Vanessa Kimbell, is currently researching for a PhD in nutrition and digestibility of bread. Vanessa is a specialist sourdough baker, and runs The Sourdough School. She is an award winning author & regular contributor to BBC Radio 4 Food Programme.
She is known for her deeply passionate belief and understanding about the synergy between the fermentation of flour to make bread and gut microbial health, and you will most often find her baking bread, or studying whilst the dough is proving. Vanessa’s commitment to her specialist subject sourdough and baking with wild yeast is absolute. It has been core to her work and life for over 30 years and her love of sourdough is, as ever, unwavering ..
…. When Vanessa was nine, her parents bought a house in rural south-west France. Vanessa’s Italian mother loved good food and was a senior chef at Keele University and both her English grandmother and Italian great-grandmother were bakers, and the house was just 60 yards away from the thriving rural French village bakery. The bakery supplied all the bread for miles around and was right the heart of the community. She fell in love with everything French – the wine, the cheese, the fresh fruit and vegetables, the farmers, and the local markets, but most of all she fell in love with the bread,
The instant that she walked into this bakery she knew this was something special. She didn’t even know the word for bread in French, but she fell instantly in love .. “ I made a connection that will last as long as I breath.”
She bought bread every day and learned a new word each time until she had enough words to ask if she might stay and watch. Every morning at 3am she would creep down 2 flights of ancient wooden stairs, climb out of the window, graze her knees and run down the alleyway in the pitch black to the bakery. She’s run as fast as her legs could because it was only the light of the moon that lit the way, but her love of the bakery was stronger that her fear of the dark. As she pitched running into the square the bakery oven was lit. The air was cool and filled with the smell of oak burning, and she never slowed down until she was right inside the bakery. The bell on the door would ring furiously as she knew once she was in side the warm brightly lit bakery she was safe.
As the years rolled on nothing changed. Every holiday, every chance she’d work on the bakery. Sweeping the floors, serving the customers, cleaning and helping to make the bread and she spent every spare moment of her childhood school holidays over Easter, Summer and half terms working in the village bakery. It was in this rural community that she really connected to farmers and the land, and the relationship between food and family and community that was right at the heart of French living. Aged 18, she qualified as a baker and a chef in the UK, but there were no ‘real’ bakeries.
In 1992 returning to France, she worked in a restaurant in Paris for a summer and then as an apprentice baker in the Dordogne. Returning the UK, Vanessa worked as a baker and chef in a hotel in Leicester whilst at university and completed a degree in Psychology of Human Communication. It was whilst finishing her degree in 1995 that she became poorly, and was given a strong dose of antibiotics called Metronidazole. It was one of a long list of antibiotics that destroyed her gut microbiome and to her utter dismay she stopped being able to tolerate wheat. It made her ill and she had no option other than to stop being a baker, and so she gave up the thing she loved most.
For over 4 years she avoided all wheat until she returned to the bakery and was given a warm bread by her friend. Unable to resist Vanessa ate the bread and discovered in that moment that she could digest sourdough without issues. When she returned home she ate ordinary commercial bread and was poorly again. This was a pivotal moment and she set out to try and understand why. The doctors she spoke to didn’t have answers; neither did the nutritionists or bakers, and this set a new path – to understand bread, fermentation and digestion of bread. Almost twenty years on and Vanessa is renowned for her passion and unique understanding of long slow fermentation and teaches the nutrition and digestibility of bread course to doctors and health care practitioners – which is accredited by the Royal College of General Practitioners.
In 2009 she wrote her first book Prepped, her next book Food for Thought won the world book awards for the most ethical and sustainable book and her 3rd book The Sourdough School is a best seller and right on subject – how to make nutritious and delicious sourdough
Food for Thought, was also The Telegraph Book of the week, and is published by Kyle Cathie
In 2017 as part of researching the microbes in her sourdough starter she discovered through tests by Tim Spector that she discovered that she had an extremely low microbial diversity. Overall the results showed a microbiome which was despite eating an incredibly rich diverse fibre rich diet was disturbingly unhealthy, with less then 1% diversity, Vanessa’s gut microbial diversity was comparable, if not worse than those the of autistic children that had been measured. She was left with 69% Bacteroidetes and 29 (% Firmicutes – these two microbes are directly involved with obesity
Getting hold of her medical records, she asked Alison Coleville to list the antibiotics she had taken in her lifetime. As she read the results she took add deep breath and simply burst into tears. Over her lifetime she had had been prescribed a total of 57 Antibiotics, her first being administered when she was just 6 months old.
Total antibiotic counts:
- Amoxicillin x 27
- Penicillin V x 11
- Erythromycin x 3
- Co-amoxiclav x 2
- Metronidazole x 1
- Cefalexin x 5
- Flucloxicillin x 5
- Doxycycline x 1
- Trimethoprim x 2
The timeline of Vanessa’s reaction to wheat tied in exactly with a strong dose of Metronidazole. This pot of tablets, changed everything. Studies have now shown that antibiotic-induced dysbioses are also likely to influence numerous immune and metabolic outcomes through routes that affect the intestinal milieu’s overall inflammatory tone. In this regard, microbiota alterations can result in a decrease of IgA, a non-inflammatory immunoglobulin involved in pathogen and allergen exclusion (Rautava et al., 2004; Penders et al., 2007a; Cerutti and Rescigno, 2008). In addition, metronidazole has been shown to cause a decrease in the expression of Muc2, the major component of the mucin layer (Wlodarska et al., 2011); thinning of this layer would result in a more direct contact between gut microbiota and epithelium, with likely increases in innate immune stimulation and inflammation .. and in Vanessa’s case it was likely to the cause of her reaction to wheat and many other foods that were to follow.
To make matters worse a nutritional therapist put her on a restriction diet to try and identify the offending foods. We now know that diversity of food is the key to nurturing microbes but for over a year Vanessa was restricted to just and handful of ingredients, which contribute to the extinction of her microbes. The restriction continued for almost 5 years with multiple food allergies and intolerances.
This moment when she replied that she could eat sourdough was also the moment that sealed a path that found her on a mission to understanding how and why sourdough is easily tolerated. She decided that her purpose was to learn and share the knowledge of why sourdough is more easily digestible to people with digestive issues, and understand how the fermentation of bread supports the immune system through the transformation of flour and water into a food that nourishes both ourselves and the gut microbes we are symbiotic with.