Ask anyone in the UK what food they most associate with lockdown and the answer is likely to be one of two things: banana bread or sourdough. Stanley Tucci’s negroni might get a look in, but more for the suave YouTube masterclass than for the drink itself. For many, the memory of being confined to the same four walls for three months is suffused with the scent and taste of baking in general, and sourdough in particular.
“Isn’t it interesting?” says Vanessa Kimbell: founder of the Sourdough School, author of several books on the subject, and the woman with a strong claim to being the face of sourdough in Britain. “At the point of highest stress in recent times, so many people turned to something so fundamental – and so connected to the world. When you bake bread with a live starter culture, you aren’t just connecting with the bread,” she explains. “You are connecting with the farmer, the wheat, the soil, the biosphere – and with yourself.” This is the same connection you get when eating cheeses made by Neal’s Yard Dairy’s small scale producers. When choosing to support cheesemakers you are eating a product of the land, of the milk, of tradition and of the families that make them.
If Vanessa sounds evangelical, it’s because she is. Born to an Italian mother and raised in France from the age of nine, Vanessa spent her childhood helping in her local boulangerie and her early adulthood training to be a baker. Yet barely three years after securing a position as a baker and chef in a Leicester hotel, a course of strong antibiotics left her gut seemingly unable to digest anything containing gluten. “I went from being very slender and healthy to putting on three stone and having digestive issues, headaches, exhaustion… The doctors put me on a gluten-free prescription, and it was horrible. It was as though somebody had removed my ability to express myself – because baking is a form of expression. Everything I loved, everything I wanted to create, I couldn’t eat.”
Sometime later, on holiday in France with her husband, she returned to the village of her childhood, where upon seeing her the boulanger pressed a still-warm pain de campagne into her hands. Unable to resist, she tore into this bread “like a desperate drug addict” and waited for the inevitable corporeal punishment – yet nothing happened. “It was like the sun coming out. I did nothing but eat bread for two weeks.” Her release was short-lived, alas, as her symptoms returned with a vengeance with the first bite of bread back in Britain. “I spent three days in bed,” she recalls, “and the doctors couldn’t explain it.” From that moment on she made it her mission to understand what made French bread so markedly different to that of the UK.
At this point – “around 1992 or 93” – she’d never heard of sourdough. “I didn’t know the word existed. I’d been eating it and baking it throughout my childhood, but the French don’t call it sourdough, it’s just country bread. It isn’t special.” Nonetheless, her education in the boulangerie had shown her how fundamental the connection was between the soil, the wheat, the live starter, the farmer and the baker. She could not have known it then, but when Vanessa began introducing these ideas and processes to British bakers, she became the harbinger of a movement that would eventually capture the nation – to the point where, during a pandemic, it would be one of the few thing keeping us entertained.
In the 1990s, Vanessa wasn’t the only person alive to the possibilities of sourdough starters. The sad passing of designer and restauranteur Terence Conran has reminded us just how instrumental he was in shaping the food scene of the UK. One of his many culinary contributions, says Neal’s Yard Dairy director Jason Hinds, was the popularisation of sourdough. In 1995, his enormous (for the time) restaurant, Mezzo, was the only restaurant in Soho to possess its own bakery. Indeed, it was the only bakery in Soho. “Terence couldn’t get the quality of bread he wanted, so he opened a bakery,” continues Jason – and it was there that the Neal’s Yard Dairy team got their first taste of sourdough, and decided to sell Mezzo’s bread alongside the cheeses at their Covent Garden shop.
“They are the perfect partners,” says Vanessa of cheese and bread: not just because both are produced through slow fermentation (which, at the simplest level is why many of those who struggle with bread made from fast-acting industrial yeasts can digest sourdough, as the slow fermentation breaks down some of the gluten) but because the unique texture and complex flavours of sourdough render it a vehicle to all cheese. “When sourdough is correctly made, it has the most incredible aromatics: a burnished, beautiful crust that boasts toffee and caramel back-notes, combined with a soft, voluptuous crumb structure that works so well whether it’s a hard or a soft cheese,” she enthuses. No wonder the French have bread – and, often, cheese “with almost every meal”.
It is central to every table spread – and, moreover, it is central to the culture, the community, the way of life in rural France. Once she’d finished her day’s work at the bakery, the young Vanessa would walk home via the farm to give the pigs the leftover bread from the day before. “I’d watch the cows being milked, and that milk being turned into cheese. The two were inseparable,” she continues. Today, when Vanessa says she fell ‘in love’ with bread, she means she “fell in love with everything that went with it: the environment, the people, the way their lives revolved around it.” It’s why, to her, a good cheese sandwich is not just a lunchtime snack but a form of affirmative action against the post-war food systems that have left us with highly processed foods (with all their attendant consequences on health and the environment) and for a way of eating that is “conducive to good health and sustainability”.
“I think what lockdown did was jolt people out of their food habits, like buying a supermarket sandwich on their way into work in the morning,” Vanessa reflects. For some people, this was active: “They were thinking and questioning the food that they ate, and the systems that produce it.” Yet for the most part she believes the move to bake sourdough and buy quality produce from places like Neal’s Yard Dairy was not conscious, but instinctive. “We evolved eating food like that – and when our health was threatened, and we stopped buying on reflex and convenience and had some more time, I think it was instinct to return.”
Whatever the reasons, it is a positive step for the people we support: the cheesemakers, the bakers and the land and communities they rest on. There is indeed no better partner for the cheeses in Neal’s Yard Dairy’s Buy British Cheese box than a crusty sourdough loaf from their shops, no longer from Mezzo, of course, but from Dusty Knuckle and Little Bread Pedlar – two of the best bakeries in London today. The cheeses that feature in September’s Buy British Cheese selection are the perfect companions to be eaten between doorstop slices of fresh bread or melted in a toastie once the bread is a few days old.
In celebration of the union of bread and cheese we are running a competition on Instagram this week for 10 followers to win Sourdough Club memberships. One grand prize winner will also receive a copy of Vanessa Kimbell’s new book “The Sourdough School: Sweet Baking: Nourishing the Gut & the Mind” and a Buy British Cheese selection box. Follow us on Instagram @nealsyarddairy to find out how to enter.