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Slow Rise

Publisher - Great British Food Awards
published by

Dani R

Feb 25, 2021
11 minutes to read

Rob Penn is on a quest to resuscitate the traditional art of bread making, from hand-scything wheat in the Nile Delta to growing and harvesting his own ancient grains


Rob Penn has been described as a modern-day Thoreau. For the past 18 years he has lived with his family on a smallholding in the Black Mountains of Wales. They get their water from a spring on the land, and they heat their house with the firewood from their own woods. And they’re embarking on a journey to eat more sustainably produced, locally sourced food.

“We grow our own vegetables, badly, and we buy directly from a local organic producer. We have several apple trees, as well as damsons and pears. We make our own jams, chutneys and strange-coloured alcoholic elixirs,” he says.

The family also bakes their own bread, a subject which fascinated Rob to such an extent that he wrote an entire book about it.

“The history of human civilization has been crowded into a few thousand years: bread has been a constant over this period. Bread is kneaded into economics, politics, human biology and religion. The availability of bread has significantly influenced demography and population growth. Its story is the story of humanity,” he writes in Slow Rise, his latest book.

Slow Rise tells the story of bread from plot to plate. Rob travels to Anatolia to find the ancient wild grains from which our modern crop is descended, has a crack at hand-scything in the Nile Delta and back at home, tries to bake enough bread to feed his family for a year.

Rob explains what some of the most rewarding experiences of writing Slow Rise were.

“Ploughing my acre with horses in abominable weather, returning to the field to see that my emmer seeds had germinated and emerged from the earth, harvesting my wheat, winnowing out the the chaff on autumnal winds, baking my first presentable loaf with my own stoneground, wholemeal flour and winning a prize in the baking competition at our local agricultural show – these were all great days,” he says.

But one of the most profound moments was in Egypt.

“In a field in the Nile Delta, down on my haunches cutting wheat with a sickle next to Mohammed Maliji, it struck me as likely that people have been harvesting wheat to make bread in exactly this fashion, plausibly in the same field, every April for six thousand years. That is a remarkable connection to our distant ancestors, an education in the continuity of the human experience, and a lesson in how the earth abides,” he says.


GAINS THROUGH GRAINS

In order to bake bread, Rob even went to the extent of growing his own wheat.

“I cultivated Emmer, an ancient variety of wheat,” he explains. “It was the main wheat cultivated for at least three millennia in Ancient Egypt. It was believed that the very first sourdough loaf was baked in Egypt, with Emmer flour.”

Rob also planted Hen Gymro wheat (pronounced ‘Hen Gim-roh’), which means ‘Old Welshman’ — which was initially grown across south-west Wales until the 1930s.

Upon hearing Rob’s story, some people might question the lengths he went to. Why grow ancient grains instead of modern ones? Why not source flour from a local mill? Or even: why not buy a loaf of sliced white bread from the supermarket and be done with it?

And Rob has plenty of answers, beginning with his choice of crop.

“Over millennia, as each community observed the strongest plants, selected the best ears and re-planted the largest grains, tens of thousands of genetically-diverse wheat populations called ‘landraces’ evolved across the globe, with the characteristics most likely to thrive in local soils and microclimates,” he explains.

These ‘landraces’ (including Emmer and Hen Gymro) are more resilient to extreme weather conditions, more biodiverse and disease resistant. But the early 20th century saw the introduction of hybrid wheat crops bred purely for the highest yields, rather than their flavour or bread-making qualities.

“Fortunately, a sample of Hen Gymro was saved in a seed bank, and it is now being grown by several farmers in Wales. It makes seriously tasty bread,” Rob explains.

He has a message for budding bakers: “Taste and smell the ancient grains. Get into heritage grains and wholemeal – there is a whole new world of taste and flavour waiting.”


SLOWING DOWN

Rob, like many people, grew up eating sliced white bread bought for convenience. It was only when he was on a round-the-world cycling trip in the 90s that he discovered ‘real bread’: Georgian puris, Turkish simit, and regional European breads such as grissini, fougasse and rye sourdough.

But although he got a taste for the good stuff, moving to rural Wales and having three children in quick succession brought about a return to sliced white. Then Rob became ill with stomach complaints. This caused him to take a closer look at his diet, and he came across a book named Bread Matters, by Andrew Whitley, which describes British bread as “a national, culinary, social and environmental mess.” The book also explains that flour is made into bread via a “cocktail of additives” and a super-fast fermentation process using large amounts of yeast, both of which can cause digestive discomfort.

The book convinced Rob to give up industrial bread, which he says completely cleared up his stomach ailments. Eventually, he began baking his own sourdough loaves, which rely on a slow-acting fermentation process using natural yeasts and the good bacteria in the air around us.


CRUMBS OF WISDOM

Eating this slow-risen bread, and relaxing into the meditative rhythm of kneading dough, has vastly improved his wellbeing, and taught him a great deal.

“I have certainly learnt a great deal, about the importance of genetic diversity in not just wheat, but all plants; about baking; and about taste and flavour in bread, amongst other things,” he explains.

“I have also gained a little bit of freedom, by bringing the provenance of our bread closer to home. The act of baking is a small protest — a declaration of domestic independence, from the corporations who seek complete control of a food system that has created an extraordinary plethora of environmental problems and human health issues.”

Robert Penn’s Slow Rise: A Breadmaking Adventure is out now with Particular Books (£17.99)



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