Ed. note: Interview with dissident baker Vanessa Kimbell for the Dark Mountain Project publication Sheaf: Harvest 2022
There is a flour stoneground at Hodmedod’s mill that looks and tastes like none other. Charlotte Du Cann meets its dissident creator, baker Vanessa Kimbell.
‘I had a vision, standing in a field in Italy called Masi, which means together. There was an olive tree and crops from the previous year growing – grains that had been rescued from the Aleppo seed bank: barley and wheat and oats. There were rose petals in the hedgerow, and cornflowers and butterflies. The sun was coming through the field, and as I was standing there I felt totally connected. Then my foot stepped on some wild oregano and its scent rose up. And in that moment, I saw this vision of grasses and flowers growing together and I realised we needed to eat the whole meadow.’
This is a short story about flour and Vanessa Kimbell, baker and founder of The Sourdough School of Baking, who created the Botanical Blend from that original vision in Italy. A conversation about how that flour blend, made of 14 different ingredients of grains, seeds and flowers, affects not only the physical nature of the person who ‘eats the meadow’ but also their wellbeing and relationship with the Earth.
I’m talking with Vanessa about very small matters, namely the teeming diversity of microbes that live inside us, and how they thrive in the presence of fermentation and diverse diets. What it might take for us to change the way we approach food and become symbiotic with the planet on our plates.
But before we go there, she says, you have to understand the backstory.
Vanessa is a fourth generation baker, who served her traditional apprenticeship in the Dordogne in France where she grew up, though she tells me she has always been dissident, even from a young age: ‘Dissidence runs though all my work. The way I bake bread is a form of disruption.’
However, her own life and craft were radically disrupted by illness ‘just as I was about to fledge’, which stopped her from being able to bake anything made with wheat. Then years later, at the age of 30, she discovered she could eat sourdough and began her lifetime inquiry into the action of fermentation and bread on the human body.
Vanessa Kimbell: I set out like a terrier to find out what had happened to me. I found my gut diversity had been bombed out by the 56 kinds of antibiotics I had taken in my life. My microflora was less than 2% of what it should have been. I wanted to know the different names of all the microbes in my gut and wanted to know what they ate and I wanted to find a delivery system to them by understanding and making connections between specific prebiotics with grains.
In 2016 when microbial testing came in showing what was going on in the gut, I could really start delving into the impact of the food we are eating on the gut microbiome and our mental health.
Charlotte Du Cann: You mention in your most recent book (The Sourdough School – Sweet Baking) about how most breads are made with single grain flours, wheat or rye for example, and you set out to change this.
VK: Everybody, the whole world, looks at flour in a box that has been designed from the industrial system. This diversity I saw in the meadow is everything that I had been studying. That diversity is systems change in its own right. There is still resistance to this change because it means moving away from an accepted monoculture, where even the radical bakers who are engaged in alternative ways of baking bread, hands on their hearts, are still working with monocultural ingredients.
To be a true anarchist, to really engage in systems change, I had to create a different blend of flour. It took a great deal of grit to create the Botanical Blend, as it is just on the edge of what milling can do. It is a beautiful form of anarchy. It invites people to challenge the system, to support the farmers, to support the external and internal diversity in their everyday lives.
CDC: So, what you are saying is that proper change happens when something, like diversity, becomes what you do every day?
VK: In order for something to be accepted it has to become the ordinary and the ordinary of monoculture has been accepted without question. I don’t teach people to bake bread. I teach people to question the accepted system and give them an alternative system that actually works without compromise.
CDC: What struck me about the relationship between baking and fermentation showcased in this book, was that it is not just the bread or cakes but the flour itself that could become part of this reconnection. From a recent study, the most important factor in determining a high level of gut microbes is linked to how many different plants we eat each week.
VK: I went into understanding the microbiome system and then applied that knowledge to the diversity blend. So everything in the flour comes out of the concept: each grain and pulse is feeding different microbes. The microbial connection to soil, to the planet, to the microbes on crops that then go into the starter, the microbes in our gut, all create the metabolites that our brains need to function correctly and sense the world we live in and appreciate it. So we are part of a system but have disconnected ourselves from that system and have to reconnect.
And the bread, the sourdough, the botanical blends, are all part of the reconnection exercise to put back what we need to function correctly because we are in dysfunction. We are now at a 50% microbial extinction in the average population, and literally devolving the food system.
CDC: Your doctorate on the nutrition and digestibility of bread explores the effect the microbiome has on people’s mental health. Can you say how?
VK: If you think about the function of the gut as a factory that manufactures metabolites such as serotonin and dopamine, no amount of counselling is going to help if you don’t have the gut function to make the metabolites for your brain to operate correctly. It’s not going to change the basic fact that your brain cannot function unless you have the microbes and a delivery system of diversity and fibre that enable them to operate at all optimally. They are so suboptimal at present, and we are seeing ripples of damage by the current food system, which is poisoning us. As we become less diverse, our cognitive ability changes and how we feel changes – anxiety comes up, you are not able to make the things that calm you down, or connections with people – and this has an effect on who we are.
CDC: This reintroduction to diversity requires people to think holistically and systemically, and have time to engage in making beneficial food, things that are rarely considered in an age of hyper convenience. Is this about returning to simpler modes of production?
VK: We need to look through an evolutionary lens at this. We can’t go back to eating the food we ate in the Neolithic times, and for all the romance of heritage grains, Neolithic man did not walk around eating spelt grains for his supper. Our jaws have physically changed through generations of eating softer and softer food.
People say the gut is our secondary brain – it’s not, it’s our first. We evolved with fermentation. Our language and cognitive function, our physiological and social structure, evolved around bread. So bread now is the perfect delivery system. This is why we have to evolve what has been devolved by industrialisation. The blend is exciting, and it tastes amazing! You can taste the whole meadow in there. It’s so beautiful.
Definitely the best thing since sliced bread.
Botanical Blend No 2 (grains) 14 grains, seeds, pulses and flowers reflecting the diversity of crop and wild plants one might find in and by a field. The flour contains: emmer wheat, einkorn, barley, rye, naked oats, flax, buckwheat, dried peas, poppy seeds, cornflower, mallow flowers, rose petals, oregano, nettle. Created by Vanessa Kimbell and blended at the Bean Store from grains and seeds grown by UK farmers, this botanical base mix is designed for use in sweet and savoury sourdough baking.
Botanical Blend No. 2 (flour) is the culmination of years of research by Vanessa into the workings of the gut microbiome, the process of wild yeast fermentation and the art of baking for flavour and nutrition. The flour reflects the diversity we need to see in fields and in our diets. Originally available as a blend of whole grains, seeds and flowers for home milling, Botanical Blend No, 2 is now also stoneground at the Hodmedod mill. Any home baker can mill and add the blend to their bakes, bringing extra fragrance, flavour and nutrition.
Teaser photo credit: Hands on – Vanessa Kimbell, baker, founder of The Sourdough School, human rights campaigner, environmentalist.