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How my breast cancer battle led to a career in healthy baking

When illness forced Melissa Sharp to re-examine her diet, it led to a new career in 'healthy baking'


Melissa Sharp: My hobby became my dream job. Photo: Laura Edwards.

Melissa Sharp: My hobby became my dream job. Photo: Laura Edwards.

Melissa Sharp: My hobby became my dream job. Photo: Laura Edwards.

Like most of those who find themselves in a similar situation, Melissa Sharp doesn't know why she got breast cancer.

"Getting cancer is a combination and accumulation of lots of things not working properly - food, diet, antiperspirant (was it all that Impulse spray that I used in my teens?) - rather than just one thing. My unhappy marriage was definitely a trigger, and during the breakdown of my marriage I was not looking after myself the way that I should have been, I certainly wasn't consistently concentrating on the 10 portions of broccoli I should have been eating each day," she writes in the introduction to her new cookbook, Modern Baker.

At the time of her diagnosis in 2010, Melissa, then aged 36, was employed as a management consultant. The job was full on, but she loved it despite the stress levels. She worked her way through chemo: "I did not want to be that ill person, but at the back of my mind I knew that I needed to give up working that way in the future."

After her last chemotherapy session, she handed in her notice while she was waiting for radiotherapy to start and decided to take a couple of months off.

"I had battled an eating disorder since the age of 11, and had always had an issue around food - for periods it would take over, and I would have had bouts in my late teens, 20s and early 30s, when I used to hugely restrict the amount of fat and calories that I ate and exercised obsessively. People with eating disorders tend to cook for others; it's a way of working with food without consuming it. I used to come home from school and make Victoria sponge and buttercream icing. And during my marriage I'd enjoyed cooking, but it wasn't healthy food."

During her time off, Melissa decided to educate herself about food as it related to health and wellness. "I saw a nutritionist, and every day I was experimenting in the kitchen with anti-cancer food. I loved the experimentation with food, that sense of flooding my body with good nutrition. I had never felt so well in all my life - I couldn't believe it. I didn't lose my hair, my nails were strong, my skin was glowing and I was still slim despite not exercising and eating all around me. At the end of treatment, I was relieved and elated."

At around the same time, Melissa started working with a local company that supplied organic supplements, doing a bit of everything, from sales to packing boxes and social media. She cooked her new, healthy food at a couple of pop-ups. "Cakes were always my guilty pleasure, but it was hard to buy cakes that were healthier. Sugar is the number-one thing you are told to avoid when you have cancer, so I started making cakes without refined sugar, using honey, maple syrup and coconut sugar. I had a favourite carrot cake and logically I thought that I could never make it again, as it contained lots of ingredients I had committed to avoid. And then one Sunday I decided to see if I could make it healthier."

Melissa halved the quantity of sugar in the recipe and used a natural low-glycaemic index organic coconut sugar instead. She switched to organic spelt flour and topped the cake with a homemade cashew nut icing that she'd found in an anti-cancer cookbook. "I couldn't believe the outcome," she writes in Modern Baker. "The cake was (amazingly) even more delicious and the novelty of using interesting ingredients, and healthy ones at that, took my cooking pleasure to completely new heights. I was hooked."

"The business was born from that carrot cake," Melissa tells me. "My hobby became my dream job and my business; the business wouldn't exist if I hadn't been sick." She has included the recipe in the book. It's (melodramatically, she admits) called Melissa's Life-Changing Carrot and Olive Oil Cake. "With the gift of adversity," she says, "I started to think differently. I didn't want to go back to the way things were before. I became more interested in other people's healthy businesses, and it became apparent to me what wasn't out there.

"Around the same time, my boyfriend, Leo, and I visited our local organic farm and bought the best bread that we'd ever eaten. Their bakery was in a building that was little more than a garden shed equipped with three domestic ovens, and we realised that you didn't need a huge amount of specialist equipment to bake in a simple, straightforward way, without yeasts and sugar.

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"On our holidays in Stockholm, Paris and New York, we saw things emerging that didn't exist around where we live and gradually our plans developed."

The couple opened their first bakery and café in 2014 in Oxford. "We make the healthiest breads and cakes it is humanly possible to produce that still taste delicious," writes Melissa in Modern Baker. "All of our many kinds of breads are made with natural sourdough starters - our own wild yeast cultures - teeming with beneficial lactobacilli bacteria made with just stoneground flour, water and fresh air and then fermented for 48 hours.

"Many of our cakes, biscuits and bars use our sourdough starters too. Research shows that sourdough is great because it addresses the vitally important issue of helping to improve our gut health. It also naturally reduces glycaemic index (GI) and gluten levels.

"More and more people are realising the importance of a healthy digestive system for our overall wellbeing. Gut health is no longer a squeamish subject. When the ingredients are combined to make sourdough, they explode into the millions of fermenting microbes that our gut is crying out for."

Later this year, the couple will open a second bakery in Oxford, and they are gearing up for bigger plans.

"The first bakery is our proof of concept before we roll out on a larger scale," says Melissa. "At the beginning, I thought I might be the cake baker. I knew I wouldn't be the bread baker, because I knew that sourdough needed skills beyond mine. Lindsay Stark, who wrote the book with me, is the bread baker. At the beginning, I did front of house, and we had another part-time person, Charlotte Orr [who did the illustrations for the book]; we were all doing 60/70-hour weeks. Now there are three full-time bakers and 10 people working front of house, plus a healthy-food chef for the savoury food."

Recently, Modern Baker received a substantial two-year research and development grant from the UK government to lead a project looking at further improving the nutritional quality of bread and how to produce better bread on a mass-market scale.

"What we do is all down to three things: provenance, nutrition and taste," says Melissa. "We work with good-quality ingredients with low intervention, and we use heritage grains that are not overbred.

"The rule is that everything has to taste good to make it onto our shelves. We believe passionately that it's possible to make wonderfully delicious cakes, biscuits and bars that also make a positive contribution to a healthy diet."

Although Melissa does not follow a gluten-free diet, as she does not have an intolerance to gluten, Modern Baker does have a range of gluten-free products, "as there is a market for it. And sourdough is naturally lower in gluten, and we find that it does not produce the same spikes that you get from highly processed breads. With the government grant, we are working to make sourdough more accessible on a mass-market scale."

What is 'real' bread?

Until the early 1960s, most bread - excluding traditional soda breads - was real bread. It was kneaded by hand, left to 'prove' or ferment, ideally more than once, for anything up to a couple of days, and then baked for 40-50 minutes. Making real bread is a time-consuming, labour-intensive process.

And then along came the Chorleywood Bread Process (CBP), which is a way of making bread faster.

Researchers in the UK found that if you used lower- quality flours, you could use machines to knead dough. They discovered that adding vegetable fat along with processing aids, oxidising agents, emulsifiers, additives and 'improvers' meant that fermentation times could be substantially reduced, that you could bake at a higher temperature much more quickly, and that the bread would last longer before going mouldy. CBP meant that you could make a loaf of bread far faster than real bread and with much less human effort. And within a few years, the vast majority of all the bread for sale in Ireland, particularly in our supermarkets, was made this way.

"The industrial process is all about speeding things up," says Patrick Ryan of the Firehouse Bakery and Bread School, "whereas making real bread is all about slowing everything down.

"Time is one of the most important ingredients, because it allows the nutritional value of the flour to be released, and the flavour to develop. One of the biggest reactions we get from our customers is that our bread actually tastes of something."

Bread that is fermented quickly is harder to digest because the gluten is stronger and the varieties of wheat suited to mechanical mixing also have stronger gluten. The flour used to make mass-produced bread is mechanically milled at high speed, which strips the flour of most of its natural nutrients.

Stoneground flour made using the slower, traditional method retains more nutrients and is easier to digest. And in the industrial process, fat is added to help the bread hold its shape, something that it doesn't do naturally because of the fast fermentation.

Where do I find it?

To find the best bread in Ireland, buy from a bakery that's a member of Real Bread Ireland.

According to Real Bread Ireland - a network of independent bakeries - real bread, in its purest form, is bread made without the use of processing aids or any other artificial additive. Real Bread is simply flour, water and fermentation (either by adding yeast or using natural fermentation) and sometimes salt is added. Other natural additions include nuts, seeds, herbs, butter, egg or milk. Real bread is bread made without flour improvers, dough conditioners, preservatives, chemical leavening (baking powder, bicarbonate of soda), any other artificial additive or the use of pre-mixed ingredients.

Some of the members of Real Bread Ireland include:

The Butler's Pantry, Dublin and Wicklow

Gaillot et Gray, Dublin

Tartine, Dublin

Firehouse Bakery, Delgany, Co Wicklow

Seagull Bakery, Tramore, Co Waterford

Arbutus Bakery, Cork

Scarpello & Co, Lifford, Co Donegal

Bácús, Tralee, Co Kerry

Riot Rye, Cloughjordan, Co Tipperary

Magnolia Bakery, Limerick

* For a full list of all the member bakeries, see realbreadireland.org

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