For Welsh baker and philosophy graduate Jack Smylie Wilde bread is more than a daily food. It is a "manifestdough" to explore the fundamental questions of humanity

We’re walking through long grass, crossing fields towards the Ceredigion beach he used to visit with his grandfather, when Jack Smylie Wild’s thoughts turn to metaphysics. “Heraclitus talks about how you can’t step in the same river twice because you’ve changed and the river has. It’s the idea of process in everything. Things are always the same but different.”

That’s bread-making, he says. Consistency is the goal, but the process to achieve that is in flux. “The temperatures of the flour and the water from the tap change with the seasons. You come out each morning and feel how cool and how humid it is.

“I like that. It connects my bread – this living thing – to something much bigger.”

In February 2015 Jack opened an artisan bakery-café in Cardigan, west Wales. Installed in a former customs house near the River Teifi, Bara Menyn is a lovely spot. An old ladder hung sideways offers a shelf for books on nature and poetry. Wine crates double as display cases. There are farmhouse tables and chairs, a woodburner in the corner and young smiley staff. It is the architectural equivalent of a big hug.

What makes Bara Menyn (“bread and butter” in Welsh) interesting, however, is Jack.

Talk to the 28-year-old philosophy graduate for a while and you realise that bread-making is not just a job. It’s part of the weft and weave of how he understands the world here beside “this dreamy, forgotten river that winds down through farmland to an amazing coastline”.

It’s bread as philosophy – a manifestdough, he says. He’s only half-joking.

To taste good artisan bread is to remind yourself why one of humanity’s oldest foods remains a staff of life if only we choose to value it. Because of industrialisation, a food that requires nothing more than flour, yeast (or natural leaven), water and salt now typically contains calcium propionate, amylase, chlorine dioxide and L-cysteine hydrochloride. The wheat itself has less protein; the Chorleywood process that produces 80 per cent of bread exploits cheaper, low-protein grains.

Give us this day our daily bread? No thanks; not when it’s a culinary and nutritional disaster.

It was the “white, pappy, yeasted” loaves sold in his village store that led Jack to try baking. Stodgy and underbaked, that first loaf was pretty awful, he says. “But there was also the raw satisfaction of bringing together these disparate elements and acting as a catalyst to create a unified loaf out of the chaos.”

He opened a microbakery in his Llandesil home before perfecting sourdough recipes in the bakery of an organic farm shop. Then in 2014 the premises of Bara Menyn came up for rent. He could not resist.

Today, the 80 loaves Jack bakes daily in Bara Menyn – from the staple “Daily loaf” to an ancient-grain bread or five-seed loaf – are sourdough, produced from nothing more than a blend of organic flours (white, wholemeal, spelt, rye and emmer), natural leaven, water and sea salt. “The challenge of sourdough is to become a master of fermentation. I love that you work with just four ingredients. It’s a stripping back to the essentials.”

Almost a culinary mindfulness, I suggest. “Yeah, yeah,” Jack agrees. “When I’m handling the dough, I’m immersed in the tactile experience of silky, stretchy, pillowy softness. Nothing else matters. If I don’t bake for a week, I get the equivalent of itchy feet – I need to get my hands back into dough and craft loaves.”

I think the appeal lies deeper still.

Whereas standard bread accelerates ingredients to a loaf in around three hours, sourdough forces you to slow down. From mixing the dough to lifting finished loaves from the stone bake oven takes Jack 24 hours. Sourdough teaches patience; that the rewards of a less frenetic pace are deeper, richer flavours. “Good things take time,” Jack says.

It’s tempting to point to this corner of Wales as an influence on Jack’s meditative character. With his grandfather, who had a house nearby, he explored its cliffs and beaches as a child. They’re quiet places; wild places to still the mind or provide the space for it to roam.

When he moved here with his partner after university in 2013, he planned to write a narrative of the Teifi’s 73-mile course from source to sea. “Then I realised it was more about an intimate, sensitive approach to a small area; to really observe and be quiet and slow to the pace that nature’s working at.”

The results will be a book, Riverwise: meditation on the River Teifi. “Like baking, it’s about closely observing the processes and the timings and the shifts in the seasons.”

He adds: “I have the river and bread to thank for what’s happened to me over the last three years. I was quite lost beforehand. It’s amazing how things come together if you give them time and plant some seeds.”

Given this, it’s a surprise to hear Jack offer a politically charged quote by Satish Kumar, ecologist editor of Resurgence magazine, as an inspiration. Making your own bread, argues the former Jain monk, is the most radical action we can undertake.

“I didn’t really understand it when I read it. But I realise now that when you make your own food – especially bread because most mass-manufactured bread is full of crap – you’re taking power into your own hands. You’re choosing what to put in your body and that’s one of the most intimate, important acts you can do.”

He continues: “We are what we eat. People forget that food isn’t just to live.”

That’s why the café of Bara Menyn sources produce from local organic farms and whatever fish and seafood has been landed by local fishermen. And like that Kumar quote, the motivation is more profound than good ingredients. “We have a duty to support this community of small growers and suppliers. Why would you do it any other way?” Jack says.

He adds: “This isn’t just a job. The people who work here are like family. The bread is a passion.”

Back on our walk to the beach, the green hills dip to reveal a blue sea spread below. The sound of waves replaces that of birdsong; a murmur at first, then crump and hiss as we scramble down slate cliffs on to a half-moon of pale sand where waves break.

Some locals call this Secret Beach. However, for Jack and his grandfather who lived a mile away this was Traeth Bach – “Little Beach”. More to himself than me Jack says: “You feel so far away from everything here – there are no busy roads, no fast pace.”

We sit on a rock and eat sandwiches freshly made in the café. Surf crumps on the shore. The air is supercharged with salt and iodine. The sun shines.

I guess Jack has been musing over our earlier conversation about Heraclitus, bread and the seasons because he says suddenly: “Philosophy for me is a way of relearning the world. It’s a way of looking at things afresh. It’s so hard to bring that into the every day. Maybe we should try more.”

Then he looks over and grins. “Fancy a game of Frisbee?”