Andrew Whitley is a campaigning organic baker known for starting the Village Bakery in Melmerby in the 1970s and latter as co-founder of the Real Bread Campaign. His book Bread Matters is credited with ‘changing the way we think about bread’ by Sheila Dillon of the BBC Food Programme and his business of the same name provided artisan bakery training. He followed up his interest in bread back to its roots by farming in the Scottish borders – using agroforestry approaches, inspired by the work of Prof Martin Wolfe at Wakelyns. There he experimented with some 70 varieties of wheat, spelt, emmer, rye, oats and barley, including varieties that used to be grown in Scotland, some obtained from the Vavilov Institute in Russia – as he explains in the video tour of his farm when I visited in 2015.
With his late wife and co-director Veronica Burke he pioneered a new project – Scotland The Bread. This is a collaboration to re-establish a Scottish flour and bread supply that is healthy, equitable, locally controlled and sustainable. It links together plant breeders, farmers, millers, bakers, nutritionists and citizens. Their measure of success is how reliably they pass on nourishment, from the soil to the slice. To achieve that, they aim to create change in every part of the system: fair prices for local farmers growing nourishing food for people, fewer damaging food miles, more nutrition in every slice of bread and more jobs per loaf as they skill up community bakers to bring out the best in the local grains. They believe that growing better grain and baking better bread can provide part of the solution to diet-related ill-health. Everyone – older people, children, those looked after and ‘catered for’ in our hospitals, schools, prisons and care homes – will benefit.
They aim to combine research with action, so Scotland The Bread collaborates with scientists in leading institutions to find traits in heritage Scottish and Nordic wheats that will help them to produce locally resilient, nutritious grains. At the same time, Scotland The Bread is preparing a market for the new grains by building community capacity in small-to-medium scale artisan breadmaking.
In autumn 2015, the first four community projects sowed some of Scotland The Bread’s trial wheats. By late summer 2016 they could harvest, thresh, clean and mill that grain and (using slow, natural fermentation) turn it into healthy, digestible bread. In the autumn of 2018, their milling and main operations moved from Macbiehill Farmhouse, their farm in the Scottish Borders, to the Bowhouse on the Balcaskie Estate in Fife. I called in to see Andrew in their unit at the Bowhouse in September 2021 and bought some of the flours to try in my own sourdough baking – and very tasty the first loaf I’ve made is.
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