I love sourdough bread. The crispy, charred crust and the fluffy, gooey interior provide the perfect juxtaposition of flavours and textures. This golden-brown loaf of deliciousness has become a staple of bougie boulangeries and avid home bakers alike. Fortunately, if you are useless when it comes to anything yeasty in the kitchen, Oxford is not short of vendors of high-quality sourdough bread.
I’ve narrowed down the contestants to three of my favourites from across the city. I’ve put each loaf through a series of challenges to test their versatility and, more importantly, to find out which is tastiest.
Meet the Contenders
Natural Bread Co will be familiar to anyone who frequents the farmer’s markets in East and South Oxford at the weekends. Their stall is run by the delightful Michal, who stocks a selection of sourdough favourites and breakfast pastries. Sadly, their shops in Oxford, Eynsham and Woodstock have all closed in recent years, but the quality of their French-inspired bread has never dipped. I’ll be testing their Oxford Sourdough loaf, priced at £4.50.
I have a huge soft spot for Sourdough Revolution. This loaf is stocked at the Jericho Cheese Company shop on Little Clarendon Street, around the corner from the office where I used to work. I’d mark the start of the weekend by picking up their large loaf (priced at £6) and a sliver of fancy cheese (more on that later). This bread also has the stamp of approval from my Parisian colleague Julie – I’d usually pick one up for her as well. A cheaper, small loaf is priced at £4.
Since opening in 2018, the sourdough from Hamblin bakery has become legendary. Even if you’ve never been, East Oxford residents will recognise the huge queues stretching down Iffley Road on weekend mornings. I implore to you believe the hype – Hamblin is packed to the rafters with beautifully crafted pastries and deli treats. The shop has a cosy mom-and-pop feel which I adore. Hugo, who tends to the customers, is personable and friendly – get there just before closing time and you might find yourself with a free cookie. Their Country loaf will set you back £4.
Challenge 1: Breakfast of Paddingtons
Is there a better breakfast than toasted sourdough with a layer of marmalade? I don’t think so and I know a certain Peruvian bear who would agree. I’ll be using Oxford’s own Frank Cooper’s for this challenge. Revolution is up first.
So-Rev passes this challenge with flying colours. After a couple of rounds in the toaster, the delicious brown crust comes into its own. The inside still retains some of its distinctive fluffiness despite the rigorous toasting. Frankie C’s marmalade seeps nicely into the nooks and crannies of the craterous inner structure and the result is magnificent.
Another morning rolls around and it’s time to toast a slice of Natural Bread’s Oxford loaf. The bread handles this challenge with ease. Am I in Paris? No, but it’s the next best thing.
The almost pudding-like innards of Hamblin’s Country loaf complement the marmalade very well. The bakery regularly stocks produce from Cooper’s farm produce, so this isn’t their first collaboration. Hamblin’s emphasis on local produce is another draw of their homely shop.
Challenge 2: Gubbeen There, Dough’n That
I quizzed the experts at Jericho Cheese Company for their best bread-cheese pairing – they enthusiastically recommended Gubbeen Farmhouse, a cow’s milk cheese produced in Cork, Ireland. Let’s see how our loaves compare in a classic, best-not-eaten-before-bedtime snack.
There is something pizza-esque about the stretchy dough of Revolution which lends itself well to this challenge. The dual softness of the bread and cheese provides a hypnotic, nearly overwhelmingly melty texture, but it works.
Natural Bread does a fine job in this challenge – a similar consistency to ciabatta, this loaf adds an authentic Mediterranean feel to this timeless combination. Warburtons this is not.
The bold flavours of Hamblin call for a bolder cheese, and with the Gubbeen, it’s just fine. Instead, I’d recommend a soft goat or blue cheese to complement this loaf.
Challenge 3: Rip and Dip
Perhaps the most decisive challenge of the lot, how will our loaves fair being dipped in olive oil and balsamic vinegar? I’m looking for a satisfying tear, and a decent absorption of the dressing without it going soggy.
Natural Bread has a nice tear, but the crumb is a little dense and dry. It’s not the best texture for dipping in oil. I think the thickness and robustness of this bread is better suited to sandwiches – by no means a bad thing.
Hamblin bread is tough stuff. Getting through the crust with a bread knife is a decent substitute for a gym workout – I much prefer to rip pieces off into ‘artisanal chunks’, as my flatmate calls them. With some extra virgin and balsamic, there’s no better snack.
This is another strong round from Revolution, particularly due to its stretchiness. There’s a slight peppery-ness to the crust of this loaf that pairs well with the spicy olive oil (another great Oxford-based business, Ogglio).
Challenge 4: Guest Judge Round
Contrary to popular belief, it’s fine for ducks to eat bread. Some viral campaigns spreading anti-bread sentiment have resulted in underweight birds who were dependent on bread when pondweed was scarce in winter. In truth, bread is not the most nutritious snack for our feathered friends, much like for humans, so it’s important to only feed it to them in moderation. There is more advice on feeding birds on the RSPB website.
With this in mind, I’ve taken a few small chunks of our sourdough to be sampled by the mallards of Hinksey Park. I’ve also brought them some grapes to ensure a balanced diet.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, all of our breads went down a treat with our dabbling ducks. There was a minor spat between two males over some crumbs of Natural Bread, but I suspect there may have been some prior rivalry there. We were also joined by some Canada geese and black-headed gulls, and one magnificent, extremely polite swan. They were not remotely interested in my grape pieces, so the birds’ fervour for our sourdough was no fluke.
On an unrelated note, Hinksey Park is beautiful. If it’s warm enough, you can find people wild swimming in the lake. Take a trip there when the sun is out if you can.
Winner: Natural Bread
Hamblin bread is magic. The flavours and textures of their Country loaf are so bold and exciting, it’s no wonder their bakery has been a runaway success since it opened. It’s the most striking of the bunch in terms of its look, and the smell is gorgeous.
Natural Bread is a more traditional, reliable loaf and what I’d recommend if you’re after that authentic French bread feel. Ducks love it too.
For me, Sourdough Revolution combines the best of these two worlds and takes the top prize – it’s versatile, tasty and has the perfect sourdough consistency. Do yourself a favour and pick yourself up a big chunk of Gubbeen cheese while you’re at it.