All About Sourdough

By Kate Marton – Resident Baker at Embercombe


Baking at Embercombe is about more than just the finished loaf.

Bread has been a staple food in our society for many thousands of years, but over just a few short decades we’ve seen a revolution in the way wheat is grown, milled into flour and baked. The result: bread which is barely recognisable from that which we placed on our tables just a generation ago.

Bread has become a powerful symbol of our faster, cheaper, more efficient approach to agriculture. Modern wheat can be produced at a fraction of the cost and stored for far longer, enabling wheat to become all but ubiquitous in our globalised agricultural system. And yet today’s loaf is lower in nutrients and higher in gluten than ever before.

The Green Revolution transformed the way in which wheat is grown and processed around the world. Dwarf wheats, producing a high yield and offering increased efficiency of production, came to be favoured over heritage wheats such as Einkorn, Emmer and Kamut which had been grown for thousands of years. Chemical fertilizers, agro-chemicals, and new methods of mechanised cultivation, meanwhile, meant that monocultures of modern varieties were favoured resulting in a marked drop in biodiversity.

The advancements in milling technologies also had far-reaching impacts on flour production. The invention of roller mills enabled faster and more efficient processing, offering fine control over the various parts of the kernel. Instead of crushing the entire kernel between stone, the roller mill could separate the component parts, allowing the purest and finest of white flour to be produced easily and at a far lower cost.

Stoneground flour is much more nutritious as the process means the whole wheat kernel is crushed and ground realising the nutritious oils from the endosperm.  Indeed the roller mills served primarily to remove the parts of the kernel that are richest in proteins, vitamins, lipids and minerals. This fact was not lost on the pests who had previously caused problems with stores of wheat flour, as they quickly lost interest. Ironically this meant that flour could now be stored for longer, further increasing the ‘efficiency’ of production.

There were also significant changes in the baking process itself. For thousands of years bread had been leavened using wild yeasts in the form of sourdough cultures, cared for and nourished by the baker. The introduction of commercial yeast and industrial baking techniques meant bread could be produced on a large scale with ease. This industrial bread was easy to produce and therefore cheaper, but its nutritional value had been overlooked.

As more and more of us are opting for a gluten-free diet, Embercombe offers an invitation to a deeper exploration. Why is modern wheat making us sick? What does this mean for the way we grow our food? And what can we do to respond in a way that feeds both us and our earth?

At its best, bread represents ‘real’ food, craft, skill and mindfulness. It enables us to tap into long traditions and to explore deeper questions around food, farming, the natural world and our place in it.