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Bread sets the tone of a meal, it is often the first experience customers have. Though many restaurants create their own or name-check their fashionable sourdough supplier, chefs are only now starting to thoroughly consider its true provenance and take more control and consider creating artisan bread that actually complements dishes, reflects their seasonality, and add a whole different bread service element to the dining experience.
The inner sanctum of cool, yet homely North London newcomer Jolene restaurant, is literally a whirr of activity with a discernible loud ticking that could be a grandfather clock, but is actually a small stone ground flour mill. Housed in a storeroom/shed off the main kitchen, this is the heartbeat of the restaurant and defines much of the menu that boasts artisan bread, pastries and housemade pasta with heritage grains milled on site.
A new movement
Jolene, the latest opening from Jeremie Cometto-Lingenheim and David Gingell on North London’s Newington Green, is the trailblazer of a new movement for restaurants with bakeries attached. It is a trend that Dan Barber’s Stone Hill Barns, undoubtedly, planted the (heritage) seeds for taking the farm to table to the next level and is a central storytelling tenet of Marco Canero’s NYC recent opening Hearth. Chef Canero says you can smell the difference in nuance and flavour as it comes out of the mill’s extruder. “It has an extraordinary potency and aroma and is much more nutrient-rich.”
What makes Jolene’s offer even more hip and desirable is the provenance of the grains. The key figure for their supply of grain is Andy Cato of Groove Armada, whose Gascony farm Naroques was set up in 2008 to grow sustainable, pasture-based, chemical-free crops - an antidote to destructive farming techniques. His original wheat varieties are now being sourced from two farms in Sussex and Norfolk who supply Jolene’s head baker Alex Sage. The slow fermented bread is so intensely flavoursome that they need only be partnered with some good Jamon de Teruel or served as a definitive cheese toastie. The grains are used too for delicate madeleines, cinnamon buns, wickedly buttery puff pastry sausage rolls, and milled to 00 fineness for silky, spelt pasta. Toasty crumbs adorn many other dishes: such as chunky slices of warm porchetta with a drizzle of anchovy tonnato style and cos lettuce. Knowing that the grains are milled in-house somehow adds to the beguiling sense of Danish “hygge” a cozy cosseting of appetite and soul.
Aiming to sustainability
James Lowe and John Ogier, the team behind the Michelin-starred, critically acclaimed Lyle's, have announced that their new Borough Market venture, Flor, will be a wine bar with a bakery. Explains Anna Higham, head of pastry: “We will be using exclusively stoneground British grain and flour. This fits with our commitment to meticulous sourcing of British produce and engaging customers to really think about sustainability: leaving the soil in a better state for the next generations. I approach heritage grains very much from a flavour point of view. We want to be producing bread and pastries that taste delicious and are a real expression of the grain we use.”
Similarly, Robin Gill of The Dairy - whose Guinness sourdough elevates the simplest scrambled egg and home-cured smoked salmon to an exceptional breakfast - is actively recruiting bakers for his first central London restaurant with a bakery attached: Darby’s within Vauxhall’s Embassy Gardens Tower opening later this Spring.
Significant credit for the new conversations about grain must go to the UK Grain Lab who had their first outing at last year’s first-ever PX Festival, expressly and exclusively for those in the hospitality industry (this year’s PX will take place 17-19 August at the farm). Co-founder of UK Grain Lab and baker/restaurant consultant Isabel Kelly set up a huge bakery experimental kitchen at PX complete with its own mill and invited an international roster of cutting edge bakers to participate. Curious, ambitious chefs are excited about the challenge of elevating their bread and working with grains whose provenance fits their ethos of local and sustainable. As Isabel emphasizes all those so fashionable open-textured sourdoughs are made with grains grown in hot countries, so it makes far more sense for a Northern European chef to use local grains and produce a rather different, closer crumbed bread that is likely to better partner dishes.
The UK Grain Lab have created a catalogue showcasing heritage grains available in the UK including Gilchester’s Red Russian.
It is not only the variety of grain (heritage varieties such as einkorn with its acorn-nutty distinction), and the soil that matter, it is how the harvested grain is treated. The cleaning of the grains is as important for the purity of flavour as the milling says Andrew Wilkinson of Gilchester: “Creating new parameters for transparency in the food system and being part of the local and slow movement helps ensure agricultural diversity by keeping these ancient grains alive.”
Not just a component
Much of Isabel’s time is spent consulting to restaurants keen to raise their bread game. For example, she’s worked with British Baker of the Year 2018 Paul Rhodes. Together, they researched the taste, appearance and cooking method of Elizabethan manchets and wholemeal loaves for Ashley Palmer-Watts at Dinner by Heston.
“I am so delighted that chefs are starting to wake up to grain and think about what variety of grain might best partner a specific dish,” enthuses Isabel Kelly. She likes to quote Toronto based baker Dawn Woodward: “Think of grains as a flavour component, not just a component to be put flavour on.”
At hip neighborhood cafe M1LK in SW London, the lunch special, “Ham & Peas” with fresh peas, locally made fennel salami, strained yogurt is brought together with a fennel pollen pangrattato breadcrumbs adding that extra verve and crunch that can elevate an interesting dish to a memorable dish.
Apollonia Poilane of the legendary Parisian sourdough bakery goes further. She has long advocated chefs should choose bread that works with different foods. She cites how rye bread works particularly well with fish. “It’s just like the way you choose a wine to match a cheese.”
The rise of the savory British bun is part of the trend to make bread more an integral part of a meal than merely something on a side plate. Leading the way are Jon Rotheram and Tom Harris, the chef duo behind Hackney’s hugely popular, Michelin starred The Marksman. Now they have brought their iconic filled, baked and steamed buns to Victoria’s new Market Halls as a stand-alone venture. They offer seasonally changing fillings including Welsh rarebit and mushrooms, beef and barley with horseradish cream.
Brioche using different fats from foie gras to bone marrow offer huge scope for creativity and tailoring bread to pair particular dishes. Houston’s Weights & Measures describes itself as a “bread-centric” restaurant offering bread pairings on its’ tasting menu.
Awarded Best Bread by Identità Golose 2019, at Lux Lucis on the Tuscan coast, chef Valentino Cassanelli goes a stage further and incorporates the bread fully into his tasting menu "On the road to via Vandelli". He takes guests on a journey from Lux Lucis in Forte dei Marmi, Italy to his hometown, Modena, and each stop along the route is influenced by the surroundings.
It starts with a long thin cracker, which is a reworking of the Marocca di Casola, followed by a Parmesan and lemon breadstick. The next bread is a focaccia-pagnottella using Farro della Garfagnana, which is accompanied by anchovy butter and black cherry powder, which is inspired by being on a hill in Garfagnana and seeing Modena on one side and the sea on the other.
Desserts too can be a further frontier for using bread playfully and for accentuating flavour. Milk chocolate with its mellow creaminess makes it an ideal foil for the nuttiness and acidity of rye grains.
Chris Brennan small batch sourdough and chocolate supremo of Pump Street Bakery is intrigued by the similarities of cacao and sourdough fermentation and experimented putting sourdough in his cocoa beans when he ground them. He now markets a sourdough and sea salt chocolate which would translate beautifully into a chocolate bread-centric dessert.
Image at the top of the article from the book Modernist Bread: the art and science by Nathan Myhrvold.