A WEST Linton baker and creator of one of the best known organic bakery brands is a finalist in this year’s BBC Food and Farming Awards, writes Sally Gillespie.
Former BBC producer Andrew Whitley, who started the Melmerby bakery, is one of three contenders for the Derek Cooper Award for a person or organisation doing most to bring about real change in our relationship with food.
Mr Whitley said: “I would love to get this award because it is named after a man who was an absolute beacon to anyone interested in good food. His reporting for the Food Programme threw the light on dubious practices and a lot of good things that were going on in the food industry, and encouraged and inspired so many people to make our food system better.
“That’s what I have been trying to do for the last 35 years. It’s extremely gratifying that somebody’s noticed and has nominated me for this award.
“It was making programmes about environmental matters in the early 70s and becoming aware of what we were doing to our environment that made me think about where my food came from.
“The simplest way is to grow your own. I enjoyed it and wanted to do more.”
The baker had by this time grown his own wheat, milled it and baked with it. But how to pay the mortgage living the Good Life? So he left the BBC as the corporation’s Russian Service producer aged 28, bought a house in Cumbria and grew organic fruit and vegetables on the five acres behind it.
“The idea of starting a bakery wasn’t anywhere near my thoughts. I didn’t think I would be able to do it as such.”
The first step came when a cafe down the road asked him to bake them cakes. He learned by trial and error and his repertoire grew. “It was a great opportunity,” he said.
Next, he converted a stone barn by his house into a small bakery and tearoom and in 1976 the Village Bakery at Melmerby was born. It became one of the UK’s best known organic brands.
Having no formal training is a strength, he told TheSouthern: “I started with the simple principle that I wouldn’t make anything I didn’t like myself and secondly that I was not going to put anything in my bread that wasn’t there for my nourishment. That sounds like common sense, but it’s quite a radical approach to food.”
He’s never used additives, flour improvers or fast yeast. And while the prevailing opinion in the industry was you had to use additives to make bread the public would buy, he said: “I never did and I had a business that was turning over £1.5million at one point.”
Mr Whitley says it is an ethical and moral failure by the bread industry that it does use additives, adding we have “some of the worse bread in Europe”. But he predicts a change, largely because the energy needs of the big bakers are unsustainable.
“I want everyone in the country to be within walking distance of real bread. I want to encourage others to see baking bread for others is a noble occupation.
“I was just lucky when I started. It was such a good journey of discovery for me.”
He won the Organic Trophy – the highest accolade of the Organic Food Awards – in 1998.
Mr Whitley left his bakery in 2002 and started a new company, Bread Matters, teaching others to bake. He published his controversial book Bread Matters in 2006, in 2009 co-founded the Real Bread Campaign and in December that year moved to a five-acre smallholding near West Linton.
People from all over the world have attended Mr Whitley’s courses: “Several say they have been empowered to look at bread in a different way. That all helps to change the food system, one loaf at a time.”
The awards take place on Wednesday, November 23, at the BBC Good Food Show, NEC, Birmingham.