FOOD & DRINK: The Russian rye revolution: Continental breads like ciabbata have taken Britain by storm. The latest newcomer is khleb, made as Muscovites make it - but in Cumbria. Michael Bateman reports

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The Independent Culture
BAKE a better loaf and the world will beat a path to your door. You might think so. But for 20 years nobody wanted a better loaf, or even recognised one when they saw it.

But now, suddenly, the world and its supermarkets are beating a path to the door of the village baker in Melmerby, near Penrith in Cumbria, where there's a man who bakes a better loaf - Andrew Whitley. Here, at the foot of the grey sweep of the Pennines, he and his wife Lis run the celebrated Village Bakery.

Together with its restaurant, it has had accolades heaped upon it. The Whitleys have won two Egon Ronay awards for the restaurant, the first for healthy eating and the second in 1992 for Teaplace of the Year. The bakery has also won two awards - one for its organic cakes, the other for services to healthy eating.

But it is the commercial rewards that have been truly remarkable. The Whitleys' Russian Rye Bread now stands proudly on the shelves of Waitrose supermarkets throughout the south of England, alongside other choice loaves from the Village Bakery - such as Greek olive bread, Italian tomato bread and French country loaves.

At a time when overall sales of bread are falling, the Whitleys - somewhat to their suprise - find themselves in the vanguard of a tremendous boom in hand-made bread at the expense of the cheap factory product, the white sliced loaf. 'Continental breads are a massive growth area,' said a spokesman for Marks & Spencer, which all but invented the chewy, tasty flat loaf that looks like a dusty slipper (ciabatta is the Italian word for slipper).

M & S stayed ahead of the race long enough to diversify into other rustic styles, such as pugliese (a round, white country bread from Puglia in Italy), before the other supermarkets. Then Safeway, Sainsbury and Tesco enlarged their ranges to include solid, nourishing German seeded breads, and Spanish pan quemado (a sweet, fluffy dessert bread).

But Sainsbury was the first to go for a Russian loaf. Apparently Lord Sainsbury's wife, Anya - a former ballerina with a love of Russia - was visiting St Petersburg and, thrilled by the bread, brought a loaf back for her husband to taste. 'Why don't you sell this?' she asked.

Sainsbury's bakers set to work and eventually launched their St Petersburg khleb, a tasty, dark torpedo-shaped loaf made with rye flour. The point wasn't lost on Waitrose. When its bread buyer, John Allan, beat a path to the door of The Village Bakery in Melmerby, it was the Russian loaf that set his pulse racing.

Andrew Whitley vividly recalls the moment that changed his fortunes. He had arranged a display of his breads, all made with organic flours, including his sourdoughs. These time- consuming breads are only handled by patient craft bakers (and a few dedicated enthusiasts at home), because they require 24 hours of slow maturing to develop their sour flavour before they are baked.

'I expected John Allan to go for the French country bread because it has a delicious flavour,' said Andrew. 'But he said everyone was making French country bread. He pushed all the breads away except the Russian rye bread. 'This is really something,' he said.'

The story of this bread is the story of Andrew's life, and Waitrose prints quite a lot of it on the label. 'It is made with an original sourdough culture from Kostroma,' we are told, 'an ancient Russian town on the Volga River . . . The organic bread and cakes are baked in the retained heat of a unique brick oven fired with the renewable energy of wood. All ingredients are organic . . . '

Andrew Whitley, a former producer with the BBC's Russian Service, was an early convert to a back-to-the-land movement in the early 1970s. He was fired by the utopian ideals of Ivan Illich, and E F Schumacher's Small is Beautiful. In particular, he saw a practical way forward in John Seymour's seminal text Self-

Sufficiency, which details how to kill your own pig, keep a cow and make cheese, grow barley for your own beer, grow your own wheat, mill it and make your own loaves.

Yet even by 1970s standards, Andrew - who sported a beard in the style of Tolstoy, wore hand-dyed shirts and rode to work on a bicycle - cut a strange figure at the BBC. At home, he baked for the three couples who shared his house, getting up at dawn to make croissants to serve them in bed on Sundays.

First he made bread with flour he bought by the sack from Pimhill Mill in Shropshire. Then he acquired an allotment and grew his own wheat, and bought his own electric stone-

grinding mill to process it. He and Lis scoured the country looking for windmills and watermills. They ended up in Cumbria in Little Salkeld, four miles from Melmerby, where the owner suggested that what they needed was a bakery. Andrew accepted the challenge. He bought a four-deck pie oven, started baking, and sold through local healthfood stores.

This was the Good Life, but also an Extremely Hard Life. 'It's very hot and the work is a slog,' says Andrew. But there is no gain without pain, he points out, agreeing with Tolstoy that you achieve grace through suffering.

Andrew Whitley comes from an illustrious family. His grandfather, a Liberal MP, was Speaker of the House of Commons. His father was head of external services at the BBC. Andrew himself read Russian at Sussex University, then spent a year at Moscow University where he mixed with Russians in the undergound movement, passed on 'illegal songs and poetry' and sold all his clothes on the black market to finance his lifestyle.

It wasn't until a few years ago that he picked up the Russian thread again - or at least Russian bread. A few years ago he arranged a visit to Russia using the excuse that he wanted to see bread production. He was welcomed with open arms everywhere. 'The word bread opens doors in Russia. It was as if I was the first person who'd ever asked to see the real Russia, its soul. It was a password, a way of getting under their skin.'

He came back with some sourdough and created his first Russian rye loaf, the kind that excited the Waitrose buyer. One customer later wrote in saying that it had brought tears to his eyes: 'I haven't tasted bread like this since 1939, when I was in Riga.'

Soon Waitrose asked for other breads. Encouraged by his success, Andrew decided that if he had to expand, he'd do it in the proper spirit. He hired French builders to make him a traditional wood-fired French brick oven, designed to retain a massive amount of heat. It incorporates 100 tons of brick and sand. At the centre is a deep black slit, the shallow-roofed oven which builds up a temperature of 1,000F. The heat is generated by two stoves fed with wood bricks; two flame-throwers send yellow tongues deep into the oven.

The fires are then damped down and the temperature is allowed to fall to about 500F before the large loaves are baked; a day later the oven still retains sufficient heat to bake all the cakes. In true Self-Sufficiency fashion, the excess heat from the oven is captured for a water system; any heat that escapes from this is used to warm the high, angled roofspace which serves as both office and greenhouse. Here grow young organic plants which are transplanted into the garden, providing fresh vegetables for the adjoining restaurant.

In 1976, Andrew Whitley was baking 100 loaves a day. Today his staff produce thousands a day, but they make no concessions to modern baking with its improvers and preservatives, all the short cuts which save time and increase profits.

Village Bakery bread tastes like bread ought to taste, but Andrew Whitley doesn't let his purist convictions get in the way of the enjoyment of food. 'I don't really respect people who eat food that's good for them despite its taste. I think that's crazy. It's like taking syrup of figs because it performs a function.'

The characterful flavour of his sourdough breads is Andrew's special pride - as in French country and Russian bread. These are made with flour added to dough which has been left to ferment until it sours. Chemical changes during the process give these breads the beautiful flavour and chewy, mouth-filling texture that impress the connoisseurs.

Making sourdough is a craftsman's skill, as the recipe for Russian rye bread printed opposite shows. Though highly prized in France and Russia - and, thanks to European emigres, in California too - it has never really been understood here. No, the Russian Revolution has been a long time coming in Britain.

Initially there are three stages in making a rye bread (though you don't have to go through the whole rigmarole once you've made a sourdough; it keeps indefinitely if you look after it). The first stage takes about three or four days; the second stage takes 24 hours to bring your sourdough to life; the third stage is the 24-hour wait after you've made the bread - it has to rest a day before you eat it.

On the credit side, Russian rye bread improves the longer you keep it and, wrapped in cellophane or clingfilm to keep it moist, it is still good eating after two weeks and more.

Stage one: the starter

1oz wholemeal rye flour

3fl oz warm water

Stir together in a cup. Cover with clingfilm and leave for three or four days in a warm, but not hot, place. It will start to ferment and bubble and develop a sweet, appley smell.

Stage two: the sourdough

Makes 2 1/4 lb of dough

12oz wholemeal rye flour

1pt (20fl oz) warm water

4oz sourdough starter

(i e all of the above)

Mix in a bowl and leave covered in the kitchen for 24 hours to ferment and bubble up. This is your sourdough, and most will go into the first batch of bread. Keep some in the fridge for the next batch and feed with equal parts of rye flour and water to keep it going. If you're not going to use it for several weeks, deep-freeze it.

Stage three: the loaves

1 3/4 lb sourdough from previous stage

(reserve remaining 1/2 lb to start another batch)

1 1/2 lb wholemeal rye flour

(or half and half rye and wheat flour)

10fl oz tepid water

1/2 oz salt

Mix in a bowl and leave 2-3 hours to rise. The mixture is too sloppy to mould so, wetting your hands, scoop it into two 2lb greased bread tins (or four 1lb tins). Leave to rise until level with top of tins, about three hours. Immediately transfer to very hot oven, preheated to 450F/230C/Gas 8 and bake for 1 hour (the smaller loaves 45 or 50 minutes). Leave to cool completely before wrapping in cellophane or clingfilm, and rest the loaves for a day before eating. They improve with keeping.

(Photographs omitted)