We ran our first Heritage Grain class on Saturday

Loaf’s Heritage Grain class has been in development for what seems like forever. After a year of planning it was due to run just as the pandemic hit. Then, while the cookery school was closed, we got deeper and deeper into the subject and decided to re-do it from scratch. Research trips to farms and conferences, and conversations with millers and suppliers, saw us trying a wider variety of wheats in the bakery and developing a hands-on understanding of what works and why. Over the last six months the bakers finessed their experiments into a coherent, teachable class, and on Saturday Rachel and Neil finally delivered it for the first time. Phew!

Running a class for the first time is always nerve-racking but we’re happy to say everyone enjoyed themselves and got a lot out of it. Heritage Grain will be run quarterly with the next class due in June. Sign up here to be notified as soon as the date is announced.

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”.

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.

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!

Loaf’s visit to Mill Farm

Six of Loaf went on a road trip last week. Here’s Sarah to tell you what we got up to.

Jonathan, the owner of Mill Farm near Worcester, has been farming for over 50 years, so he’s seen a lot. But in the last few years he’s had to radically rethink how he approaches farming. The industry has been ravaged by politics and overwhelmed by the constant demand to supply more at lower margins. The land can’t bear it and something needs to change.

His neighbour Emma, inspired by the work of the South West Grain Network, convinced him to start growing heritage wheat varieties and a second yield was harvested this year. Emma contacted Loaf last summer asking if we’d like to buy some of it, and even if we didn’t, would we like to come and have a look around the farm?

She finished her email with the following:

“Our main aim is to re-imagine the food system where small-scale regenerative farming systems are producing nutrient-rich, tasty food in healthy soils, re-building short supply chains, and a new grain economy that is full of personality and traceability. If this aim resonates with you, then I look forward to hearing from you even if the purpose is simply to stimulate a Midlands bread and grain network.”

A couple of weeks ago we visited Mill Farm to meet Jonathan and Emma to find out more. We took some of our bread and shared a picnic under the shade of a massive oak. Sitting in one of the recently harvested fields, Jonathan told us about his plans.

One way to keep a farm alive is to get clever, creating a sustainable environment for better crops to grow without exhausting the land — from crop rotation to conserve the land, to wild flower areas to encourage pollinators, to making big decisions about what to grow and what to not grow.

Jonathan has won awards for his conservation efforts, and it really shows. We piled on the back of his truck for a tour around his fields, seeing how he has mindfully chosen to invest in the land, protecting the environment and conserving it for the future.

Growing heritage and ancient grains is a learning curve and comes at a cost, however. Can you imagine investing so much in such a large area of land with all that is going on in the world? Farming is highly exposed to such uncertainty. So much is out of the farmer’s control.

Jonathan could grow a standard commodity grain, but he and Emma want to do better. Fundamentally, they want healthy land, they want to grow grain that is tasty, they want to keep it interesting and they want to make a living from it.

I think that’s what resonates so much for me, because I see the same fundamentals in our coop at Loaf. We don’t cut corners and we aren’t chasing easy profits. We want balance. A great product that honours the grain and the land it grew on.

We were all so inspired to listen to how their new farming strategy is unfolding. It was a delight to learn from them, and we are particularly excited to take home some of the grains that they are growing.

As you’ll know, we are new to the heritage grain scene too. For us bakers this opens up a whole new world of flavour, texture and nutrition.

We really connected with Mill Farm on so many levels and look forward to bringing their grain to our loaves and onto your plates. We truly hope this is the start of a beautiful friendship.

Loaf’s heritage grain adventure continues

Over the last fortnight you might have seen some ‘heritage grain’ sourdough and baguettes on the shelves at Loaf. This is part of a long-term project we’ve been working on to become part of the local grain economy, and we’d like to explain what that all means.

Heritage grain is a broad term. It can be understood as grain from wheat that is not popularly farmed in the modern era, the baking industry having consolidated around a small number of grain varieties.

For the baker, heritage grains can be fun to work with, behaving differently as dough and producing flavours not usually found in standard breads. Sometimes the difference is subtle, sometimes it’s dramatic. It’s wheat, but not as you’ve come to know it.

While there’s nothing to stop heritage wheat being produced on an industrial scale, it tends to be grown by smaller farmers in lower yields. The local grain economy (explored in-depth in the six-part Cereal podcast from Farmarama) is a movement to connect these farms with bakers to create a sustainable market for these grains. At Loaf we feel we’re perfectly positioned to be part of this, being an urban bakery with many growers in the surrounding countryside. 

During his furlough in January, and inspired by Cereal, Phil began making contact with local farmers and this month milled a couple of varieties for the shop. 

Last Thursday and this Wednesday we had a sourdough milled from Mulika wheat grain from Greenacres farm in Shropshire, one of the pioneers of heritage grain in the UK. It has quite a deep malty flavour with a slightly sour tang and we’re keen for it to become a regular on our shelves as feedback has been great. 

This week we also had some baguettes made with flour from Wildfarmed, a really interesting venture which was featured in a previous newsletter. Initial results were good but we want to spend more time with it. If you picked one up on Wednesday, please let us know what you thought.

Off to Somerset!

Phil’s enthusiasm infected the whole baking crew and when the opportunity arose to block-book the Advanced Sourdough Using Regional Grains workshop at Field Bakery, we jumped at the chance. 

Field is a bakery set up by Rosy Benson on Gothelney Farm in the Quantock region of Somerset, a family farm transitioning to an agroecological model. While baking for the local community they’re also keen to build a network of environmentally aware bakers working with sustainable grains. 

The course covered a multitude. Naturally we got to work with the wheat varieties, learning how to get the best of out them in the bakery. For example, they don’t perform like modern wheats, tending to be more delicate. Every variety is different so you need to be both attentive and reactive to the process, taking a bit more care as you guide it through fermentation.

There was also a detailed tour of the fields, which offered the bakers a rare chance to see where their raw material comes from. And there were pigs!

This is all contextualised by Gothelney and Field’s involvement with the South West Grain Network of farms, mills and bakeries from Bristol to Land’s End, working towards the goal of an alternative grain economy. 

We left tired but inspired and keen to help build something similar here in the Midlands.

More than a flavour

While these heritage grains taste great, it’s important to remember this is about much more.

A local grain economy supports farmers and bakers who cannot compete with large agribusiness and reduces transportation distances.

A wider variety of grain is more sustainable in a changing climate and creates a stronger biodiversity.

Finally, by growing this sector we can make these grains affordable to more people.

As a co-operative and a community bakery, we strongly feel that heritage grain is something we should be involved in. We will be spending the next year or so exploring this world, seeing how we can fold it into our values and principles. This need not be an exclusive, expensive luxury — many of these grains were historically the staple diet of ordinary people. We want to see if they can be again.

Meanwhile, on Dale’s allotment

Some of you will know Dale Hipkiss: member of Artefact, half of artist duo Hipkiss & Graney and ecological campaigner. Dale has long been a friend of Loaf, and for the last five years has been experimenting with heritage grains.

He started with a selection requested from the John Innes Centre, a gene bank in Norwich that stores “germplasm core collections which represent the global natural variation of highly important cultivated species and their wild relatives.”

Dale planted these on his allotment in Stirchley in 2016, replanting and bulking them out to see which grow best in this climate. He expanded to a corner of a field in Henley (pictured above) and this year is taking on another half an acre.

His long-term plan is to acquire some land so he can autonomously develop a farming system better suited to adapting to climate change. And, of course, he wants to turn his grain into food.

It’s safe to say, you’ll one day be be able to buy a Hipkiss loaf from us, made from flour that started its journey in an allotment in Stirchley. It doesn’t get more local than that!

Wildfarmed Grain Armada

This week Phil has been on furlough and has been experimenting with a heritage grain of eyebrow-raising provenance. 

Readers of a certain vintage will remember pre-millennial electronic music duo Groove Armada. Andy Cato, of said duo, bought a farm in France, as semi-retired rockers are wont to do.

He was gifted a handful of heritage long-straw grain by a retired baker. Unlike the shorter varieties we’ve become used to, grown alone in vast monocultured fields, this grain is sowed directly into grass pastures where animals are allowed to graze. 

This is a ‘population wheat’, meaning there is a huge mix of different grain all grown in one field. Rather than picking through and selecting the ‘right’ grain, all is harvested and resown, letting nature determine which grain varieties grow best in that environment. This variety is the key to sustainability and also creates interesting complexities in the flour. 

Andy is now a full–time farmer with a sideline in electronic beats, and is growing his grain in farms across the UK, stonemilling the flour and selling to bakeries to “take back control of our food supply in a way that reconsiders the relationship between humankind and nature.” 

Read more about Wildfarmed Grain on their website.

Phil’s First Bake with Wildfarmed grain

Wildfarmed Grain is available in wholemeal and different sifted grades, according to the French type system, where different amounts of the bran are removed. 

I made a loaf using wholemeal and two of the more sifted varieties. This combination created something similar to our wholemeal sourdough, very flavourful from the wholemeal flour, but kept light with the addition of the sifted flours. 

It was strong and elastic to work with, and had a good oven spring. The loaf has a really nutty flavour and caramelised dark crust, very nice with lots of butter and honey!

Why we’re interested in this

Heritage grains and wild farm methods are interesting and fun to work with, but they’re much more than a hobbyist or gourmet pursuit. They fit in with a number of Loaf’s key aims. 

Firstly, they’re healthier and easier to digest than industrially processed flour, so that’s a no-brainer. 

Secondly, they’re better for the environment. Wild farming is no-till, so the microbiome of the earth is allowed to develop and mature, holding CO2 and water in the ground, and allowing the soil to live. 

Thirdly, they have the potential to create a sustainable economy of farmers, millers and bakers producing affordable bread for a mass audience. We’re encouraged by Andy’s desire to create not just healthy bread but healthy working conditions and healthier communities. 

We’ve sourced a supplier and plan to bring these grains to Loaf later in the year, both for our bakery and to sell in the shop, so look out for them. And if you have any experience or stories about heritage grains, please do get in touch.