Interview: Andrew Whitley, baker

Andrew Whitley is passionate about good bread
Andrew Whitley is passionate about good bread
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ANDREW Whitley became a baker out of a passion for good bread - he isn’t in it for the dough

ANDREW Whitley grew up in the austerity of the post-war years, eating his mother's home-made bread. Wholemeal and hearty, it was exactly the kind of healthy high-fibre loaf that Whitley aims to get us all baking and eating as part of his mission to change the way Britain thinks about bread. Yet as a teenager he wasn't averse to sneaking off to a friend's house for a guilty slice of white. “My son did the same. It’s an act of rebellion, but you come round to the taste of real bread,” he laughs.

Before he started baking, Whitley worked for the BBC World Service, writing and editing programmes for broadcast to the Soviet Union – coincidentally developing a taste for Russian sourdough rye bread, which was to become one of his bestsellers. “As a journalist, I became aware of environmental issues and the misuse of chemicals in agriculture and decided that growing my own organic food was the way. I acquired an allotment in London and grew enough wheat to make a few loaves of bread. This also gave me an inkling as to what it might be like if I abandoned city life,” says the 64-year-old, who won a Special Judges Award at this year’s BBC Food and Farming Awards.

However, with a mortgage to pay, the good life was out of Whitley’s reach until he met the owners of an old mill with a bakery who had a vacancy for someone with the skills to stock the tearoom. Whitley jumped at the chance and in 1976 founded the Village Bakery in Melmerby, Cumbria, creating a top-selling organic brand that by the mid-1990s was stocked in Waitrose and Sainsbury’s. “A friend said, ‘You’ve gone to a place where there are no people to make a product for which there is no demand,’ but I was pig-headed and opinionated and wanted to do things because they were right, not because I would make a profit. I wanted to survive, but it was an ideological decision and important that people liked it. And we found that a lot of people did.”

Baking better bread was all very satisfying but Whitley wanted to pass on his skills, and so left the bakery in 2002 to focus on teaching others to bake bread. With his business, Bread Matters, he continues to do so today, with around 20 classes a year at Macbiehill Farmhouse, near Lamancha, where he lives with his wife Veronica.

Always at the forefront of the revival in artisanal bread brands, Whitley published his book Bread Matters in 2006 – it is regarded as a breadmaker’s bible. In 2009 he co-founded the Real Bread campaign, aiming to alter the statistic that sees most bread made by supermarket suppliers. “Researching the book, I found the anwer to a question that had been bothering me for years – why does bread make people ill? My hypothesis is that the varieties of wheat we use and high-speed processing make it more indigestible than it used to be, which is why IBS and digestive diseases have seen an alarming rise. If we used old methods, such as allowing it to ferment for up to six hours, it’s healthier. If you’re only thinking about profit and speed then nutritional quality and digestibility fall by the wayside. There’s something wrong with a loaf that keeps soft for three months,” he says.

“The way we have been making bread since human beings discovered it is slowly. You have to wait for a natural process to occur, and this method is also better for the environment as the carbon footprint is half that of an industrial loaf. To put chemicals into a food product as basic as bread is criminal. It’s time the meteorite of real bread smashed the dinosaur of white bread to smithereens.”

As a founder of Breadshare, a new community-supported bakery that makes organic bread using local produce at a nearby farm, Whitley advises and mentors the volunteers and baker there. By distributing the bread themselves, supermarkets are circumvented. “We want this Breadshare bakery to be like a cell of yeast dividing and encouraging people to create their own community bakery,” says Whitley. “We should be eating bread made by someone who values their job doing it and takes care to give you the best and gets a real thrill when it comes out of the oven.”

Like Whitley? “That’s me.”

Start up a community bakery and it could be you too.

• Janet Christie

The next Bread Matters one-day course, Daily Bread: An Introduction to Making your own Bread, is on 4 March at Macbiehill Farmhouse, Lamancha, Borders (www.breadmatters.com; www.breadshare.co.uk)