Breaking Bread

Rob Tomlinson has taught more than 1,000 local people to bake bread, so the only proper place to have a chat is a cosy kitchen. Linsey Parkinson gets her feet under the table.

It’s clear that Rob is passionate, not only about his bread, but about the politics of food more generally.

“I’m part of Cracking Good Food, which means I run artisan bread classes, but I also teach what they call ‘hard to reach’ people about food and feeding their families. There’s been a real decline in home economics in schools; this, coupled with marketing by the processed food industry, has meant that food poverty isn’t just about money, it’s also about knowledge. We seem to know less than ever about where our food comes from and what’s actually in it. Bread’s a prime example.”

Rob hasn’t bought a loaf in years. Every week, he rolls his sleeves up and bakes, then freezes, his family’s bread, always experimenting with new flours, textures and flavours. “Plastic-bagged, sliced loaves last for up to a week at room temperature, but the only way this can happen is with additives – and lots of them. There can be up to 27 in any given loaf,” he tells me. “The big commercial bakers don’t even need to declare their content. Read the labels – what exactly are ‘flour improvers’ and ‘preserving agents’?”

There are powerful convenience arguments for a ready-sliced that will last all week in a busy household, though.

“Yes, I can see that, but perhaps what we ought to do is slow down a little and take the time to do the things that matter. The hands-on part of baking bread really doesn’t take that long, it’s very enjoyable and the end product is immeasurably more delicious – and better for us.”

Rob tells me that sourdough is the best bread from a nutritional point of view, because it uses naturally occuring yeasts, rather than the intensivelyreared commercial product. I assume he must have a sourdough starter culture with a top secret recipe that’s older than his grandmother.

“That’s a myth,” he laughs. “There’s such a mystique given to sourdough. If you start a culture, it’s ready to use in three days and every bit as good as any other. All you need is a plastic tub with a lid and a bit of flour and water.

“Take 25g of wholemeal flour – always organic, that matters. Mix it with 50g of tepid water. Put the lid on, keep it fairly warm and leave it for 12 hours. Keep adding the same amount of flour and water at 12-hourly intervals. When you see bubbles and detect a whiff of alcohol, you’re ready to go.”

Rob is disappointed by the lack of options in South Manchester for those who can’t bake their own. “With a very few notable exceptions, there’s a shortage of artisan baked bread. In other cities, it’s relatively easy to pick it up. It seems there are craft breweries everywhere you look these days – why not more craft bakeries? There’s a real opportunity out there.”

Rob’s top tips for showstopping bread

A quick rest When you’ve mixed your dough, let it lie in the bowl for at least 30 minutes before kneading. This resting time, called the autolyse phase, allows the yeast to come to life and the gluten to develop.

Steam power A baking tray of boiling water in the bottom of your oven creates a steamy atmosphere that bread loves. Not only does it help with browning, but it gives a little extra boost to the rise: what bakers call the oven spring.

Dense is good We’re conditioned to think bread should be light and airy. A small, heavy loaf is not a sign of failure – especially if you’ve used wholemeal or rye flour

Fancy rising to the challenge? Learn breadmaking with Rob in Chorlton and Didsbury.  Gift vouchers are available too.

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