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Rise of the Sourdough Baker 

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Duncan Glendinning, founder of Bath’s Thoughtful Bakery, explains how man really can live on bread alone.

Words by Gaby Dyson

Duncan Glendinning’s path to opening an artisanal bakery was hardly a conventional one. His story is one of a bizarre twist of fate, in which a freelance web developer discovered a penchant for baking while working on an eco-tourism project in Fiji. It was during a stint as a sustainability manager on this most tropical of paradises that Duncan honed his sourdough skills and dared to dream of setting up a business that would combine his two passions: sustainability and slow food. Upon his return to the West Country, Thoughtful Bakery was born.  

Since opening its doors over one decade ago, the Thoughtful Bakery has risen to become Bath’s leading eco-artisan bakery. Home to real bread and all manner of indulgent treats, visitors can knead their own dough downstairs in the bakery school or receive tips on how to properly nurture a sourdough starter from the passionate in-house team. There’s no typical day at this city center bakery. One morning, you might find rustic garlic loaves for sale, created using foraged wild garlic from nearby woodlands. The next, you might be tucking into one of their signature purple wraps; made by blending vibrant beetroot juice into the dough, before being stuffed with hummus, roasted root veg, feta cheese and mixed leaves.  

“Sustainability and ethics are key to everything that we do at The Thoughtful Bakery,” says Duncan. “We vary our offerings throughout the year to stay in tune with the seasons. We pickle, we ferment, and we do everything we can to squirrel away some of that produce for the more inclement months of the year.” 

A childhood spent holidaying in France helped inform Duncan’s view of real bread. “My mother is French and I remember collecting our daily bread from the boulangerie. She would specifically ask for it bien croustillant (nice and crispy) because she liked the heavy crust on a freshly baked baguette. I always found it strange that in France we would buy bread at least once a day, whereas in England it was a weekly event. At Thoughtful Bakery people often ask ‘how long does your bread keep for?’ But in the ideal world that shouldn’t be why we choose a bread or not. Really, we should ask ‘how does it taste’? ‘What are the merits of this bread over another?’’  

Duncan says that the key to a quality loaf is all about the fermentation. Like a fine wine, a whiskey or a cheese, the longer you leave your sourdough to ferment, the better the results. “Everyday we get people coming into the bakery saying they’re gluten or wheat intolerant. Often, they’ve not actually been diagnosed. They’ve just eaten everyday convenience bread, got bloated and assumed it’s the wheat or gluten that’s responsible. I initially send these people away with our sourdough and then slowly work them back to our more conventional breads that are still properly fermented. I genuinely have had people come back in and say ‘you’ve given me my life back’’. 

Duncan is an advocate of The Real Bread Campaign, an organisation that campaigns for better information at the point of sale about the merits of real bread over mass produced varieties. “With faster made bread, what you often find is that they compromise on the fermenting process and our guts have to work overtime to digest it”, Duncan explained, “With longer fermented breads, a lot of the breaking down of that gluten is done before it hits our gut, making it easily digestible. Considering that, I think you can justify spending a little bit more and making sure you have the real deal”.

In 2012, Duncan co-wrote ‘Bread Revolution’, together with friend and fellow baker, Patrick Ryan. The book was a call to arms, demonstrating that you don’t need to be an expert baker to make real bread at home. Central to the book was the idea that bread can be a meal in itself, a concept Duncan wholeheartedly stands by. “Properly fermented, whole-grain sourdough and water is said to be all that we need to sustain human life”, he insists, “It probably wouldn’t be the most exciting diet, but it’s incredible to think that you can take grains of wheat and allow them to undergo changes that will release everything that we need to maintain life”.  

Eagle-eyed readers may also recognise Duncan for his role in the popular BBC2 television show, ‘Victorian Bakers’, in which he joined three other bakers in recreating living conditions for bakers in Victorian England. “I went on that journey because I wanted to discover where we started going wrong in our approach to bread making,” he explained, “At one point, we were mixing massive batches of dough in troughs that resembled coffins. I remember thinking that was pretty ironic because so many bakers died horrifically young during the Victorian era”.  

On the show, Duncan witnessed the adulteration of bread making during the nineteenth century and made loaves containing chalk and rancid flour in the pursuit of sought after white bread. “People were eating bread full of what was effectively poison because they were so determined to mimic the upper echelons of society with their bleached white loaves”, he recalls, “That wasn’t progress.” 

Outside of mass production, very little has changed in the world of sourdough. The process is still time consuming and often involves anti-social hours. Thankfully, Duncan has found a great network of support among fellow real-bread bakers. “There has always been a strong baking community on Twitter”, he explained, “We share ideas and send cheeky comments to help the long hours pass. When I’m baking alone at 3am, I’ll post a tweet saying I’m putting the kettle on, does anyone want one? and I’ll get a whole host of bakers across the country going yeah, coffee, two sugars please. When you’re running a tiny business like mine, it’s nice to know you’re not the only person on the planet living life upside down. It all pays off in the end though, and it’s amazing to see a slow resurgence of something with more pedigree and provenance in our bakeries”.

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West Country FOODLOVER is a print magazine and news based website offering a foodie’s guide of what’s hot across the South West. We inspire foodies with great seasonal recipes, competitions, news and events. The magazine, website and newsletter reach more than 128,000 foodies each issue.