The great global bake off

Plant geneticist John Letts (left) and the ‘godfather’ of Australian sourdough John Downes. Photo: Jessica Dale

My Epicure cover story on baking appears today in The Age. I spoke to some fascinating people, many of whom you can meet in person at the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival’s Artisan Bakery & Bar on Queensbridge Square, in Melbourne from February 27 to March 15. I’ll definitely be dropping by to catch up with a few – so much knowledge there about an art that we need to reconnect with.

The big takeaway for me was that we need to look at the wheat strains that we grow and question what is more important: flavour and nutrition or ease of production. I get that you need to be able to grow things on a big scale – there are a lot of us humans around, these days – but surely there are innovative ways to support crops grown with flavour and nutrition in mind (and to support businesses and bakers who care about that kind of thing, too).

Epicure, The Age, 24 February 2015

Melbourne Food and Wine Festival Artisan Bakery: the great global bake-off

By Peter Barrett

On two allotments in South London Andy Forbes, 58, is growing some rather odd-looking wheat. While modern wheat stands barely to your knee – bred that way over the past 55 years for use with chemical fertilisers and requiring herbicides, fungicides and pesticides – these heritage lines grow as tall as a man. Forbes has spent six years bulking up heritage wheat stocks from gene-bank samples of British lines that went out of fashion with industrialisation and the enclosure of common land (fenced private land) in the early 19th century.

And his primary reason? Flavour. “Wheat breeding for decades has been about using agro-chemicals, yield and technical baking requirements. Flavour was consigned to the wastepaper basket. We want to put it back in the loaf at the centre of the table,” Forbes says. If all goes to plan he will soon be able to produce enough flour so the public can taste a loaf that hasn’t been baked in England, or elsewhere, since the First Fleet arrived in Botany Bay – a key wheat line for Forbes is the Red Lammas, sister of the first wheat brought to Australia, the White Lammas.

Known as the “godfather” of Australian sourdough, John Downes, 65, has been watching these developments with great interest from his home in South Australia’s Sellicks Beach. Downes, in Melbourne this week with a dozen or so of the world’s leading bakers at the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival, began baking sourdough in Byron Bay in the 1970s. He took over the Feedwell Foundry in Greville Street, Prahran, before opening Natural Tucker in 1984. The master baker recently spent time in Britain and is excited by what he saw there. “What’s happening in Britain is a massive growth of small bakeries and sourdough bread – or at least bread that’s made in a traditional way, with a long ferment,” he says. “But it’s also happening in America and France as well.”

While in Britain Downes baked bread with wheat grown by plant geneticist John Letts, who was among the first people to grow strains of traditional wheat. When you compared this traditional loaf with bread made from modern industrial strains there was simply “no contest”, Downes says. “It was so robust and magnificent and full of flavour and the crust was so full of colour. It was art, really.” Downes adds that when you find out what has happened to modern wheat – the many years of line breeding that alters height, molecular structure and increases levels of gluten – the idea of reverting to “lost” heritage strains becomes less about fashion and more about nutrition – or as he says, just plain common sense.

Read the full story online here.