A medieval roof was the unlikely inspiration for a new 'Oxford Loaf'

— bread that is grown, milled and baked locally. For archaeological botanist John Letts, it was all in a day's work.

As he was examining old thatch, he realised that it held a few grains of now vanished varieties of wheat, which had kept feudal peasants alive in the days before potatoes and pasta.

"The samples coming out of those roofs were so well preserved. The thatchers said the wheat I had found was far better than what they could get now," he said.

After collecting 25 grains of wheat, he has spent the past eight years trying to grow old varieties of wheat to make the perfect thatch — and the perfect loaf.

The bread is produced by master baker Geoff Coleman at the Cornfield Bakery, Wheatley, using a traditional fermentation process that allows the loaf to rise slowly and develop its natural flavours. Production has now built up to 120 loaves a week, with most sent to a list of subscribers who pay in advance, having heard about the bread by word of mouth.

But this autumn, the Oxford Bread Group will start marketing the bread more widely, and shoppers at the Co-op will be able to buy Mr Letts’s flour to bake their own loaves.

“I was trying to produce a good quality thatching straw, but I always had an eye on the baking side as well," he said. “Those varieties made good bread for 10,000 years.”

His long struggle reflects not just the difficulty of scaling up from a few cupfuls of seeds to ten acres of crops, but also the problem of creating a specialist food business for such a basic product, which we expect to be cheap and plentiful.

But his passionate environmental beliefs drove him to overcome all the difficulties. He believes conventional agriculture comes with a huge environmental cost, including the long journey made by food before it reaches our table.

According to Mr Letts, modern wheat varieties are genetically uniform and only produce bumper crops of high-protein grain when grown with chemical fertilisers, herbicides and fungicides.

Older varieties are genetically diverse, with between 150 and 200 types of wheat in one field compared to the monocultures of a standard crop. This means that some of the varieties will flourish whatever the weather — a real benefit in Britain's unreliable climate.

Despite this, he had difficulty finding a farmer willing to grow it, and a local miller willing to mill it.

“It is very difficult to find farmers willing to grow small quantities of wheat, and we wanted it to be organic — or at least low nitrogen. These varieties give a lower yield, but they survive any weather.”

Eventually, Charles Bennett of Sandy Lane Farm, Tiddington, agreed to include it in the rotation system of his organic vegetable growing.

Finding a miller proved more difficult, as local millers could only cope with larger quantities, so for the time being it is done on the Isle of Wight.

“Our miller is a little further away than we would like, but the addition to our carbon footprint is minimal, and he has supported our project from the beginning and is happy to mill the small quantities we need. As the group grows, and has more wheat to mill, we also hope to use millers who are closer,” said Mr Letts.

Both he and Mr Coleman believe their bread is less likely to cause food intolerance than commercially baked bread.

“I am convinced that a long-ferment baking process detoxifies gluten, whereas the gluten in modern wheat stimulates coeliac disease in people who have a genetic propensity to it.

“We have had many messages from people who have not been able to eat bread for years, saying that they can eat ours,” said Mr Letts.

But he is still working out how to make the venture profit-making.

“I have made no money from this for the eight years I have been doing it. That's got to change."

At the moment, about 75 households pay in advance to get one loaf of bread a week, delivered to one of several 'drop-off hubs' in Oxford and Witney.

The bread is also delivered to East Oxford farmers’ market, as well as the Oxford-based School Ethical Supplies Initiative, which delivers to school gates as parents collect their children. The bread is also sold at the Cornfield Bakery.

“The subscription scheme overcomes the cash flow problem that many small businesses face and also eliminates food waste, as we only bake what has been ordered," said Mr Letts.

The Oxford Bread Group, launched earlier this year, hopes eventually to deliver bread, flour and other cereal-based products to local communities through shops, food co-ops, schools, community cafes and lunch clubs.

“As we get more subscribers, we hope to enlist more farmers to grow the grain and more bakers to bake the bread,” said Mr Letts.

He added: “We launched the project in early April and are already selling more than 100 loaves a week.”

And, in homage to the project's origins, the straw byproduct will be used to thatch local buildings, and profits will support local 'heritage seed' projects.

o To join an existing Oxford Bread Group hub, set up a new one, or find more information, visit www.oxfordlocalbread.org/ or e-mail info@oxfordlocalbread.org