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Slow Rise - Robert Penn ****

There are two provisos here - first, this is primarily not a science book, but has enough science scattered through it to be worth covering. And second, I'm giving this book four stars because I enjoyed reading it despite its irritating flaws. It's a bit like a film I watched the other day in which an American actor did one of the worst Scottish accents I've ever heard. I still managed to enjoy the film, but I had to work at ignoring it.

In Slow Rise, Robert Penn provides a memoir of his attempt to produce a year's worth of bread for his family using traditional wheat varieties he has grown and converted into flour himself. This may sound a bit like one of those amusing self-challenge books that Tony Hawks does so well, and there certainly is an element of humour in Penn's self-deprecating comments when things go wrong. But here this is also combined with some really interesting material on the biology and nature of wheat and the technical details of the bread-making process.

Along the way, Penn visits various growers of ancient wheats (and factory-scale harvesters), talks with flour and bread fanatics and samples a whole range of exotic bread types before settling on his own wholemeal sourdough, made from a combination of emmer wheat, one of the main standards a couple of millennia ago, and a Welsh wheat variant that would have been popular in medieval times.

As well as finding a lot to like in Penn's storytelling and the occasional, cosmetic advert style 'now the science bit' (my label, not his), I was convinced by his argument that modern white bread is far more likely to be responsible for some of today's digestive problems than gluten, and that going for quality bread made with good wholemeal flour is well worth spending extra on. However, I can't entirely ignore the two main irritations.

The first is that Penn very much portrays a 'back to nature', caring for the environment ethos, taken sometimes to ridiculous extremes when, for example, he ploughs a field with a horse-drawn hand plough. Yet he's even worse than Brian Cox at jetting off all over the world to have a cameo appearance in the wheat fields of middle America or to search out an ancient grain in Turkey. I find a degree of hypocrisy in speaking up for thinking more of the environment (which is of genuine importance) while flying across the world. The other issue I have is Penn repeatedly refers to organic flour as if being organic makes any difference to the quality, rather than being a marketing tool to charge more. Where he makes a good case for the benefits of good quality wholemeal and lack of additives, he makes no case for organic (which is hard to do for a system so embedded with woo and lacking evidence of benefits), but simply assumes it's better.

Despite the genuine irritants (a bit like those additives in many loaves) this remains a book I'm glad I read and can happily recommend.



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Review by Brian Clegg


  1. The several praising revs of this book don't mention its serious drawbacks. Although much based on historical claims and interpretations, it cites no sources for them: no fns, no biblio--just 'selected readings'. Despite introducing technical terms, it lacks an index, which could be made in minutes by word search. The publisher, Particular Books, seems not particular. Editing: e.g., having until then read of bread entirely in terms of the history of wheat, on p. 80 we have bold claims about its importance from medieval to early modern times, only to be told 18 pp. later that in that pd (& up to the late 19th C) it was mainly rye and barley.


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