The sourdough backlash: Why we should pay more attention to the humble wholemeal loaf

Freshly made dough on a maple counter top 
Resist the tyranny of sourdough: there are times when only a pillowy wholemeal cuts it Credit:  Andrew twort & Annie Hudson for The Telegraph

After school, my friends would come back to mine and we’d listen to the new records that my brother and I had bought that week. We would sit in my bedroom and put on the latest singles by the Clash, the Damned or the Desperate Bicycles.

This would have been 1978. Around this time I had a bit of a bread epiphany and I decided to share it with my friends. I bought some of those part-baked bread rolls, finished them in the oven, took them to my room and served them plain with just a bit too much cold butter. I watched their reactions carefully, but what was almost spiritual to me was just a roll and butter to them.

I tell this story to establish my credentials as a lover of bread from way back, and to help explain the joy of today’s recipe. It is a simple loaf of wholemeal bread, baked at home (thus filling the house with the smell so loved by estate agents and supermarkets – who, I have been told, even pipe in a fake bread baking smell).

Fast forward 20 years and I am working in a fish restaurant in my home town. Although I have only been there a few weeks, my bread-loving credentials are known: the owner and chef are asking my opinion on their bread offering. I tell them about a company that will deliver frozen baguettes of the highest-quality pain de levain (similar to sourdough in that a starter replaces the yeast), made with French flour – and all we have to do is bake it. They decide to use this company from then on.

It was the worst thing I could have done. Before I came along with my fancy London ways (I had just moved back), they served soft wholemeal tin bread from one of the three bakeries that still operated in Whitstable. The waiters would give you a basket of this warm, nutty, soft bread that had been baked in the town that morning. It is the best thing to have with things like herring, prawns or smoked salmon. Now we were serving crusty, white French bread which is great for about two hours after it is bought but then tends to leave tiny cuts on the inside of your mouth.

Buns, muffins and crumpets simply don't work as well with a sourdough starter – so why use it? Credit:  STEVE LANCEFIELD

Nowadays, we live under the growing tyranny of sourdough. Everywhere you go there are fantastic bakeries run by passionate young bakers who will make everything from a sourdough starter, even though it is not appropriate for some products. I recently interviewed Magnus Nilsson of Fäviken fame for his Nordic baking book launch, and he pointed out – quite forcefully – that a lot of baking products such as buns, muffins and crumpets were first developed with baker’s yeast and were simply not as good when made with a sourdough starter.

The science of bread and how it works has now filled volumes: we’re surrounded by sourdough fanboy types who will bore you to death with tales of their water-to-flour ratios. For my seafood, jam or Marmite, give me a slice from an old-school baker’s wholemeal tin loaf any day of the week.