By Rupert Dunn
This week the first peasant bakery opened its doors on the St David’s peninsula in Wales. Run by ORFC regular, Rupert Dunn, Torth Y Tir, sold its first official loaves on Wednesday from heritage wheat that Rupert planted in fields nearby. One of the founders of the UK CSA Network, six years ago, Rupert took the bold decision to become a producer himself. Through the French Peasant seeds network, Reseau Semance Paysanne, he was able to study with peasant bakers, including Nicolas Supiot (who spoke at ORFC this year). He says from the first time he saw the “wood-fired oven made bread in the dough trough” he knew what he wanted to do. Rupert lives with his wife Indre and two-year old daughter Aranwen; here he shares with us the countdown to the opening day.
14 days to go…
Today I go down to see how the wheat is getting on. I’ve planted six acres on an 800-acre farm on the St David’s peninsula which has been farmed by the Gwyther family since 1740. It’s also where the bakery is based. I’ve got another 14 acres at another farm nearby. Our heritage winter population consists of up to 100 varieties of wheat. It’s a combination of populations from different French peasant bakers or ‘paysan boulangers’. Some came from my mentor and friend, Nicolas Supiot, some from near Lyon and others from Dijon. The wheat is in flower and 3-5 percent of it can now cross-pollinate, so new varieties could be born here in our field, it’s a magical time.
I love standing in the middle of the fields and just listening to the rustle of the wheat in the breeze. The field I stand in was planted in February and it’s all in ear now, at a shorter height than it would normally because it went in late and it’s been so dry this year. The fields that were planted in November have fared a lot worse having seen quite bare soils go through the wettest February on record, followed by the driest May. However, the resilience of these heritage varieties is impressive and we will harvest a crop from both fields. I’m hoping there’s going to be some rain tonight which might see the height of the wheat shoot up. I think this year is a good example of the extreme weather patterns we might be facing in the future, so it’s good to diversify what we’re growing and go back to old varieties of grains. Also, we’ve got to look after our soils much better so they’re more resilient to the droughts and the floods they’re going to experience.
Meanwhile, the bakery, which is housed in a barn on the farm, is almost complete. We have practice bakes planned over the next two weeks. The first commercial bake will be in fifteen days so I’ll have some time to get used to the new setup. And I’m in the midst of writing an application for a loan for a field scale biodynamic preparation/compost tea kit and sprayer and an Ecodyn. This is a cultivator drill combination that will allow us to drill different types of seeds simultaneously; we can then stop ploughing altogether in the fields. Our aim here is to go away from the inversion tilling which is so destructive to soil structure and health. As we don’t use any chemicals or synthetic inputs on our fields, we need to go for minimum till rather than no-till, to allow the wheat seeds to germinate and get away before the soil surface is soon covered again with arable weeds and other companion plants like fava beans or clovers. Our biodynamic preparations and compost teas will support beneficial funghi and bacteria, which will have more opportunity to thrive in the soils which are not bare from the plough. I am hoping to walk into our field next year and for the soil surface to look, feel and smell like compost.
11 days to go…
We had our first practice bake today! It was very much a practice bake to get used to all the different elements and learn about how our particular oven responds to the fire and timing that with the fermentation.. It certainly wasn’t the perfect bake in terms of the bread that came out but it was very useful. I gave away a lot of bread to friends!
It’s been so long since I was in France doing this with other bakers – using this kind of oven and baking in this way – that its really like starting anew. But I know what I need to do to improve the process and it will all start coming together I’m sure. It’s little pieces that make up the greater whole but all these need to be in place; like the temperature in the room, the activity of the leaven and everything having its right place so its there when I need it and time is not wasted. Certainly, when I’m baking to scale these things make all the difference.
I’m learning all this from scratch having not grown up on a farm and not having learnt baking in any formal way. I often think that if I can manage to manifest this then pretty much anyone can! I always feel that with the process, whether it’s growing the wheat or baking the bread I’m a custodian for those things that take place. I don’t grow the wheat, I put the seed in the ground, I don’t bake the bread, I mix the dough and I put the dough in the oven. So, it’s about something that’s greater than me.
6 days to go…
It’s been a packed few days and I’m feeling pretty tired but very happy. I was baking yesterday and got good results which I was really pleased about. As a learning biodynamic grower I take interest in the teachings of Rudolph Steiner. I love the solitude of baking, but I never feel alone. There are many unseen forces that accompany the process. I don’t talk very overtly about it but for me, baking bread is a very spiritual activity and I’m just a conduit in that. There’s an alchemy that takes place when those ingredients come together to make more than the sum of their parts. We live close to the city of St Davids and the motto of St David is “Do ye the little things in life” (“Gwnewch y pethau bychain mewn bywyd”). My endeavour both in the bakery and in the fields is to work with the little things, the bacteria’s, yeasts, fungi’s, protozoa’s and the multitude of other beings, which accompany the process of life.
After the bake yesterday morning, I went up to Fishguard market which is a 20-minute drive from here. Fishguard was my home town and I used to go to the Thursday market from when I was a little kid so it was very special experience to return as a producer. Amazingly, most of the other stalls are the same people as 25 years ago and it doesn’t seem like they’ve aged at all, it was like going into a time warp! I just love the market; seeing people face-to-face, sharing the bread with them and building relationships. I wasn’t selling bread at the market today – it was just tasters – but I’ve got a few orders in for next week.
I wanted a slow start in terms of orders so I can make sure the bread is good and consistent and I’m not too far out of my comfort zone with the scale. I’m relatively slow in the bakery at the moment so I’m only aiming for 30-50 leaves on Wednesdays but eventually I need to be turning out 300 loaves a week to make the bakery financially viable. The oven can take 80 loaves per bake and I’m working up to that.
I’m doing another practice bake tomorrow morning so I’m not seeing a lot of my family at the moment and my two-year old daughter is missing me. I’m really keen to find that lifestyle balance which is something my peasant baker friends seem to have found. They’re efficient with their time and come in, they do their bake and then it’s out to the market or off home. There’s a clear differentiation between the times they work and the times they don’t. It’s a bit haphazard at the moment in the new space as works are completed but I’m feeling my way along and finding a rhythm with each day.
2 days to go…
Today, was my last practice bake before the commercial bake on Wednesday and the breads getting better every time. I’m feeling more confident with the idiosyncrasies of the oven. I’m also starting to build relationships again with people in the local community around the bread which is lovely. We’ve got about 50 kilos of bread to do on Wednesday which is double what I’ve been practicing so I’m a little nervous but also excited to bake that bread for people which feels like a real privilege.
Today, we also installed the mill in its new room. Our Astrie mill, like all our kit, was made in France so I was on Facetime with the mill makers in Carcassonne making the final tweaks and adjustments to it. Our mill produces a beautiful stone-milled white flour which contains 80 percent of the grain and emits the outer bran. Then, just after installing the mill, our 1940’s grain cleaner broke again. If the grain cleaner breaks I can’t mill or bake and being so close to opening, it’s a bit worrying. But I’ve got a good friend who helps me out with mechanical issues – because I’m not very mechanically minded – so he took the machine apart and we both understand it much better now. They built things so well in the 1940’s! It’s also very empowering to be using technology, which we can fix ourselves. So, the grain cleaner is up and running, the mill is working and the orders are trickling in – we’re getting there!
The French grain cleaner which separate the vetch from the wheat. An essential piece of kit for the bakery.
It’s only my fifth time baking in the bakery and today is my first commercial bake. I am nervous but I came in and got everything well prepared yesterday, I weighed the flour and the water and then I got here this morning at 5.30. It’s lovely to have a few moments sitting here at dawn after making the dough, when it’s silent and there’s an opportunity to reflect.
Well, the opening day could have gone smoother! Although, I started the day with perfect timing, I was doing 55 kilos of bread and I’d only been practicing with 20 kilos of bread and I realised I’ve still got a few things to learn about the wood fired oven. For example, if you’re putting a bigger volume of bread in, you need a bigger fire with more embers so it can keep the heat in during the bake. The beauty of this oven is that if I need more heat during the bake, I can put some small wood in and quickly rise the temperature, which worked very well. The bread did take longer to bake and I was very nervous sending bread out because it wasn’t exactly the bread that I wanted but I’ve had all good feedback since, I’m also baking for the local foodbank, so that will allow me to have another practice bake on Monday before the next commercial bake again on Wednesday. The market was busy and I sold all the spare loaves that I brought as well as all the ordered ones. So in all, I sold 50 loaves of bread which feels like a success for our first day. I do have improvements to make with my ordering system as I missed a couple of people off the packing in the rush of getting the bread delivered at the end of a long day; to some degree these teething problems are to be expected but I am not comfortable with them!
I did have this beautiful moment yesterday when I’d just finished milling the flour for today and had just put it in the dough trough when the atmosphere in the room really changed. I stopped and paid attention to it and remembered the journey the wheat had been on that year and felt an appreciation for how the wheat stands through everything. You plant it in the autumn and that particular year, the winter of 2018, was really wet and I thought I’d lost the whole crop because the fields were covered in crows. Then in March, I started to see it emerge and then it tillered and that crop came back. It really was a miracle for me.
The crows did eat a fair bit but in the end I had ten tonnes of wheat which will sustain the bakery through this year. So, the wheat came through all that and I went through all of that experience of loss as a beginner farmer and then here I was standing with that flour in this bakery and it felt like a magical moment which made me appreciate all the experience I’d had over those years. My mentor, Nicolas, is quite a spiritual man who lives in Brittany and when I emailed him in January 2019 to say I was forlorn because I thought I’d lost the crop he said “ those grains that do survive, harvest them because they will be pure light”.
For me, that encapsulated what it means to be a peasant baker, standing there in the bakery having milled the grain from my field and having that intimate relationship with the land and the privilege of being able to make the dough and make the bread while your wheat is growing at the same time.