Still Waters Run Deep: an interview with Clare Marriage from Dove’s Farm

On Wednesday I went to see Clare and Michael Marriage, the kind and generous owners of Dove’s Farm.  For those of you who don’t know, Dove’s is an organic farm, miller of organic grain, and maker of a range of organic food.  I was hoping for some combine harvester action but with the rain, that ambition was scuppered and I was satisfied with a cross country tour of the 350 acre farm (that is considered small) and a lovely long chat with the Marriages over a cup of coffee in their smart new offices.

Michael Marriage grew up on the farm and remembers his father making bread, often attempting to do so with the brewers’ yeast that he used to make beer.  It was not always successful, he tells us in what is clearly an understatement.  Clare grew up in London and has memories of going to the baker on Greyhound Road in Fulham to buy hot bread which she ate with butter and jam, and hot cross buns.  She started baking bread during the bread strike when she was 17 years old.  Initially baking for herself and friends, she quickly started selling bread and, clearly, has never looked back either as a baker or a business woman.  In addition to baking regularly for both her family and the team who work at Dove’s (bread, butter, and jam are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week – heaven!) she is a director of Doves and plays many key roles in the continuing development of the business. 

Dove’s converted to organic farming in the 1970s and, because there were no organic-only mills, the Marriages built a little stone mill in the barn.  Michael used to climb a step ladder with a sack of grain on his back and pour it in the top.  The flour was collected by another sack at the bottom.  In the kitchen, Clare re-bagged the flour into small paper bags using kitchen scales and then she drove in one direction while Michael drove in another and they trawled round the health food shops of southern England selling their organic flour.  Within weeks they knew they were on to something:  there was demand for their flour, and there were other organic farmers out there looking for someone to mill their grain.  The business grew from there.

The early days were not without their problems, as Clare told me:

“The problem initially was that we were trying to sell whole meal flour at a time when people just did not buy whole meal flour. You could hardly buy it anywhere – only in health food shops – and these shops were our main customer base.  Over time, however, as the supermarkets grew in power, the independent retailers went out of business and we realised we had to convince the supermarkets to stock our flour if we were going to survive.”

“It was hilarious”, she recalls in her quiet way, “When we first approached the supermarkets, they did not know what to make of us.  We would phone their flour buyers and make appointments, explaining that we milled organic, whole meal flour.  They hardly knew what it was and I know they thought we were total hippies and that we were going to show up wearing sandals and beads!”

What was going on with the UK bread and flour culture that supermarket buyers linked organic, whole meal flour with sandals and beads?  Clare explained:

“The industrial bread making process changed bread in this country beyond recognition in less than a decade.  I remember growing up watching adverts that showed us that good, modern bread came in a bag and was square and white and sliced. The proof of freshness was bread that was soft and could be squeezed.  I remember these ads to this day – a big hand squeezing a loaf of bread in a bag.”  She laughs and looks amazed at the memory.

The vast majority of bread sold in the UK today is still sqeezy white sliced bread that comes in a plastic bag and is purchased in supermarkets as part of the “weekly shop”.  Michael explained that before the financial crisis supermarkets introduced organic bread lines but have withdrawn many of them again, leaving their customers with a much smaller range of bread to choose from.  Clare added that although supermarkets do sell “fresh” bread, typically presented in wicker baskets to make it look more rustic and appealing, much of it is baked in-store from frozen dough and/or is baked from bread mixes that contain a lot of additives.  In her view, the sale of this fresh bread, is actually a retrograde step:  at the end of the day it is inferior bread masquerading as something rather better than it actually is, and is not offering the consumer a real choice when it comes to buying bread.  If consumers want good bread, she maintained, they are not necessarily going to get it at the supermarket. 

There is hope:  If a nation’s bread culture can lose its way in a few short years, it can be changed back again.  Clare and Michael see artisanal bread stirrings in the UK and know of community-supported bakers.  Further, Dove’s has seen demand for its products continue to grow. It now boasts a large range of flour, including gluten free flour.  The days of step ladders and kitchen scales are long gone.  The mills now run 24 hours a day and the flour is sold all over the country.  Contrary to 25 years ago when it was almost impossible to get whole meal flour or bread, let alone organic whole meal flour or bread, today’s consumers do have a choice:  They can make good bread themselves, they can buy good bread at a good baker, and they can lobby their supermarkets to expand and improve the range of bread for sale.  People who run supermarkets are not bad people.  They are business people and they will stock what we, the consumers, want to buy.

“Bread is a critical part of my life”, Clare said.  “I cannot imagine life without it.  I look forward to my bread every day and I miss it when we travel.”  She continues, “When I saw the words “virtuous” and “bread” it made me think of the smell of baking bread, of the anticipation of eating it, of home, and the happiness that brings me.  I had to look up virtue to be certain of its true meaning.  It means morally excellent.”

She paused. “Is good bread morally excellent?”  Although is was really a rhetorical question, I nodded, and offered that good bread is the end product of a process of farming, milling, baking, and selling responsibly.  Further, that good bread provides good nutrition and good energy which make those who eat it more patient, kinder, and more tolerant than those who eat bad quality bread.  In a few words, people who eat well are more capable of doing good. 

“Virtue”, she considers the word, “is clearly a trait we need to talk about more.”

Given my experience with the Marriages, however, virtue is something they understand as instinctively as farming, milling, making, or eating their daily bread.

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