Last weekend I camped, for the first time ever, in the name of British Baker. And, lying awake at 2am on Saturday, in a freezing cold tent in the middle of a field in Essex, it felt like a mistake.
But as it turned out, there was much more to the event than camping.
I was attending the first ever PX+ Festival, billed as a weekend of food, drink, music and ideas by the hospitality industry for the hospitality industry.
Bakery was at the heart of the celebration at Duchess Farm, near Harlow, from the myriad of delicious ingredients served up on sourdough (of which I ate many) to the fully functional bakery Brook Food Processing Equipment had installed in one of the barns, complete with four-deck oven and flour mill.
The sense of community in the bakery was evident, with bakers from numerous establishments across the UK – including E5 Bakehouse, Small Food Bakery and Paul Rhodes Bakery – working alongside international talent such as New Orleans’ Bellegarde Bakery owner Graison Gill and Denmark’s organic grain farmer and flour miller Fintan Keenan.
Every baker I spoke to was filled with passion and enthusiasm, something they were keen to pass on with their knowledge to non-bakery attendees.
“Bread is not just a napkin for all the stuff you want to put on it,” Gill explained at a dough-shaping class in which attendees learned how to shape buns from dough, bialy (Polish filled bread which Gill described as “like a bagel without the hole”) and plaited loaves.
He urged the industry to focus on the flavours and properties of the dough and learn how to talk about them with each other, as well as a wider audience, to help dispel the idea that bread is simply an accompaniment.
“There’s no lexicon for bread in the way that there is for wine,” Gill noted.
What’s more, he encouraged bakers to step outside their own restrictions. “We get really hung up on shapes and flavours when it comes to recipes,” he added. “You could make a bunch of different things from one base dough, such as bagels, doughnuts or ciabatta.”
The stone mill also provided an interesting talking point as bakers were producing and using flour milled on-site. The grains used to create the flour were very much part of the discussion, with a focus on heritage and organic grains and how to use them.
One example of this came from Kimberley Bell, owner of Small Food Bakery in Nottingham, who talked about the journey her team undertook, resulting in them using YQ population wheat to create bread. The wheat is grown by Wakelyns Agroforestry and is the result of a long-term project on crop population breeding in which fields are rotated to optimise biodiversity.
While Bell has found success with the flour, it was by no means an easy task owing to its low protein content, volatility and mild, indistinct flavour. If that were not enough, it was more than double the price of the regular Shipton Mill flour used by Small Food Bakery, and varied from harvest to harvest.
Her tips for handling dough made using YQ population wheat included being patient when mixing as it takes much longer than expected, handling it gently once the dough has come together and shaping upside down to work with, not against, the cracking crust.
The process led her to raise wider questions around the grading process of grains and their suitability for use in bakery, as well as the research that needs to be undertaken to use them successfully.
“We need more development bakers,” she said. “But the question remains as to how are we going to pay for that work? Where does it fit into the system?”
The festival certainly provided food for thought, coupled with great food. A special shout out to the freshly made doughnuts from Bell, which were filled with custard and blackberry jam, as well as the white pizza from Dusty Knuckle Pizza, which was topped with cheese, creamed leeks and potato.
It was a weekend of firsts – the first ever PX+ Festival, my first time camping, the first time a man with a dead pigeon sticking out of his bag has offered me foraged food (he’s known as John the Poacher and he was lovely – as was the plum he gave me).
While I’m hesitant to get back into a tent straight away, I would jump at the chance to spend the weekend at a foodie festival surrounded by sourdough and the people who lovingly create it.