“I can almost guarantee you that if you know of a bakery, but don’t know who the head baker is, she’s a woman,” says Cindy Zurias. “That’s my experience.” It’s a bold claim, but as someone who has been in London’s artisan baking scene for the best part of a decade, Zurias should know.

Before becoming a baker, Zurias was in restaurant kitchens; before that, an architectural student in Venezuela where she grew up. “We left because of the political situation. We came here, but I couldn’t continue studying, because my English wasn’t good enough, so I went to restaurant kitchens – and became the most miserable Latin American I have ever known,” she laughs. “Latin Americans always find ways to be happy – but it was so shit being stuck in those kitchens night after night. One morning I just woke up and said ‘Fuck this, I’m going into bread.’” Today Zurias is one of a growing number of female producers whose story neatly illustrates the past and present of women in food production, and the potential for change.

In 2021, I wrote a book called The Female Chef, for which I interviewed 31 leading chefs about their work, and to what extent being female had shaped their food and philosophy. It was an eye-opening experience, for many reasons; but my most enduring takeaway was how unique and protean the relationship between womanhood and the food industry is, in comparison to most other male-dominated professions. There is nothing inherently gendered about maths, money or mortar. A book called The Female Banker or The Female Surveyor would seem reductive in this day and age. Yet the relationship between women and food is historically inextricable.

Throughout history, women have not just cooked, baked and brewed, they have often been the originators of and innovators within these life-giving practices. Some of the most definitive books on baking, cheesemaking, cooking and brewing were written by women, who ran cottage industries and fed and watered communities alongside raising their families. Yet today, post-industrialisation and the transformation of these essentials into commodities, most chefs, bakers, butchers and brewers we’ve heard of are men – to the point where we’re often surprised to come across a female butcher or brewer. We can dispute the pros and cons of the professionalisation of these skills until we’re blue in the face, but one consequence is clear: it left precious room for the female of the species.

Women have often been originators and innovators of these life-giving practices

So I decided to start doing what I set out to do with The Female Chef, but with women who are pursuing careers in all areas of the food industry. I sought to celebrate them and their womanhood, self-identified or otherwise, and explore how it informed their professional life. I wanted to understand to what extent they subscribe to pre-existing notions around women in food, challenge them, or sublimate them to move the conversation forward; and to champion their efforts to restore their professions to something more artisanal, sustainable and inclusive.

Zurias ended up at the Little Bread Pedlar in Bermondsey, one of the most acclaimed independent bakeries in town, and within a few years had risen to head baker. “I loved the chemistry and the physics of it. I loved that every day and challenge was different,” she says. She spoke to bakers all over the world in pursuit of inspiration. “I met all these women who were older than me, farming, milling, making their own bread – and I thought, how come I’m only just finding out about these women? Men are so much better about talking about themselves in this sector. I thought, ‘We need to do that a bit more.’”

Men are so much better at talking about themselves. We need to do that more

Emma McKeating is a fishmonger whose Twitter handle, ‘The Girly Fishmonger’, sets out to do just that. “Whenever I’m on holiday, I go to the local fishing harbour, and that’s what people know me as,” she laughs; yet Emma’s Twitter presence is serious business. Her following isn’t huge, but it is almost entirely dedicated to her beautiful, careful fish displays: content which, amidst the perfect storm of Brexit, pollution and staffing issues that dogs Twitter’s fishing discourse, feels like a breath of fresh air. Yet the history of women in fishing is centuries old. “Go back far enough and fishmongers were all women. The men went to sea; the women were fishmongers,” says Emma. Only after the second world war, when the number of fishing vessels declined and fishermen turned merchants instead, did this start changing – and with it, public perceptions around gender.

“Pre-industrialisation, pre-refrigeration, it was only women who made butter and cheese, while men did the backbreaking work of farming animals. Most cheesemaking styles fit around childcare,” says Mary Quicke, whose family have been farming the same land since the 17th century. Remember Little Miss Muffet on her tuffet? “She wanted something to eat, and was given curds and whey, which is a step along the way of cheesemaking. In that time, and in centuries prior, every woman in rural communities made cheese.”

Perhaps most surprisingly of all, given the drink’s lingering associations with masculinity, beer shares a similar story; those who brewed it were historically women. Charlotte Cook is head brewer at the London-based, sustainability focused Coalition Brewing. “Only after the industrial revolution, when brewing scaled up from a cottage industry, did it become male dominated,” she observes. It then, unsurprisingly, changed from something which worked around childcare to being completely incompatible. “A lot of brewing work is shift work – 6am until 2pm or 2pm until 10pm – which is not good for people with caring responsibilities,” she explains. Prior to Coalition, Cook was at BrewDog, where she experienced such abject bullying and harassment that she left, and signed an open letter about the company’s practices in 2021. Since leaving BrewDog, she has been working tirelessly together with former and current BrewDog employees to push for cultural change.

She’s been in newspapers, on Radio 4’s Food Programme, Women’s Hour and countless beer-focused websites highlighting the toxic atmosphere which prevails within the brewing industry at large, and campaigning for progress. “It is a male-dominated world, and women are rated less highly, certainly – but in all honestly men aren’t treated very well either. It’s the kind of industry that can chew you up and spit you out,” she says. Even on a practical level, the challenges women – and some men and non-binary people – face are legion. “I can’t reach the top of my fermentation vessels, even with a ladder. Sometimes I think the people making this hardware don’t think about who is actually using it,” Cook says with exasperation. “It is all designed for the stereotypical brewer, a tall guy who can heft 20 kilos over his head – and while there are women who can do that, the vast majority find it tricky.”

We talk about sustainability in terms of farming but not people. The two are connected

It is this that the new wave of women in food and drink are trying to redress; not just the gender imbalance that persists in certain parts of the industry, and the public’s perception of it, but industry practice. Quicke’s are considering reducing the size of their cheddar wheels. “27kg is pretty damn heavy. I think we should change it, so more diverse people can work here,” says Quicke.

At The Little Bread Pedlar, Zurias was the first head baker in the UK to do away with the night shift and insist upon daytime working hours. Emboldened by her bakery’s productivity almost doubling, others followed suit. “It is not the amount of time you put in; it is the quality of time,” she points out. “We talk about sustainability in terms of food and farming, but we don’t talk about sustainability of people. The two are connected.” By abandoning the post-industrial construct of people as labour rather than human beings, Zurias created a workforce of individuals that didn’t burn out, and enjoyed what they did.

Let's not replace the domination of men with the domination of women. Let's have diversity

Off the back of her work there, Zurias was contacted by the Real Bread Campaign and collaborated with them to encourage and champion practices that would get more people into baking. “I was looking for bakers around the world who were implementing sustainable practices; just simple stuff, like paying the minimum wage or offering maternity leave,” she continues. From Australia to Canada, the USA to the UK: “everyone who was running a really sustainable business was a woman,” she explains. “I didn’t want to make it just about women; I wanted to make it about sustainability and substantiable practices – but the two seemed to be linked.” In brewing, too, the move towards more compassionate and sustainable production methods has largely been female. There aren’t many of them – yet – but on the whole Cook has found female head brewers to be more holistic in their approach to both brewing and managing people. “They do tend to think more about wellbeing and life balance. Environmentally, too, it is women who tend to think about reducing waste and recycling.” Then there is the next generation of brewers who have grown up with gender equality, sustainability and responsible drinking front and centre. “They are ten or 15 years younger, and come from a subtly different world.”

And it’s this different world that women like Cooke, Zurias and Quicke are holding out hope for, and helping to shape in their work, and their work outside of work. On bad days, Cook fears beer’s #MeToo moment is fizzling out, leaving women who might want to get into brewing questioning that ambition. “When they see that it is exhausting, and that attempts at change aren’t lasting, why would they jump into the fray?” she sighs. On good days, she looks at the breadth of styles and measures young brewers are producing, in order to widen the scope of who can enjoy beer, and feels encouraged.

Though it’s tempting to draw a straight line between pre-industrial food production and those women pioneering more sustainable, compassionate practices now, no one’s hankering for a bygone era without men or machines. “I do think that, on account of the female body, we can be more attuned and aligned with nature than boys and their toys – but I like toys, too,” Quicke says, laughing. As cheese, bread and beer thrive from microbial diversity (and fish and meat from biodiversity) so can production benefit from an array of personalities and people. “Let’s have neurodiversity, gender diversity, age diversity, cultural diversity. Let’s not replace the domination of men with the domination of women,” Quicke continues. “Diversity of nature makes for a rich ecosystem, and diversity of people makes for a rich ecosystem of ideas.”