This is the story of a baker and his effort to look into the pre-industrial age and recreate the bread that we might have found in Rutland in 1850.
The baker himself deserves a little introduction. Julian Carter was born into a family which had sent every eldest son into the bakery business since the mid 1700s. In that era, the Carters had a thriving bakery business in Bath and at one time even owned the ‘receipt’ for the Bath Oliver biscuit.
Julian’s father, John Carter had a bakery in Liverpool (where his specialities included eccles cakes, macaroons, bun loaf, decorated wedding cakes) but he was a victim, like many artisan bakeries in the last 50 years of competition from the bread factories. He told Julian that the outlook for small bakers was dismal, he should earn a crust in another, more secure profession.
Julian chose the RAF where he was a great hit in the catering arm of that service and rose to become chef at 10 Downing Street for John and Norma Major.
He left the Air Force aged 32 and volunteered to work for us at Hambleton Hall. It took around a year for Julian to learn a new kind of cooking, but he succeeded and took on the role of Aaron Patterson’s Sous Chef at Hambleton Hall which he fulfilled for 8 years.
Julian and I were inspired by the French Baker, Poilane, great bread encountered in France, the USA and in London as well as by the writings of Andrew Whiteley which added a British dimension to the story.
Gradually the idea for a local loaf was born. We discovered that 90% of the bread sold in Britain today uses a factory process that combines degraded flour, very high doses of yeast an accelerated fermentation and numerous chemical additives to produce a light, damp, fluffy and tasteless bread which is a national disgrace. The process is made possible by the use of very high doses of bakers yeast. Since bakers yeast was only commercially available in Britain around a hundred years ago following advances in microbiology set in motion by Louis Pasteur and others in the mid 19c, we wondered how our ancestors made bread before cultured and dried yeast was available? Sourdough was popular in France but in 19c Britain many bakeries availed themselves of the naturally occurring yeast created in traditional brewing. Our friend, Tony Davis at the Grainstore Brewery in Oakham, fixed us up with some beer barm and Julian fed the barm to make a bread starter with potatoes and dark malt.
The other key ingredient for a local loaf is the flour and we went to Nigel Moon at the Whissendine Windmill to find a bread flour which might approximate the traditional product. I had assumed that stone-grinding of flour was a picturesque anachronism until I learnt that the roller mills that produce modern flour strip out the germ from the grain as well as all of the husk. They leave behind the minerals, vitamins and roughage elements for sale to the animal feed and pharmaceutical industries. The benign grinding action of traditional millstones leaves most of the “goodies” in the flour.
Our local loaf starts it’s life with slow fermented stoneground flour. Once the fermentation is complete the loaves are hand formed and left to finish proving in round willow baskets. Finally they are turned out onto the floor of our wood fired oven.
The flavour has a trace of malty, hoppy notes reminiscent of the brewery. The loaf lasts for ages without a trace of mould and tastes great toasted after 5 days or more. It’s full of nutrients and many people who suffer from some form of intolerance to many bread products find the “Hambleton Local” kind to their digestion.
We have to admit that in one respect our local loaf is not as local as it might be. Organic British wheat of 2008 vintage was useless for breadmaking as we had a relatively sunless summer. So the organic wheat used to make our flour for the ‘local’ is currently imported from sunnier climes. Lets hope for more sun this summer so that our ‘Local’ loaf become ‘local’ in every respect.