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Slow Rise: A Bread-Making Adventure by Robert Penn review: a Sapiens-with-wheat story of humanity

Far from being yet another book on how to achieve the perfect sourdough starter, Robert Penn’s engaging account encompasses every aspect of bread, from how it fuelled entire empires to which grains he could grow on his own allotment, says David Ellis

Particular Books
By @dvh_ellis
23 February 2021
R

obert Penn’s editors know how to make a heart sink.

Holding a copy of his seventh book, Slow Rise, I pondered its subtitle: A bread-making adventure. No, thank you: three lockdowns have encouraged more than enough bread-making “adventures” already, and far too many have arrived fresh from the oven and straight onto my Instagram. There are only so many men talking about their sourdough “mothers” that I can reasonably be expected to take. I didn’t fancy another 227 pages of it.

Consequently I set off sulkily with Penn as he began but, rather than in an influencer’s kitchen in Islington, we landed on mountains in Turkey. Immediately, mercifully, it became clear Slow Rise is not the story of one man finding himself through fresh loaves.

Penn, it turns out, is an engaging storyteller and early on, offers a kind of Sapiens-with-wheat, albeit one that doesn’t go back quite so far. Still: bread is life, life is bread. The intimate details of grain types might be a new kind of dull, but as Penn whips through the ways bread has shaped centuries of life, it is broadly fascinating, and while he makes plain the astounding influence bread has had on civilisation as we know it – “[it] is kneaded into economics, politics, human biology and religion… It’s story is the story of humanity” – remains charmingly awed by the rather less impressive: “You can grow wheat on an allotment? This was a thunderbolt.”

Though towards the end he does get to the baking bit, this is not a book of flour-dusted tips and tricks. Penn does rather more than that, first finding his grain, then farming and sowing the land, cultivating his crop, milling it. There is also an entire chapter testingly dedicated solely to leavening.

But as we’re taken into the fields, all the while realising that Penn disapproves of this world with its fertilizers, sliced white and modern technology like, er, tractors, a surprisingly captivating narrative emerges. It was bread that fuelled the empires of the ancient Egyptians and the Romans (for whom it was so important the government subsidised grain).

Everyone from Pliny the Elder to Cervantes to William Blake and Tolstoy have been moved to write on it. There is the obligatory nod to Jesus.

We realise Penn disapproves of this world and its fertilizers, sliced white and modern technology like, er, tractors

It’s been a bit of a trouble-maker, too: bread, or its shortage, has provoked riots without prejudice for time or country. Loaf-driven uprisings have sprung up in America, Russian, the UK (we love a good grain riot, it seems), Bahrain, Jordan, Yemen, Egypt (where bread remains a touchy subject, apparently not to be mentioned in public) and Morocco.

The “most famous bread riot of all” – hitherto reading Slow Rise, I hadn’t realised what a contested title this would be – came on the eve of the French Revolution. 

But bread also builds economies, even now stirring a cottage industry in Wales, while wheat shortage is a crisis: in the late 1960s, the US gifted one fifth of its crops to India as poor harvests threatened the country with mass famine.

Throughout, Penn also brings his family in rather cutely, roping them into his project even as they remain amusingly sceptical of it: early on, his wife wonders “Do you really want us all to live like Amish farmers?” Turns out, yes, yes he does. Still, it’s hard to be too cynical about a man who genuinely seems to love what he’s doing, from pouring cider into his soil to encouraging reluctant crops with Ramones’ records.

And rather him than me read Wheat In Great Britain (Percival, 1934, presumably not a smash hit) or Synopsis on Husbandry (Banister, 1799, not yet in the Canon). In truth, this rather an odd book, but so too it is sweet and strangely compelling.

In the age of the short attention span – and the way that shapes everything – it is surprisingly gratifying to learn from someone playing the long game. Not just a Slow Rise, then, but a slow burn.

Slow Rise: A Bread Making Adventure, by Robert Penn (Particular Books, £17.99)