THE OLD-SCHOOL BREAD OF THE FUTURE

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At the Thoughtful Bread Company everything but the kitchen sink is recycled--literally. Julia Belluz heads to Bath for a delicious taste of eco-fundamentalism ...

Special to MORE INTELLIGENT LIFE

Today at the Thoughtful Bread Company, an English eco-bakery, Duncan Glendinning barters with a loyal customer for home-grown Japanese wineberries. The man brought the ruby-coloured fruit for Glendinning to sample, possibly for use in sweet bread. “Delicious,” says the freckle-faced, 27-year-old founder and owner, as he pops a berry into his mouth. “We’ll pay you in muffins or some bread if you could bring the plant around when it’s ready.”

Bartering for local ingredients is just one way Glendinning keeps costs down and his operation green. The environmental friendliness is no mere marketing gimmick: this bakery is green down to its foraged ingredients and the shelves the bread sits on, made of refinished pallet wood. From Tuesday to Saturday, Glendinning delivers bread from his bakery in Radstock to his shop in Bath in a van that runs on clean-burning bio-diesel fuel. To fill the van’s tank, he uses a solar panel to charge a car battery (salvaged from a scrap yard), which powers the pump that gets the fuel (local and renewable) into the van.

Glendinning“Bartering is an old-school way to do business", Glendinning explains with geeky enthusiasm, "and we’re all for doing things the old-school way.”
 
The Thoughtful Bread Company is, he claims, England's first fully sustainable bakery. It is part of a generation of ethical businesses that concentrate on sustainability instead of the bottom line, and prefer “old-school ways” to run a healthy operation. Markers of success for Glendinning are not money or turnover, but good feedback from customers, and quality wholesale clients, such as the Michelin-starred Priory restaurant and the River Cottage Canteen in Bath, begun by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, a fellow back-to-basics chef and campaigner.
 
As customers trickle in and out, many comment on the bread, which tastes pure and anachronistic. It is the kind you wish you could make at home. “I’m so glad someone is making such wonderful sourdough here,” says an elderly man. The sourdough are proved--ie, left to rise--for up to 48 hours, which allows the bread to develop in flavour and texture. "It's also healthier," explains Glendinning, "because as gluten matures it becomes more fragile and easier to digest, unlike supermarket breads." Another visitor, a chatty woman, is disappointed because the red beetroot bread, her favourite, is not available today.

The Thoughtful Bread Company lures regulars with its unconventional larder. Experimental flavour combinations, often inspired by the ingredients Glendinning picks in the mornings around Bath, include a fluffy potato and rosemary loaf, a rich wholemeal Irish soda bread, a decadent cheese bun made with mature local cheddar, a baguette of nettle and chives, and a dandelion and apple loaf.
 
Glendinning says he was raised on fresh and local foods, especially bread. But his interest in making his own grew out of boredom with his former job as a web developer. In his spare time, he began to bake bread and harvest vegetables in his landlady’s disused garden in Bath. One day, he contacted Dick Strawbridge of BBC2’s “It’s Not Easy Being Green”, to find out how to create a facility featured on the show that stored greenhouse heat during the day and released it at night--a bit of what Glendinning calls "low-tech wizardry" to extend the growing season in cooler months.
 
Strawbridge recognised Glendinning’s enthusiasm for green living and invited him on the show. This led to a job as manager of an eco-tourism project in Fiji called Tribewanted, where he aimed to perfect the art of living sustainably with as little negative impact on the environment as possible. The idea for a bakery came to Glendinning while on a dinghy between Fijian islands. It seemed like a perfect way to marry his love of food with his eco-fundamentalist habits.
 
When he returned to Britain to start his business in January 2008, investors were thin on the ground, owing to the developing financial crisis. But Glendinning saw an opportunity in the sour economic climate. By "skip-scavenging for the odd bit of timber or piping, or networking to source materials and equipment otherwise destined for landfill" he could be both thrifty and green.
 
The entire Thoughtful Bread kitchen cost about £20,000, approximately half the price of a new kitchen, because it was assembled from second-hand materials sourced from restaurants and bakeries closing down all over the country. "If you look around our bakery, the only new thing is a little hand wash sink, which we got for free anyway," he says. "Everything has had some kind of life somewhere else."
 
breadGlendinning frequents Freecycle, an online message-board for people who are giving things away, and he barters with local companies for energy-saving products. So far, it has paid to be visible to businesses with environmental agendas. His office computer, donated as a trial from the Devon-based computer company PicoPC, uses 10% of the energy of a normal computer. He offered his business as a case study to Better Generation, which builds a solar-power predictor that measures a site’s solar power and wind-energy potential.
 
He also used the social networking website Facebook to reconnect with Patrick Ryan, now his head baker, whom he met in Fiji. While there, Ryan--who was a chef at the Michelin-starred restaurant Thornton's in Dublin--baked what Glendinning calls "the most incredible bread I had ever tasted".
 
Now in business together (pictured above, Glendinning left, Ryan right), the pair's mantra is "nothing wasted". The bakery produces about 1,000 loaves per week, from which it generates a single black-bin bag of landfill waste (mostly plastics from ingredients). All refuse, including compost, is tracked in a log, and leftover bread is donated to a local homeless shelter.
 
Today, Glendinning nearly sells out of bread just after lunch. He wants people to buy his bread "because it tastes good, not because it’s eco-friendly.” But he recognises that there has been a shift in consumer habits, whereby customers like to reward ethical businesses with their patronage--sometimes even through organised movements like Carrotmob--as long as the product isn't too expensive.
 
“People are going to seek out businesses that operate in a more sustainable manner,” Glendenning says. “I’m just trying to future-proof my business.”

 

Picture credit: The Thoughtful Bread Company (via Flickr)

(Julia Belluz is a writer based in London. Her last piece for More Intelligent Life was about the Russ, a unique rite of passage for adolescents in Norway.)