A grain gathering

The West Midlands Grain Network met for the first time this month. Farmers, millers and bakers with an interest in rethinking how grain is grown, processed and consumed in the region attended. Three of the Loaf team went along to be part of the discussion, and to see how we can help make a fairer and better system for everyone, at every stage of the process.

Similar networks have been emerging around the country in recent years – see the Britain & Ireland Community Grains Association Grain Map – but until now the West Midlands had no dedicated network of its own.

Mill Farm near Worcester, which we visited back in September 2021, hosted the event. It was great to catch up with Jonathan and Emma again, as well as a few other familiar faces from events such as UK Grain Lab and Matthews Cotswold Flour’s Soil, Stone and Sourdough.

It’s really encouraging to meet other bakers working in this area, to see how they’re working with locally grown and milled flour, and also to find people coming up against the same obstacles we are. Challenges such as how we transport, store and process the grains while still keeping our products accessible and affordable, for example.

Working with local and heritage grains is something Loaf wants to do more of. It helps us reduce the food miles of our products, supports local farmers, millers and the local grain economy, improves the traceability of our ingredients, and enables us to build direct connections between our bread and the land the grain was grown on.

Using a more diverse range of heritage grains and wheats, alongside farming methods that rely less on chemical inputs, is also of great benefit to the environment – and our diets.

All this comes at a cost, however. Current systems favour mass marketing of flour for lower costs, greater consistency of product and ready availability. As a relatively small bakery in a Birmingham suburb, we’re heavily reliant on some of these things. But, hopefully, working with the WM Grain Network will help us see a way forward that’s better for people at every stage of the process, from farmer to consumer.

Big thanks to Heloise, Emma and Savannah for organising the meeting, and to Jonathan for hosting. This was a great first step towards making good things happen, and we’re looking forward to the next time we can all get together.

Photo by Heloise Trott

Our interest in how and where our grain is farmed informs the whole of Loaf’s business, but surfaces particularly in our Heritage Grains and Wholegrain Baking classes. And when you’re in the bakery, look out for any specials marked “Heritage”.

Return of the handmade pasta

One of our first-ever evening classes involved making fresh pasta, and then eating the results. Phil took over running it from Tom but when Phil left us in 2021 we were a little too preoccupied with pandemic recovery to do a proper handover. So when the cookery school returned after lockdown we prioritised the classes we knew we could run, but it was always our intention to bring handmade fresh pasta back.

Martha ladling a large clump of pasta over a pot in the Loaf cookery school.

The main driver has been Martha and Molly’s continued interest in Italian food. Molly has stayed in touch with ex-Loafer Valentina — who you’ll remember brought the authenticity to our Ragu Time pop-up in 2021 — and has visited her in Italy where much food was made and consumed. Suffice to say, it was not if but when this course would return.

Val was back in Birmingham over our winter break and the three of them, plus fellow Loafer Sarah, took over the cookery school to try out some recipes and ponder how best to teach them.

To begin with, Val taught her grandma’s way to make tortellini, filled with spinach and ricotta.

Some freshly made tortellini shells on a wooden kitchen surface, waiting to be cooked.

Val’s partner Tommaso lent his carbonara recipe made with guanciale from a recent meat curing class at Loaf.

A serving of carbonara

Finally, there was puttanesca, a spicy tomato sauce with anchovies, capers and olives. This had been taught on our class from the beginning and Molly was keen to bring back her favourite dish. It’s an affordable sauce that goes a long way but still gives a lot of punchy flavours.

A serving of Puttancesca

For the pasta itself they experimented with different mixes of flours and not just the usual Tipo 00. They were especially keen to work with some of the heritage flours Loaf has been using in the bakery.

Two different blends of pasta drying on a rack. One is made with white flour, the other a wholemeal mix.

Now, we just have to shape this into the perfect evening class, which won’t be hard, and it should be on sale in the next couple of months. If you’d like to be alerted as soon as classes go on sale, fill in this form.

All photos by Molly from the session in January 2023.

Meet Haseen Muthalali, the dosa teacher

Following on from our interview with Loaf founder Tom Baker last week, we thought we’d get a bit more personal with all our cookery school teachers. Next up is Haseen Muthalali of Pop-up Dosa. Haseen has been running Dosa and Thaali classes with us pretty much since we opened on the high street a decade ago, bringing the cuisine of his native state of Kerala in southern India to the tables of Birmingham.

Can you tell us a bit about growing up in Kerala and learning these recipes?

Growing up in Kerala I was always fascinated with food and our various complex cooking methods. As a child, I always liked to hang around the kitchen and was just fascinated to watch the food be prepared. The different smells and fragrances of all the spices and how they fused together always attracted my interest.

Kerala literally means ‘land of coconuts’ and is on the southwestern coastal tip of India. So seafood, coconut, but also all the spices that make our cuisine really unique can be found here. Also, we have Muslim, Hindu and Christian communities each with their own special dishes. It’s such a unique part of the world, and the diversity and availability of spices and ingredients are reflected in the food.

What is Pop-up Dosa? How did that start?

I started Pop-up Dosa in Kings Heath, Birmingham as a supper club about 10 years ago. I made home-style dosa — a thin pancake made of rice and dahl — masala potatoes and chutneys. It’s a classic Kerala dish we eat at almost any time of day. It was a great success and we soon were doing streetfood events and kitchen takeovers at local cafes.

A Thaali dish

How did you first get involved with Loaf?

Tom Baker came to one of the early supper clubs and we discussed the idea of a class at Loaf. I would not be surprised if I am the only Kerala-born and raised person in the UK to teach Kerala cuisine in a cookery school.

What’s the most rewarding thing for you about teaching?

I love sharing Kerala cuisine with people, both those who have never had it before and those who want to make the foods they ate on a trip there. Also, the food is naturally healthy, with lots of veg and lentils. It gives me extreme satisfaction and joy to see participants enjoying nourishing food with no compromise on taste and authenticity. I make sure participants learn in a very hands-on way, ensuring they remember how to make the recipes at home easily.

Haseen Muthalali serving up

Can you tell us a bit more about a particular dish?

I have a hard time choosing just one dish! But I decided to teach how to make Dosa because it’s so popular and well-known. I teach how to make it with the spiced potato and vegetable stuffing (called masala), and also with sambaar, which is a soup-like vegetable curry that you dip the dosa into. Then we make the different chutneys to accompany it.

Dosa classes were selling out and seeing the enthusiasm and interest I decided to add a Thaali course involving multiple Kerala vegetable dishes. And we are soon starting a course making a coconut milk crepe called Appom with Kerala vegetables and seafood. But more about that later!

Thanks Haseen! We run each Kerala cookery class once a month throughout the year. You can book the current dates on our website or sign up to be alerted when new dates are released.

Photos by Jack Spicer Adams

Tom Baker returns to Loaf with Wholegrain Baking

As you may know, Loaf was founded in 2009 in Tom and Jane Baker’s kitchen, just up the road from our current home. A number of our customers (and at least two of our staff) were taught to bake there and the current Loaf teaching method — our pedagogy, if you like — can be traced to those early classes.

So it’s with great pleasure that we can announce Wholegrain Baking with Tom Baker, a new masterclass running approximately three times a year, and starting on Saturday 18th February.

We thought it would be nice to ask Tom what’s brought him back to Stirchley and to say a bit more about what the class will cover, besides making great bread.

What’s brought you back to Loaf?

Teaching was a big part of my role at Loaf, and the cookery school was the first thing I started. I never intended to start a bakery too, that just kind of happened! Anyway, since launching Rye and Roses Bakery, teaching hasn’t been part of my life, and over the last couple of years I have started to miss it.

I really enjoyed coming back to Stirchley for the Loaf 10-years-on-the-high-street anniversary in September. It was a great opportunity to formulate some plans to come back — to get back to teaching, to share some of my experiences of starting a bakery with a strong focus on wholemeal baking, and on a selfish level, to reconnect with my Stirchley family and visit some of the great places that have sprung up since we left.

Can you tell us more about bringing wheat growing back to the Dyfi valley?

Within a few weeks of moving to Machynlleth, we went to a Welsh-language folk gig in a local café (a very typical experience here!), and were introduced to a few other people who had an interest in doing some small-scale grain growing. We formed a loose collective and started a trial quarter-acre patch of wheat on one of the member’s land, doing everything by vintage tractor (ploughing), by horse (harrowing), or by hand (sowing).

Over the first couple of seasons we got a local vintage machinery club involved and invited some local farmers to the ploughing, harvesting, or threshing days. In 2020 one of them was inspired enough to go back to his farm and plough three acres for wheat. Over the last two seasons he’s provided almost all the wholemeal flour we use at Rye and Roses. The collective still runs some experiments at a small scale but wheat for the bakery is grown on two local farms.

Tom teaching one of the first bread classes at Loaf’s cookery school.
Tom teaching one of the first bread classes at Loaf’s cookery school.

Your new class will touch on some of the broader economic and political issues around bread. What are some of these?

Why is local grain often much more expensive than commodity grain? When white flour is produced, what happens to all the discarded other parts of the grain? With white flour being so cheap, who can possibly benefit? What is the impact on the environment of producing cheap commodity grain?

Food politics is something that has always fascinated me and something that we all subconsciously choose to either address or ignore at least three times a day. Bread is symbolic for much of the politics that surrounds food and by taking a closer look at a relatively short supply chain of seed — to farm, to mill, to baker — we can get to the heart of some of the bigger political issues that effect the food industry.

How does this fit into the ‘Tom Baker story’?

Before I started Loaf I was a nutritionist for the NHS, promoting healthy eating and good nutrition throughout Birmingham. Starting Loaf was in many ways a continuation of this mission for me, and this new course is yet another chapter in that story. I’m excited to be coming back to Stirchley a few times a year, and sharing some of my passions and experiences again.

Thanks Tom!

A field of freshly harvested wheat collected into bundles.
Harvest in Machynlleth.

Win a cookery school voucher with Pip’s charity raffle

Pip’s Hot Sauce is one of the indie food-makers who started at Stirchley Market and we’re honoured to call Pip a good friend of Loaf. So when she said she was looking for raffle prizes to raise money for a dear friend with brain cancer, we said yes, of course.

The range of prizes in this raffle is quite something, from meals to artworks to a one-off crystal skull hot sauce — a real testament to Pip’s importance in our community. We’ve put a £140 cookery school voucher in there too. She’s given so much over the years and it’s an honour to give something back.

Raffle tickets are £2.50 each, and you can of course buy more than one. Please help and spread the word.

Baking surgery at Stirchley Market

Way back in 2010, before we had a shop on the high street, Loaf was a founding smallholder at Stirchley Community Market. The market had a pandemic hiatus but is returning on Saturday 3rd December from 10am-3pm, and we’ll be there!

We’ll have a selection of baked goods for sale and Neil, one of our baking tutors, will be on hand to answer any questions you have about your home bread-making. Whether you’ve done a class with us or not, we’ll be happy to help for no charge — though we will be taking donations for the food bank, hint hint!

As promoters of real bread we’re always happy to give help and advice, but a busy shop is not always the best place. So come along to our first ‘bread surgery’ where there’ll be plenty of time to get some tips.

If you’re not familiar with Stirchley Market, it’s a non-profit project completely run by volunteers and is one of the seeds of Stirchley’s current blossoming, with many independents finding their feet there. We’re delighted to see it back and hope you’ll go check it out.

We think you might like this show about pizza

Rach has been waxing lyrical about the new series of Chef’s Table: Pizza which came to Netflix last month. Take it away Rach!

Over recent years Netflix has done some pretty incredible food documentary shows. Chef’s Table is one of those series and if you haven’t watched any yet, you’re really missing out. Their new series on Pizza offers a great insight into the minds of those dedicated to making the very best pizza with the very best ingredients.

From Rome to Arizona, this series uncovers the stories behind the world’s best pizza chefs. Not only does the show focus on each chef’s rise to fame and recognition in the industry, but it also highlights the struggles with mental health issues, the long hours building a business and the ways in each chef they overcame them.

It’s truly inspiring to see how people so dedicated to their craft spread their messages and vision through their baking. Past series cover a broader range of famous chefs — a particular favourite being Pastry, which highlights some bakers who truly changed the game in their vision and creativity. We love it, and we’re sure you’ll love it too.

Over £250 raised for the B30 Food Bank

We’ve been taking donations online and at the counter for the B30 Food bank and during September and October you gave £257.62 in cash, plus loads of packaged food and toiletries that we didn’t get a chance to quantify.

We get regular thank you emails from the food bank but it’s all due to you, our customers, so, on behalf of the B30 Food Bank, thank you!

Here’s a list of what’s urgently needed.

Migrant Help got their bikes

Last year you raised over £1,000 for Migrant Help who support newly arrived refugees and migrants who’ve been placed in temporary accommodation. “We holistically support the individuals and families, either as they await permanent accommodation or as they settle into their new communities. We help them access the necessary healthcare, language lessons, education, employment opportunities and community support.”

This week we received an update of where some of the money has gone: bikes!

“With your support we were able to get the clients bikes, helmets and locks. Clients were gifted the bikes for their personal use and was also given riding lessons — bike ability level 1, 2 and level 3. As you can see the clients went on a lovely ride and are really happy they were given such a valuable resource.”

Valuable resource is right! These bikes will give them the freedom and autonomy to properly settle into our city.

Left Feet Forward

Left Feet Forward is an exhibition at Artefact about cooperatives. It brings together archival printed material of the cooperative history of South Birmingham, particularly the Ten Acres and Stirchley Cooperative Society, and places it among Chris Neophytou’s photographs of recent grass-roots cooperatives that have developed in the area, Gugan Gill’s film exploring this history and legacy, and a play by Susan Finlay taking a wry look at cooperative organisation and politics.

There will also be a number of events discussing the role of cooperatives and a chance for local residents to explore their local history.

We had our group photo taken for this last week (in the rain!) and are very excited to see how it comes together. The launch is this Friday at 7:30pm — see you there!

Rea Valley bees on tour

Most of the bees looked after by Rea Valley Apiary live, as the name implies, along the River Rea, which includes Stirchley so if you have a garden there’s a good chance there’s nectar from there in one of those jars. This produces a their polyfloral Local Honey — a mix of whatever flowers are in bloom when the bees are active — and its flavour is a reflection of our area.

But there are areas where one particular flower will dominate, and beekeepers will often take a colony to forage and produce a monofloral honey with a distinctive colour and flavour. Rea Valley took some of their bees out of the city for a change of scene and we’ve taken delivery of two of the subsequent monoflorals. Borage Honey from borage fields in Stratford and Heather Honey from moors in the Peak District. Enjoy!

Introducing Quinton Meadows honey

We’re always looking to stock new local spreads and condiments so we were delighted when a new honey supplier got in touch. Quinton Meadows Honey is run by George and Sue Jackson whose hives are based in Quinton, on the edge of Birmingham. Their bees collect nectar from the Quinton Meadows Nature Reserve, Woodgate Valley Park, the local allotments and urban gardens — all of which provides a mix of rural and urban blossom.

George likes to think of their honey as ‘one year in a jar’, as the honey is harvested just once in August, creating a unique amalgam of all the flora in the area.

Sue gave us a sample jar to try and we loved it, so we’re delighted to add it to the shelves.

George with his hives

Heritage grains in the mix

For the last month we’ve been trialling a heritage flour in all our brown loaves — that’s the wholemeal sourdough, the multigrain tins and the Stirchley loaf. The grain comes from Mill Farm, which you’ll remember we visited last year, and is stoneground by our regular supplier Matthews, keeping the chain short and simple.

Our normal wholemeal flour is blended from a variety of farms and while it’s always great quality, it does mean it’s impossible to trace to an origin. This has become important to us as we’ve become interested in sustainable farming practices that work with soil ecosystems to produce quality food without draining the land of nutrients.

Jonathan, the owner of Mill Farm, has seen first hand the effects of extractive farming, and has radically transformed his approach. We’re keen to support this while maintaining the quality of bread you expect from Loaf, and we’re delighted to say it’s working.

The new flour has a slightly stronger branny taste, but to our delight it doesn’t behave that differently in the bakery. This means we haven’t had to change our processes while the quality is also the same, if not slightly better.

We’re not selling it by the kilo yet as we want to ensure we can maintain a supply, but our long-term goal is to have a range of sustainably grown heritage grains and flours available in the shop.

Ian’s Bakergram

Before he started at Loaf, Ian was documenting his baking on his Instagram feed and learning from the bakers there. Here’s his top seven recommended follows should you be looking for inspiration.


The man who got me into sourdough baking. Maurizio made the leap from a software engineer to a professional home baker. His website/blog is packed with recipes, guides, tips and tricks. A few of my favourite articles:


Top quality baker from Columbus, Ohio. His relaxed, long-form shaping videos are a pleasure to watch, and the clips of his incredibly active sourdough starter are wild.


Baker and pastry chef in Edinburgh based at The Palmerston restaurant. Everything she produces looks like a delicious work of art. I like those yum yums.


A chef and baking professor from Toronto, Canada. Bread, pizza, focaccia, panettone — he is all over it. I’m a big fan of this 50% whole wheat sourdough recipe .


An airline pilot that started slinging pizzas during the pandemic. Based in Newbury, the Neapolitan-style pizzas he cooks up in this Gozney pizza oven look unreal.


British-born couple running a vegan bakery in Whistler, Canada. Forever making me jealous of the skiing/baking lifestyle. Love his shaping videos and their passion to source ingredients locally.


Professional baker at MOR Bakery in Chipping Campden. Lots of insight into his shifts at the bakery and pictures of beautiful pastry lamination. He also finds time to bake for his neighbours, which is awesome.

Do you have a favourite baker online? Let us know!

Grain in small batches

If someone mentions growing wheat, you probably think of wide expanses of fields and combine harvesters. But wheat and other cereals can be grown on a much smaller scale in a surprisingly wide range of places. The Sheffield Wheat Experiment is an intriguing project that exploits this, with hundreds of people growing relatively small amounts of wheat in their gardens, allotments or even pots. You could think of it as a distributed urban farm, using surplus land and manageable amounts of people’s time to connect them with the source of their food.

This ticks all of Loaf’s boxes and we’re going to keep a close eye on their progress with the aim of doing something similar here one day. A Stirchley Loaf made from Stirchley grain is an idea too delicious to ignore.

The Sheffield project is still quite large scale, involving many people to produce a significant amount of grain. What if you just want to grow for your own use?

Some of you with allotments may know of Charles Dowding who has become the guru of the no-dig method of growing food. Over the last year he grew 31 clumps of rye on his smallholding and in this video he takes us through the steps to turn the rye into flour for his bread. This is perfectly doable on an allotment or back garden.

Finally, here’s a photo Pete took while on a walk exploring Coventry’s ring road of some barley growing by the busy traffic. It really can grow anywhere — though you might not want to mill these grains!