lorry. And so then that gives you a homogenised sample of the lorry

Speaker 7 15:01
Chris Hollister is Head of Product Development and artisan support at Shipton mill. I asked him how this testing process works there.

Chris Hollister 15:08
And so then we take that over into the lab and we mix it up in a bucket. Some we can run in an NIR machine straightaway, which basically uses infrared light, and it sort of bounces off of the sample produces a spectrum. And then the very, very clever software then gives you a protein reading, a moisture reading, and then a sort of a hardness as well and specific weight.

Fred Price 15:34
We had an amazing tour of the mill, it was just sort of so other of another world that I can’t really explain to what the process was. And I’m a kind of process person, like in the grain store, I can like see things the way the flow, it was just like the the vibrations of being in that building, the noise, the number of machines.

Rosie Benson 15:55
It’s an incredible building. It’s like, full of these amazing machines, very automated processes, lots of boards with where the grain was coming from all over the world.

Fred Price 16:07
The kind of complexity of of the control panel, with all the lights flashing, and just everything it was just all a bit overwhelming, to be honest.

Kimberley Bell 16:17
At the beginning of this project, as part of body lab, I had the privilege of going to visit a small scale, but industrial mill and they were kind enough to give us a day with their research and development baker and their lab technicians to explain to myself and a group of interested bakers and farmers from our network, what the sorts of tests they did where. And we loved it, we had the best day out ever because we we got to see all their amazing machines how they worked, it was incredibly compelling. We got super excited watching the the technicians work and explain and all these graphs kept coming out of printers. What we did that day was we took five wheats that I’m used to baking with and Rosie is used to baking with in her bakery, and we asked them to put them through their in their testing system and see what they found. And the conclusion was after going through all these amazing machines and us loving watching the testing process was that almost all of the wheats that we put through were not fit for modelling purposes, we were told by their technician that they would not make a loaf of bread, they wouldn’t function as bread wheats. And then Rosie presented different styles of loaves of bread made with all of those wheats, and we all sat down and ate lunch and everybody agreed that the bread was delicious. And the technicians took home some loaves for their families. So we were left a bit perplexed as to why these things would have been discarded, and yet they did work.

Rosie Benson 17:47
Yeah, I was given these grains. I milled them made bread out of them. Each one of them felt a bit different, that’s for sure. And they had different flavours at the end a little bit. But they all made bread. Yes.

Kimberley Bell 18:03
And I think that’s part of what we wanted to then unpick with this project is why wouldn’t they work in that system? And what would we need to do to evaluate them differently, to find a purpose for them to be able to bring them into the food system? Anyway, all of these machines are amazing, we watched a machine blow a bubble into a very simple wheat dough just to see how big the bubble could get and how strong the bubble would be. And then it made a graph. Incredible machine. We loved it. But yeah, we just left that that day being quite confused as to how useful those things were. But the machine that really left me, had a bit of a profound effect on me and left me with a lot of questions was that there were all these old fashioned machines that tested these different properties individually. And then they got this supercomputer where they could put a grain sample in. And very quickly, it gave her full reading of all the possible metrics. And they sort of explained to us that in recent years, this machine had had really, they still use some of the older ones, but this machine had really kind of overtaken and surpassed all of the other machines because they could just do it in one go. So what we observed was a lorry pulling into the mill, a sample being taken off the back of the lorry put into this machine. And within minutes, they had a graph showing supposedly the full characteristics of this grain. And the thing that stayed with me that is like, I still haven’t worked out how I feel about it was the technician proudly, are like was, was really keen to tell us how amazing this machine was because it was a computer that was connected to the internet. And it was it was constantly calibrating with every other machine around the world of that brand. Not only were we measuring wheat in the southwest of England from a local farm, the machine itself was measuring itself against other machines and other wheat measurements from all over the world and that just kind of blew my mind I and I don’t really know what the significance of inherent of that is for me, but inherently it felt dangerous. And I was thinking, why is that relevant? You know, who cares? was kind of my…. But it seemed like a powerful thing. And the technicians were very, were very reassured by the accuracy of this machine as a result of its kind of calibration with all these other computers.

Fred Price 20:26
I think my take home was that it had become more powerful than the people controlling it, you know, there was a kind of an inevitability about what needed to happen to avoid downtime or to make the machines you know, you needed to put in something that would make the machines function at their best capacity, rather than saying, okay, how do we like change our process to make sure we use this wheat, it had just come so full circle from a kind of like, people centric food system to this kind of like, but at the same time, it must be said, like, unbelievably efficient, you know, what they were… Yeah, I’m not trying to say this is somehow all bad. Like, I don’t know how I felt about it. I felt quite uncomfortable, I think.Yeah. Well, I just thought it was a bit terrifying. As a farmer saying that he was used to machines and stuff like that.

Speaker 7 21:21
The farmers experience at the mill is something I’d wondered about since I’d first listened to him talk about farmers having their organic grain rejected based on these industrial metrics we’ve been talking about. What did I actually feel like to have a lorry of grain rejected on arrival at a mill? As Fred’s explained already, he no longer grows commercial wheat that shipped off to be sold at a mill. But he remembers clearly how the process worked. During that period, when the farm was doing that.

Fred Price 21:51
we had a couple of loads rejected in our time. And then the mad thing is you then blend it with something else you’ve got here and send it back to the same place, or you put it somewhere else on the lorry, that was a classic trick.. different mills, they had some had manual sampling, but increasingly, because you didn’t want people going up on a ladder in sampling a lorry, they would either and we I sort of took on the farm in 2007. To the first five years, I think it was before these automatic sampling spears came in, or they were a bit expensive, maybe. So they let, some mills let the lorry driver carry a sample bag in the cab. So you would like we will be here the night before putting a bit of wheat on the Aga to just dry it down to the right moisture. So then they would go, there would be this sort of subjective, is it good or not test, then it would go through first feed we mostly sold feed wheat, let’s be honest. We’d go through a kind of moisture would be the first one and they wouldn’t necessarily reject on moisture, you’d just get a claim. That’s what it’s called, oh, there’s a claim on that. And per point over the agreed standard, that you would get a penalty on your price that you’d agreed.

Lucy Dearlove 21:59
Right? So they would just pay you less..

Fred Price 23:05
Yeah. So effectively, there was loads of nuances to it. In essence, what it was was your interaction as a farmer with the market was always negative. There was never a oh my god, that was a good bit of grain you sent in what was that? You know, thanks very much here, even or even not even a premium. Just, yeah, that’s great grain, if you’ve got any more of it, no, nothing – it’s all negative.

Lucy Dearlove 23:29
What Fred says here has really stayed with me that the only feedback farmers ever get on their wheat from mills is negative. I thought a lot about how disempowering that must be. But it sadly makes sense in the existing system. Chris from Shipton mill gave me some context on their position.

Chris Hollister 23:46
Not necessarily any business, but the majority of businesses, you know, it’s sort of led by demand from customer. So we’re producing flour that the customers want to buy, you know, our main selling flour line is organic number four, which is our sort of organic main bread flour. And so the demand for that, you know, it’s massive. And so there’s obviously a reason for that, because people like using it, and it works well. And that has a, you know, a protein content of sort of 11 and a half to 12%. And that works very well for a lot of baking. And so we want to constantly try and produce a flour that’s within that spec so that there’s not massive variation. Occasionally there is sometimes there is variation and that’s, wheat is an organic, it’s a naturally produced, you know, thing and so year on year and throughout the year it will vary especially if you’re using a lot of English wheat, one farm to another will vary massively. And so we test the grain on intake to make sure we can then try and mill it to produce, you know, a flour that throughout the year will be fairly consistent. We don’t use any additives. So othern than fortifying ingredients, which we have to add by law, we don’t add anything else. And so we have to make sure grain, you know, we can’t adjust other than blending grain, that’s all we can do, really. And so we test on intake to make sure that we can consistently produce a product. That’s, you know, that’s the reason that other mills do as well, especially the massive mills, they’re producing a lot of flour for big plant bakeries, like Chorley Wood Bread Process. And so they have like, really, really tight specs. And so, you know, sometimes they will use additives, and they will adjust things on the mill. But they have to be very, very careful. Because otherwise, if they send the customer a flour that’s slightly out of spec, and then they start using it in their process. And you know, it doesn’t prove slightly, well, it doesn’t prove how it normally does, because the enzyme activity is slightly different, then all of a sudden, they might be wasting 10s of 1000s of loaves of bread. And then, you know, that costs a lot of money. And so yeah, that’s the reason that we test, some of our flours have wider specs than others, you know, if it’s all UK, or if it’s heritage, they’re much broader, because, you know, we can’t blend and the grain is what it comes off of the field. But then the customer base that by that, they understand that, and they’re used to it. And so they know that each batch might vary slightly. And so they they adjust that, you know, they’re skilled bakers, whereas some of the larger places, they, they’re bakers aren’t necessarily as skilled and they’re sort of, they’re following more of a formula. And so they want it to perform the same each time. And so our job as millers is to try and to produce a flour that can do that.

Lucy Dearlove 26:47
So essentially, it’s automated processes being responsible for producing so much of the bread that we eat, that’s driving the need for such strict milling standards. But what about the human bakers? As Rosie put it, while reflecting on the loaves that she baked with the grain that didn’t pass milling standards, there’s so much more at play here.

Rosie Benson 27:08
But they all were really good bread. If I was putting myself in the shoes of someone who was used to Canadian white flour sourdoughs, then yeah, it would be critical of the bread that I made. And maybe that’s people’s baseline experience, because they’re not thinking, how can I as a baker support someone growing in by diverse landscape? Like how can I actually make more flavorful breads that has better nutrition? I think that’s low down on the priority list. It’s often about the aesthetic that they’re going for. Yeah. And whether it’s gives good ears or has the big open crumb.

Lucy Dearlove 27:58
So we’ve heard about the different tests that take place when wheat arrives at the mills, and heard some of the justifications for this process. And also some exploration of why reimagining this testing system could be positive for bakers, farmers and Millers. But where does this drive for consistency that Chris talked about actually come from? And what’s its cost to us? That’s on the next episode of good bread. Good bread is hosted and produced by me Lucy Dearlove. The Body Lab is a project by Kimberly Bell and Ruth Levine, funded by Farming the Future. Thanks very much to Shipton Mill for their time, openness and generosity and allowing us to explore these ideas. I want to say a huge thank you to everyone at Farmerama who has helped with this in various ways. Jo Barratt, Abby rose, Dora Taylor, Olivia Oldham, Annie Landless, Eliza Jenkins and Lucy Fisher. The music is by Owen Barratt. The artwork was by Hannah Grace. If you haven’t already listened to Cereal, the previous Farmerama series about bread made by Katie rebel, I really urge you to. Thanks also to everyone who called into the bread line that we set up. You had some clips from that at the top with people talking about what makes good bread to them. And there’s a bit more on the next episode too. Thanks for listening.

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