‘For me, it’s about working with nature to create nourishing, flavoursome food – really the best bread you can taste and eat.’ James Thorn is talking about the organic sourdough bread he bakes in his micro bakery on the Macknade Fine Foods site in the Selling Road. He produces 100 or so delicious and sustaining spelt, wheat and rye loaves per baking session, focaccia at the weekend and fruit and marzipan-filled stollen at Christmas.
James has always loved cooking and making his own food. Dissatisfied with what he could buy in the shops, he started baking bread for himself and a few friends. Then he discovered sourdough. ‘It’s a way of making bread, naturally leavened with wild yeast, rather than a type of bread,’ he explains. Inspiration was provided by The Real Bread Campaign, which is part of the charity Sustain, the alliance for better food and farming. Real bread, as defined by the Campaign, ‘is made without the use of processing aids or any other artificial additives.’ Its essential four ingredients are flour, yeast (baker’s or wild yeast), water and salt.
From The Real Bread Campaign James learnt about people starting micro bakeries in their own homes, and community-supported baking, in which customers invest in the business by paying for a regular supply of bread in advance. Initially, he was making eight loaves at a time in two single ovens in his 300-year-old house in West Street. ‘A hobbit house’, says James, ‘Not much space, but lots of character’. With the subscription service underway, he needed room to grow. He approached Macknade, who offered space in their old kitchen, which they used as a prep room. James was able to install a small oven and get things off the ground.
Macknade is committed to helping local food producers, and when the company needed the space back, they offered instead a brick outbuilding, reinstating the windows and sorting out the plumbing. Wild Bread has now been there for one and a half years. Last year, a crowdfunding campaign raised £8,000 from 120 backers for the purchase of a reconditioned, professional, Tom Chandley bread oven. The team has also expanded and now includes part-time bakers Oli Whiting and Stephen Black – his own Holistic Biscuit enterprise makes vegan delicacies such as cultured cashew cheese which he sells at the Best of Faversham market.
The industrial bread that people buy in supermarkets is made using the Chorleywood Bread Process, devised in the 1960s by the British Baking Industries Research Association in Chorleywood. These are the soft, pappy loaves, packed full of additives – emulsifiers, preservatives and enzymes – which make it possible to produce a loaf virtually without fermentation in just a few hours and give it an indefinite shelf life.
At the heart of the artisanal method employed by James is the sourdough starter. This is a mixture of flour and water that attracts the airborne wild yeasts that are present in all environments. The long, slow fermentation process that is required lets the dough develop flavour, helps break down gluten, has nutritional benefits and aids digestibility. Gluten intolerance is on the rise, but for many, sourdough can be eaten without adverse effects. ‘A lot of people come to us,’ says James, ‘who thought they would never again be able to eat bread.’
Making a sourdough loaf at Wild Bread takes 24 hours. It involves refreshing the spelt, wheat and rye starters with fresh flour, and next day mixing them with flour, salt and water to form the production dough. During the bulk fermentation that follows, the dough is folded every half hour. The dough is quite wet and folding makes for a softer, moister crumb than is achieved by kneading. The dough is divided and shaped by hand and put in proving baskets or loaf tins. Proving takes two to three hours.
Spelt, rye and wheat loaves, made from organic flour from Shipton Mill in Gloucestershire, cost from £3.50 to £4; half loaves are available. James sells this flavour-filled and fortifying bread on his Wild Bread stall in Faversham market on Tuesdays, Friday and Saturdays. He also delivers to Canterbury Wholefoods and The Grain Grocer in Margate. The subscription service and deliveries still operate in Faversham. James also gives bread to the Faversham Food Bank.
Sourdough baking classes are held once a month in the Wild Bread bakehouse. Participants get to make three loaves on the day, two baked during the course and one unbaked to take home, and also pitta for their lunch. To encourage them to take the next step, they receive full instructions for baking at home and a proving basket. The course is suitable for beginners and those with some knowledge and experience. The cost is an all-inclusive £100 – just bring an apron.
In the longer term, James would like to have premises in the town. ‘I have lots of ideas,’ he says, ‘such as some kind of community grain-growing project, funded by community shares.’ This would enable him to bake with freshly milled flour, which he says is much more nutritious even than flour milled four to five hours before.
Text: Sarah. Photography: Lisa