What first brought artisan baker Rosy Benson to Gothelney Farm was hearing about a farmer called Fred Price and his quest to diversify the grain crop on his family’s arable holding. She had spent the previous few years developing her craft. However, working in “strip-lit backroom bakeries”, using one-size-fits-all flour far from where the ingredients had grown, was making her feel increasingly stifled.
From the States to startup
In pursuit of more meaningful baking, Rosy began following a breadcrumb trail around the USA. There she found pioneering Real Bread bakers who were turning their hands to on-site flour production, using carefully sourced grain and real stone mills. “I was tasting things that were incredible,” she says, “and realising we had so much further to go in the UK.”
Upon return from the States, Rosy went for a day’s visit to Gothelney, which agroecological farming convert Fred reportedly spent “digging holes and showing her the soil.” This turned out to be the germ of Field Bakery, which began in the form of a bread club, making about 30 loaves a week to sell to friends in Bristol. The farm’s old stable block soon revealed itself as the perfect space for a thriving bakery. “It’s very unlike any bakery space I’ve used before,” says Rosy. “It feels quite homely,” she adds, something people attending her baking workshops can experience for themselves.
All of the equipment at Field has been chosen with care, from wooden worktops to an Diosna L-shaped mixer that emulates the action of the human arm diving into the dough: “Gentle on those locally-grown wheats.” In pride of place is the New American Stone Mill, the very same model Rosy had been using around the USA.
The mill needed putting back together during my visit. Freshly reassembled, it needed fine-tuning, and I watched Rosy and Fred take turns peeking through a zip-sealed chink in the linen basin cover to eye up the flour consistency, run it thoughtfully through increasingly powdery fingers and make small adjustments. It’s a peaceful process.
Roller milling is what brings us the very different flour we typically use today. For Rosy, it’s a somewhat “inert substance”, whereas fresh, stone-milled flour will keep you on your toes. It’s a “volatile, aromatic, buttery” and, she says, “happier” ingredient. “You’re eating whole grains at their finest – that’s something people haven’t tasted for a while.” She tells me that the slightly shorter shelf life of wholemeal flour isn’t an issue if you keep your supply chains short and relevant to demand in order to really nourish the people you’re feeding.
Fred’s grain project is one to watch. He’s working to grow 5,000 different varieties of wheat in five years, a project made extra challenging by current seed marketing laws. Rosy and I took a stroll down to visit the pilot plots. “It’s going to be the most beautiful field,” she says. Many of the varieties come in small packets from seed banks, so “you’ll get little blocks of grain that are all different, all different colours of straw and different head sizes. And it’s useful for me as a baker to have all of these on the smorgasbord of flavour.”
Their aim is to hit on 50 favourite varieties of wheat that work well, both agronomically and for bread making, then cross them. This population wheat “would be infinitely more diverse,” says Rosy. “That’s another reason it’s interesting to be here,” she says. Fred is “a farmer taking control of seed breeding himself, trying to work out what suits his soil and climate, and diversify the grains that are available to people.”
Rosy and Fred have connected the baker to the farmer and to the land, become the millers, and connected the customer to the lot. The vision is to bring people to the land their food came from and move beyond nutrition to real nourishment and satisfaction. “People travel quite far to the supermarket even though they’re surrounded by land,” says Rosy. “We want to heal that a little bit.”
Most of Field’s workshops are for sharing skills and knowledge with home bakers, but some are designed for other local bakeries using Gothelney’s flour. These allow bakers to build a personal relationship with the people who grew the grain and milled the flour. “I want them to feel that they’re connected to the farm as well,” she says. As well as getting baking tips on how to use the flour, from flavour guidance to “tricks of fermentation” directly from Rosy, bakers can let the farmer/miller know what they want out of the flour in future.
The distance (physical, economic and intellectual) between bakers and crops is an issue that’s gaining traction. Often, we’re “too far away from the reality of the grain,” Rosy told the Oxford Real Farming Conference in January 2023. “Bakers can be unaware of the system they’re participating in.” The system in question is commodity wheat, which brings consistency but, many people believe, a lot of harm, including great separation of people from the land.
Fred’s vision is that people will become more and more present on the land where our food grows, creating a sense of belonging to, connection with and honour of nature – and starting to retell the story of farming. “I just refuse to accept that you can have food production as separate from nature,” Fred told BBC Radio 4’s On Your Farm. “I want both.”
One thing we keep coming back to is people - from the budding grain networks of growers, millers, bakers and customers across the UK; to the farmers from neighbouring plots who’ve ventured to come and find out about what Rosy and Fred are doing. For Fred, who, like many farmers, had been working many hours alone, this is a new era. As Rosy says: “There’s nothing to be underestimated about the change from farming alone to having this whole community that really cares about what you do and is then going to use it.”
At the end of the day, Rosy and I are drinking tea, a bit muddy round the ankle and a little floury all over, as the frost sets in over the fields. “My intuition led me here,” she says. “We’re all wanting to do something about the situation we live in. How do you cope with that pressure other than doing something that has an immediately positive effect?”
I head home with a loaf, made of two grains with exciting names I’d not heard before, and it keeps me going for several days. A robust crust, reassuring squidge, rich colour and exciting sourness – and true to what Rosy said about satisfaction, it actually filled me up.
Originally published in True Loaf magazine issue 54, April 2023.
We're crowdfunding: Please pledge today
The Real Bread Campaign needs your dough to publish Bake Your Lawn.
This grow-a-loaf handbook is being written to help teachers, parents and others guide children on the Real Bread journey from seed-to-sandwich and make additive-free, 100% wholemeal bread from as few as three ingredients.
- Rebel alliance
- Grassroots grain Britain
- Cultivating a new local grain economy
- A gathering of grainiacs
- Why queue for YQ?
- Landrace for life
- An adaptive approach to wheat breeding, growing, processing and baking
- Capital grains
- Around the world for a local loaf
- A new Welsh grain economy
- Mountin' a comeback
- Local grain guide
- Weaving new bread webs