Baker Ben MacKinnon on the magic of ancient wheat
Words Nicole Waefler
Photography Helen Cathcart
Driven by a desire to find a sustainable approach to producing bread, baker Ben MacKinnon, the founder of the e5 Bakehouse in Hackney, discusses the magic of using heritage grains and reviving ancient wheat varieties.
Ten years ago, Ben MacKinnon was working in a job that was completely unrelated to baking bread – but it helped to plant the seed of conscious and careful sustainable practices. Working as a consultant advising companies on how to meet their sustainability quotas, MacKinnon came to the conclusion that perhaps, this wasn’t right for him. ‘I kept finding myself in jobs that meant I was in front of a computer, and these were the kinds of jobs that weren’t very creative, they didn’t draw upon any core skills,’ he explains.
Hitting upon the idea that ‘maybe I’m a maker and that I could make bread’, MacKinnon signed up for a week-long course at the School of Artisan Food in Sheffield. It was here that he first learnt about sourdough bread making, which is created from naturally occurring yeast as the dough is left to slowly ferment. It has been the way to make bread for the past 10,000 years and the slow fermentation allows the bread to be more easily digested. From there MacKinnon was hooked; the simplicity of the ingredients (flour, leaven, water, and salt) and the equipment, enabled him to set up a small bread operation with a hand-built wood-fired oven. It was, he explains, a ‘chance to manifest sustainability in action’ with the oven even being fuelled with offcuts from local carpenters. That was the start of the E5 Bakehouse.
From those humble beginnings, the bakery has now expanded underneath the railway arches in Hackney to include a café, a teaching space for sourdough classes, and a stone mill for milling their own flour on site. ‘Some people might think it’s a gimmick to have a mill, but it really isn’t. This has been a search for where to get the best flour and how to get more of an understanding of the supply chain and the values behind it all’. Commercial flour suppliers use milling techniques that strip away the germ of the grain, which contains most of the nutrients and oils for the sake of prolonging the shelf life. By contrast, the process of stone milling allows the germ to be ground into the flour enhancing the flavour and health benefits.
Following MacKinnon’s original vision, the bakery in its entirety is really engaged with sustainable practices – right down to recycling any leftover bread to make a delicious drink called ‘Kvass’. This is a traditional Russian fermented bread drink which is made by toasting any leftover bread, adding some water along with molasses and raisins. By leaving it to slowly ferment, the mixture develops into a mellow and highly refreshing drink that has a fruity tanginess to it and at less than 1% alcohol content, it won’t get you drunk. It’s just another example of how being environmentally conscious can inspire ingenious uses for what we easily think of as ‘waste’.
They still make the original Hackney wild sourdough loaf (the first one they sold) but have included a selection of other types of bread, which are all made exclusively from sourdough mixtures. ‘The differences in the sourdoughs are brought out by using a different quantity of leaven and the type of flour you use to ferment the starter’ MacKinnon explains. Today, whilst the bakery is busy producing 300-900 loaves a day and employs a dedicated team, he has been able to focus more on understanding the farming and cultivation of the very wheat that makes bread making possible.
By reaching out to farmers, researchers, and fellow bakers, MacKinnon has broadened his knowledge of ancient wheat and heritage varieties that are unique to different regions. These ancient grains formed the bulk of wheat before industrialised farming practices became mainstream, but today only a few varieties are cultivated. Not only has the loss of diversity had a devastating impact on the quality and nutritional value of the wheat, but the chemical-intensive practices have damaged the soil and made them vulnerable to disease. In contrast, heritage grains are structured around a group of individual grain species which are cultivated alongside each other. ‘Rather than being genetically identical, which is a type of species on sale from a big company, this is a completely diverse population that kind of interbreeds in the field. If you have a population and you re-sow it year after year on your land it evolves and develops resilience – and evolves for that particular terrain’. He is keen to emphasise that although they are looking at reviving these ancient varieties, ‘it’s about a marriage of looking at the past and embracing the future’.
Right now, the bakery has acquired a farm in Suffolk called Fellows which grows different kinds of heritage wheat, one named after the farm itself. This heritage flour is stone milled at the bakery and then used in their bread. The grains have a much higher nutritional value and make the bread far more delicious than standard flour, as well as being healthier for us. Because they have been growing this heritage wheat for several years, it is now a composition of several species. ‘It’s something we are really excited by as it has become a bit of a population and we feel we have our own unique wheat there’ MacKinnon explains. Collaboration with other heritage wheat growers has fostered a community of people determined to bring these grains back and highlight the importance of having diversity in the food supply.
As Mackinnon explains, grain is very resilient, it’s easy to handle and store and the fresh heritage flour has so much more flavour and nutrition. He describes seeing these ancient grains growing in the field as ‘so majestic and beautiful; they stand tall, they have big whiskers and different colours. It’s this diversity that we are really interested in’.