Sourdough, sandwiches and the rise of speciality bread in London

From crumb shots to point-scoring crusts, London loves a long-fermentation loaf. But what's beyond sourdough? And have we forgotten how good different types of bread can be?

Different types of bread: Rye beet loaf from The Natural Baker

It started with a breadmaker. I had always wanted one, untrendy though they might be. I wanted to wake up in a house scented with 'fresh-baked' fumes. I needed to stop spending £4 a pop on beautiful, artisanal loaves from local London food markets that would go stale too fast in my bread bin. And because I'm temperamentally unsuited to proper baking – impatient, imprecise, quick to substitute ingredients with optimistic abandon – I thought a machine would be the perfect compromise. I pined for one.

Then, one day, I was given one, as a thank-you present for conducting my friend's wedding ceremony. And suddenly I was married, too; that is, to a twice-weekly routine of nightly weighing and measuring, scampering out of bed to inspect my carby arrival like a kid on Christmas morning.

I experimented with nuts, fruit, seeds and herbs. I quickly became obsessed with the different types of bread, like rye, spelt and buckwheat blends. I was particularly delighted with a garlic, rosemary and hazelnut loaf, until someone pointed out it tasted exactly like Paxo.

But at the same time, I felt oddly ashamed. Because the one bread you can't really make in a breadmaker is the only bread I was, apparently, meant to be eating: sourdough.

The rise of sourdough bread has been a beautiful thing. Over the 13 years I've lived in London, it's evolved from foodie novelty to default order, found on every bakery counter and brunch menu worth its salt. Entries into the Brook Food Sourdough category at this year's World Bread Awards have doubled over the last five years, and this year sourdough entries increased by 40% on last year alone. As awareness around the digestive benefits of long fermentation grows, and phrases like 'gut health' and 'microbiome' begin to sneak into our everyday vocab, so our daily bread has become central to the conversation. No longer just a vehicle for toppings, the definition of 'good' bread has shifted focus. To paraphrase Henry Ford, you can have any bread as long as it's sourdough.

No longer just a vehicle for toppings, the definition of 'good' bread has shifted focus

But where there's dogma, there will always be dissent. Where there are purists, you'll always find rebels. And even the most totalitarian of food trends won't be to everyone's taste.

At Max's Sandwich Shop, the Crouch Hill institution that draws in disciples from all over London, sourdough is nowhere to be seen. In fact, it's the enemy – among the shop's ever-evolving range of merch are T-shirts emblazoned with the legend "f**ck sourdough".

But owner Max Halley isn't looking for a fight, he swears. This is purely business. "I don't hate sourdough on principle. I love it with mascarpone and jam, covered in steak tartare, with pâté," he insists. "It is just fundamentally not a sandwich bread.

"The important thing in a sandwich is crust everywhere. Sourdough is a poor choice because a) it's too chewy, especially when untoasted, b) it's too sharp when toasted, c) the fermentation is so slow that the holes in the bread are massive, so your mayonnaise is going to run out, it's going to go all over your fingers, it's going to be extremely messy. Your sandwich is going to lose its structural integrity almost immediately. It's a disaster of a choice." Then, a zinger to have the purists clutching at their pearls: "Quite frankly I'd rather use Mother's Pride."

A sandwich at The Dusty Knuckle bakery
An egg, chilli and cheese sandwich at The Dusty Knuckle

Every sandwich at Max's is made not with sliced white, but with house-baked focaccia; fluffy but firm. All the better to soak up the porky, yolky, vinegar-spiked juices from his signature Ham, Egg 'n' Chips sarnie while safely containing its precious cargo. But while few chefs might be prepared to admit that there's still a place for supermarket bread in our hearts and cupboards, 'other', non-sour breads do seem to be vying for the limelight.

Our continued appetite for Levantine cuisine has made flatbread fashionable, from the crisp lozenges of bazaar bread at Nutshell and blistered, tandoor-baked naan barbari at The Barbary, to the cloudlike pitas found mopping up rivers of tahini at The Good Egg in Stoke Newington. Rye is still on the up, with a taste for the dark, nubbly varieties growing with each bargain flight to a new corner of eastern Europe (I still think fondly of the Estonian black bread, almost malt loaf in its treacliness, that I encountered in Tallinn last year). Egg-rich challah bread is creeping onto more and more menus, its sweetness the perfect foil for salt, brine and heat. Ta Ta Eatery makes its Insta-famous katsu sando with toasted brioche, and it's safe to say none of its devotees seem to be sad for the lack of levain. And sometimes, late at night, there's a hole that only a vast pillow of Turkish pide from the corner shop can fill.

Meanwhile, haven't we all known a fancy £7 sandwich to fall apart in our hands as we attempt to chew our way through that unrelenting crust, precious fillings splurging out through the holes? And while mopping up a little tidepool of molten butter from your plate post-toast can be a happy morning ritual, the fact remains: sourdough might not (whisper it) be the best bread for everything.

But before we go any further, some housekeeping. When we say 'sourdough', what we tend to mean is the loaf style most commonly associated with sourdough baking. The chewy-crusted, open-crumbed, tangy-breathed behemoth that's become synonymous with 'good bread' in the capital over the past decade or so, in much the same way 'good olives' are plump green nocellaras and 'good coffee' is an inky-black single-origin in a compostable Vegware cup.

Yet the real defining character of sourdough isn't in a web-like crumb structure or a dark, dentist-bothering crust. It's not in the acidic top notes, nor the pliable, sticky innards. Truth is, sourdough isn't a style of bread at all; it's a process.

Truth is, sourdough isn't a style of bread at all; it's a process

"Saying f**k sourdough is like saying f**k beer, or cheese, or wine," says Chris Young, co-ordinator of The Real Bread Campaign and one of sourdough's most passionate defenders. "It shows a misunderstanding that using a sourdough starter results in one type of bread, when the reality is that if you can make a type of bread with baker's yeast, you can make it with a sourdough starter culture."

A true sourdough process involves proving dough through the slow, alchemical fermentation of wild yeast spores and lactobacilli bacteria that occur in flour and the air, to create a loaf that rises through sheer force of nature alone. It's the antithesis of the Chorleywood process, the industrial mass-production method that has seen the bulk of UK bread churned out at speed since the 1960s ('bulk' being the operative word, since so much of it tastes like loft insulation). And crucially it's a different beast to bread made with baker's yeast, even in the most artisanal kitchens. While yeast gees up the dough to get the job done faster and produces much more consistent results, sourdough is an unpredictable labour of love.

But with enough patience, it could be used to make any kind of leavened bread – a point that Real Bread advocates are keen to prove. "In Sourdough September we saw challah, crumpets, cinnamon rolls, tin loaves, pizzas, you name it," says Young. "A skilled baker can control the acidity to make it as subtle or tangy as they want." The path of yeast resistance, it seems, is clearly a long one.

Still, Young understands the confusion. "There are lots of very tangy, very crusty, similarly-shaped and slashed sourdough loaves out there, so I can understand why some people might think that sourdough is a style of loaf, rather than a way of proving dough. You see a lot of bakers with the same influences," he says, pointing to Liz Prueitt and Chad Robertson's Tartine, the Californian bakery chain and cookbook credited with kick-starting a craze for sourdough baking among the tech bros of Silicon Valley. Tartine Bread's recipe for its signature country loaf is a staggering 38 pages long.

Indeed, an obsession with sourdough's aerated structure has become the new trophy for a certain strain of modern masculinity; the self-declared #crumbshotwankers of Instagram, flaunting their holey loaves for all to see. And you have to wonder if it's the culture (no pun intended) around long-fermentation baking, as much as the texture and tang, that has some of us retreating to the solace of a nice floury bap. Maybe when people reject sourdough, they're rejecting an image that sometimes comes attached to it: of a pious breed of foodie hipsterdom that's beginning to go stale.

"There can be a lot of snobbery about sourdough. If things aren't naturally leavened, people get really uppity about it," says Tomek Mossakowski, co-founder of the Dusty Knuckle Bakery School. "I find this in classes; men are obsessed with having bread that is as holey as possible. You can do the Freudian analysis on that."

When people reject sourdough, they're rejecting an image that comes attached to it

Thankfully it's not all holier-than-thou ego. At sourdough queen Martha de Lacey's food masterclasses, students breakfast on her signature 'trashcrumps' (sourdough crumpets) and are encouraged to play around with flavour additions like Marmite, turmeric and even squid ink in their loaves.

"I certainly don't think the sourdough movement is elitist. I think it's a wonderfully generous, kind community, forever sharing recipes, techniques and tips," she says. "Of course there are always going to be naysayers who think sourdough can't be soft and delicate and light and squishy, but it absolutely is and should always be those things. So if that's their opinion, they're probably doing it wrong."

"But saying that," she adds, "I love yeasted breads. Doughnuts, croissants, sweet pastries, soda bread, bagels, pitas, focaccia… I just prefer the flavour of sourdough when it comes to actual sliced bread. And even more than the taste, I love the joy and sense of craft that goes into making it."

At The Dusty Knuckle, which began life in a Dalston shipping container in 2014 and has grown into a café, bakery school and award-winning wholesale supplier, sourdough is king but baker's yeast will always have a place at the table. "At the bakery, we don't want all our breads sour. We don't want a sour focaccia, we don't want sour croissants, we don't want sour brioche," says Mossakowski. And while the quest for sourdough perfection is still overwhelmingly the biggest reason people sign up to the bakery school ("I think people just want to go for the hardest, most complex, most 'foodie' type of thing that there is," as he explains), he tells me soda bread is often the biggest hit.

A sandwich at Max's Sandwich shop

I'm not surprised. While killjoys might dismiss it as 'more cake than bread' (as though that's a bad thing?), soda's dense, close-crumbed texture and lactic richness make it one of the most comforting breads around. It's ruggedly unpretentious. It's a childhood teatime on a plate. "It's… really frustrating," laughs Mossakowski. "You can give yourself a hernia trying to do sourdough, and then you can make something in 40 minutes from start to finish and it's delicious."

It was at Henrietta Inman's year-long residency at Yardarm in Leyton, which ended in August, that I really fell hard for soda bread. Soda was the lynchpin of the breakfast and lunch menu – slathered in raw salted butter, heaped with seasonal greens and fettle cheese or perched on the side of a cloud-like soufflé omelette. Although she'd have loved to serve sourdough, Inman tells me, "we just didn't have the capacity in terms of space, time and staff. But I still really wanted us to make our own bread and so soda bread seemed like a good option."

But it was far from a cobbled-together cob. As author of The Natural Baker (and now installed as head chef at Stoney Street, Borough Market's new addition from the 26 Grains team), Inman's baking is one of the best adverts for heritage grains you'll find within the M25. "I think many of us are very used to white 'pappy' bread," she says. "I love using wholegrain flours, not only for their amazing flavour but because they still contain the bran and germ, which is 80% of the grain's fibre and other nutrients. It fills you up and leaves you satisfied and raring to go."

Her signature soda bread is made using a careful blend of einkorn flour, stoneground Suffolk wheat and rye from Oxfordshire's Wessex Mill. "I really wanted the loaf to sing with their flavour." As for how it went down with the E10 brunch crowd? "It was really positive," she says. "I must admit, I was worried about a sourdough revolt."

While it may feel ubiquitous in certain pockets of the capital, nationwide we're still a long way off a full sourdough takeover – as anyone who's had a snobbish moment in a village tearoom can attest. Although Marks and Spencer reported a 98% rise in sourdough sales last year, ASDA 50% and Tesco 40%, those with a palate more accustomed to a Hackney Wild might still balk at commercial offerings. In a 2018 Which? study of 19 different supermarket sourdoughs, only four were found to comply with the Real Bread Campaign's criteria for authenticity. The rest, containing extra yeast or ascorbic acid (E300) to boost the rise and yoghurt or vinegar to cheat the fermented flavour, fell firmly into the 'sourfaux' category. While the battle of natural starter vs commercial yeast rages on, perhaps the more important question is: what else is going into our loaves?

The next point on the agenda for bread evangelists is home-grown flour, with more and more bakeries championing sustainable UK grain farming. "Imagine the farm-to-fork movement, but for bread," says Mahala Le May who teaches baking classes in London and Cambridge and documents her efforts on Instagram as @dough_club. "It has previously been thought that suitable bread flour couldn't be grown in the UK. But this isn't the case, and there is a lot of work going in to making it available, which is really exciting. Bakers are taking steps to work with farmers and millers and produce more nutritious and flavourful bread from the soil up."


At Jolene in Newington Green, grains sourced from Sussex and Norfolk are milled on-site

Did you know Brixton has a windmill? Well if you didn't, you do now. Organic, UK-grown flour is stone-milled on site and sold at bakeries and delis in south London. At Jolene in Newington Green, grains sourced from Sussex and Norfolk are milled on-site, while Hackney stalwart E5 Bakehouse has gone one better and started growing its own buckwheat, oats and spelt at Fellowes Farm in Suffolk. Could we see a future where at-home mills become as common as grinding your own coffee beans? But wellness isn't everything. If it were, we'd never queue for cacio e pepe, or know the joy of slurping hot tea through a Twix. We could never put that beautiful sourdough to use as a scarpetta, mopping up the remains of a Sunday roast. Sometimes our gut microbiome is top of the agenda, and sometimes… well, the heart wants what it wants.

The good news is that while every sourdough aficionado agrees that time is the secret to 'real' bread, speed doesn't always have to mean pap. The Dusty Knuckle Bakery school's newest class, Quick Breads, is a sourdough-free zone. It teaches soda bread, fougasse and flatbreads, with the emphasis on delicious breads that can be made spontaneously, without a starter or ceremony. "A lot of people who come on the Introduction to Bread class – you can see it in their eyes, they're not going to make sourdough again," says Mossakowski. "I'd really like for people to come and learn how to make bread that's delicious and doesn't require a starter, and might actually suit their lives better."

On the school's Rye Breads course, meanwhile, I learn that a sourdough starter can be used to give 100% rye loaves and rye soda bread a greater depth of flavour, without all the waiting around. As rye contains more free sugars than wheat, it ferments faster and doesn't require the long, slow prove of a traditional sourdough – meaning a rye starter can be used to rustle up something complex, tangy and delicious in only a couple of hours. This could be the middle ground I've been looking for. A new fragrance for my eau de dough alarm clock.

So, back to the breadmaker. I'm pleasantly surprised to hear Chris Young doesn't think I'm a disgrace to the name of Real Bread. While the average breadmaker doesn't allow for long enough proving times to bake a true sourdough, he tells me it's possible to cheat by unplugging the machine. "A bread machine is a great way of taking charge of the food you eat," says Young. "It lets you control exactly what – and what doesn't – go into each loaf."

And that, surely, is the point we can all agree on. Whether it's sour and chewy or soft and sweet, made with love and patience or knocked together quickly to feed a crowd, there's no excuse for bad bread anymore.

But what makes the 'good' stuff good? Well, that's still a matter of taste.

While you're here, read Foodism's guide to the best bakeries in London or our take on the rise of the sandwich