The Blurb On The Back:
A tale of rediscovery and a celebration of the everyday miracle of homemade bread.
Over the course of a year, Robert Penn leans how to plant, harvest, thresh and mill his own wheat, in order to bake bread for his family. In returning to this pre-industrial practice, he tells the fascinating story of our relationship with bread: from the domestication of wheat in the Fertile Crescent at the dawn of civilisation, to the rise of mass-produced loaves and the resurgence in home baking today.
Gathering knowledge and wisdom from experts around the world – farmers on the banks of the Nile, harvesters in the American Midwest and Parisian Boulanger – Penn reconnects the joy of making and eating bread with a deep appreciation for the skill and patience required to cultivate its key ingredient. This book is a celebration of the millennia-old craft of bread making and how it is woven into the story of humanity.
The Review (Cut For Spoilers):
Robert Penn is a journalist, woodsman and author. This is a thoroughly researched, meditative account of his experience of baking his own bread from scratch – from growing his own wheat to making his own oven. It’s a fascinating mix of memoir, travelogue (as he meets people involved in baking bread), how-to manual with some history, science and anthropology all thrown in too. You won’t look at your weekly loaf in the same way after reading it.
I picked this up because I have a massive weakness for bread in pretty much all its forms and during the COVID-19 pandemic, I was one of those people who took a lot of comfort from looking at everyone’s photos of sourdough bakes on my social media feeds (partly because I like drooling over bread but also I really like watching people make things and share their results). For all that bread is my kryptonite though, I didn’t know a huge amount about how it’s made or how it became such a staple food product for humanity. That’s where this book comes in.
Penn has structured his book in a straightforward manner with individual chapters for each of sowing, harvesting, threshing and winnowing, milling, leavening, and baking – plus a prologue that gives a summary of the history of wheat growing and agricultural development (the themes of which get revisited in later chapters) and how Penn decided on this adventure and an epilogue at the end that deals with eating (easily my favourite part of the whole process but your mileage may differ).
He packs an incredible amount of information into each chapter and writes in a way that is very easy to follow and understand. For example, in the sowing chapter he talks a great deal about different wheat varieties and their various properties to explain why he settled on the two types that he chose to grow (Hen Gymro and emmer) and then ties it in to trends in wheat growing and the reduction of diversity as bigger yields became the main aim. This idea of commercialisation being a damaging force is one that comes up again and again in the book. I was particularly interested in the information he conveys in the milling chapter about the development and use of roller milling, which essentially removed the nutritional goodness from the wheat and meant that millers had to artificially add those nutrients back in again, resulting in bland and tasteless loaves made worse by the dominance of the Chorleywood Bread Process.
The central drive in the book though is Penn’s own experiences and here is where the book is part travelogue and part memoir. Written pre-pandemic, he racked up the travel miles visiting places such as South Dakota, Jerusalem, Egypt and Turkey and talking to people like farmers who grow traditional wheats or harvest using sickles, bakers who bake bread products that are central to religious rituals and (my favourite) a freelance combine harvester operator who has a team of operators who help him bring in the harvest for the US’s farmers. Again, commercialisation is a common theme here (the reason why the harvest interview was my favourite was because of the insights he gave on industrial farming and how it’s changing his business) but politics also get a mention, e.g. the Egyptian bakers who are reluctant to talk too loudly about Penn’s visit because of how bread is such a political issue (and certainly, I had no idea of the role it played in the Egyptian uprising). At the same time, Penn makes clear how much hard work goes into growing his own wheat (both the physical toil of the labour but also the anxiety that comes from being at the mercy of the elements) and I particularly like how he frequently went to experts with questions to try and manage the process while also admitting when he made mistakes. As a Brit, I also appreciated the self-deprecation that comes via the less-than-impressed reactions of his children (one comment from his daughter about Penn’s choice of screen saver on his phone made me chuckle out loud).
I did have some minor criticisms of the book. Firstly although there are some illustrations, I think it would have benefitted from some photographs to help visualise some of his descriptions – not because he’s a bad writer but because it gives more of a sense of scale and colour. There was also a bit in the chapter on baking when he talks about Lionel Poilâne, a master baker and part of a dynasty who helped bring quality baking back to France after World War II where Penn talks about how Poilâne built a successful business making artisanal bread at scale with the help of his wife, but then doesn’t name the wife. It’s a personal peeve, but I do get very tired of seeing wives rendered invisible when they were clearly an important part in the enterprise.
Criticisms aside, I found this to be a genuinely aborting read and one that has led me to completely rethink my views on bread and I will certainly never look at a loaf of sliced white in the same way again.
SLOW RISE was released in the United Kingdom on 25th February 2021. Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.