JAMES Morton is a self-confessed bread evangelist. So keen is he to spread the love he feels for bread-making that you might even call him a dough-gooder. And it isn’t just love he spreads but knowledge. His wrote his first book, Brilliant Bread, in 2013 and followed that two years later with How Baking Works (And What To Do When It Doesn’t). This month he completes a yeast-based trilogy of sorts when he publishes Super Sourdough, an attempt to inspire readers to try their hand at a type of bread which is both ubiquitous – supermarket sales have risen 98% in recent years and Waitrose now offers 12 varieties – but also kind of mystical. Nothing is more emblematic of an “artisan” foodstuff than sourdough, a miracle of science which requires time and fermentation to act together in exact quantities if it’s to work.

But Super Sourdough is not, he stresses, a recipe book. At least not primarily. “My books are all about understanding,” he says. “I don’t like the idea of a cookbook with a 120 recipes in it. I don’t think that’s actually very inspiring. What I like is to hopefully convey a deep understanding and an appreciation for everything about bread, from all the different ingredients to the microbiology behind it.”

As if that task wasn’t challenging enough, the 28-year-old Shetlander combines the endeavour with life as a full-time doctor. In fact when we speak he has just finished a shift at Glasgow’s Queen Elizabeth hospital, part of an ongoing rotation which in two years’ time will see him qualify as a GP. He originally intended to train as a surgeon but has since changed to general practice. Why the switch from theatre to waiting room?

“It was partly to do with a work-life balance,” he says. “But part of it was just the attraction of being a GP. There aren’t enough GPs and it can be a really rewarding medical speciality – a lifelong relationship with your patients. Also the dream of having an awesome GP practice with good coffee and good bread sounds good.”

Talking of work-life balance, how does a (presumably) over-worked junior doctor find time to bake sourdough, feed images of it to a voracious Instagram page (15,000 followers and counting) and also write about it?

One reason is that he just loves making bread. “When it goes well, making a really good loaf of bread is the best feeling in the world,” he says. “The only issue comes when you get as into it as I am now. You become a bit of a perfectionist and when things don’t go well – and inevitably things don’t go well occasionally, when I’m trying a new thing or just having a bad day – then it’s really disappointing. Especially if you’ve had a bad day at work and you come home and the bread that’s in the fridge waiting to be baked is rubbish. It can be a bit of a downer. But bread-making itself is usually extremely rewarding and can be fitted in very easily around a busy life.”

There’s another reason too. “I like to make the most of an opportunity and all the things that have happened to me – Bake Off, the books – have presented quite an opportunity.”

Ah yes, The Great British Bake Off. If you recognise the name or the face it’s because Morton featured on the show’s third series in 2013. He was still a student at the time. You many remember his Parsnip, Pear And Pecan Upside-Down Cake, his Orange, Mint And Chocolate Bagel or his Whisky Kugelhopf-Brioche Baba, which won him top spot in the Sweet Dough round and helped him into the final, where he finished runner-up to eventual winner John Whaite. You may also remember his jumpers, which caused almost as much of a stir as the ill-fated Gingerbread Barn that collapsed on itself in the tense quarter-final. For The Daily Telegraph, he was the “speccy, cardigan-clad Scottish medical student” who became “an unlikely heart-throb”.

Applying for the show was “a punt”, says Morton. “I was encouraged by most of my friends to go on. We were all good bakers, but they thought I had the most USPs, being from Shetland, being male – which was unusual on Bake Off at the time – being young, being a bread maker, having interesting things to say. I suppose all these things just ticked boxes.”

Even so, the selection process was arduous and rigorous. Even at the last hurdle there were still 80 prospective candidates vying for just 12 places, so each one had to go through a screen test and a simulated Bake Off round complete with judging by Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry.

Morton made the cut. Did the jumpers help? “I just wore those jumpers anyway,” he protests. “They were just Shetland jumpers. People seemed to think I was putting on some kind of character or, worse, was encouraged to be a sort of character by the TV people. But no, that was just me. I still wear them.”

BORN in Inverness and raised in Hillswick, on the Northmaven peninsula, Morton is the son of Tom Morton, the cultural polymath whose CV includes broadcasting, journalism, writing, and music. With his books and his double bass – he’s a former member of the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland – Morton Jr. has already ticked off three of those four occupations. His mother, meanwhile, is a GP, so perhaps that’s where the interest in medicine comes from.

The love of baking, however, is rooted in a previous generation – Morton’s grandmother – and also in the culture of Shetland itself, where food and the sharing of it knits (and keeps) communities together, whether it’s sweet “fancies” or Shetland’s trademark mutton soup.

“My gran, when she was alive, lived 100 yards down the road from us and I used to go round there every day after school. That’s where I got my love of baking from. Gran would bake Apple Pie, Lemon Meringue Pie, Victoria Sponge, things like that. We’d do that on an almost daily basis. I’d drink a lot of tea and eat a lot of Jaffa cakes as well.”

Later he worked in kitchens in hotels and restaurants in Shetland and he did the same when he moved to Glasgow to study medicine. And it was in Glasgow that he was first introduced to sourdough bread, courtesy of a baker called Davie who lent him two books. The first was Dough, by celebrated Breton baker Richard Bertinet, now based in Bath where he runs The Bertinet Kitchen. The other was Bourke Street Bakery, published by the founders of the Sydney bakery of the same name. Fatefully, Davie also gave him a blob of his eight-year-old sourdough “starter”. Morton started making sourdough at home and was soon hooked. He still is. “Sourdough’s something I absolutely love and get addiction to making,” he says. “I make it about three times a week on average. If you look on my Instagram page, there’s a lot of bread”.

But Morton’s promotion of home-made bread is about more than artisanal one-upmanship or the creation of Instagram-ready food porn. Just as his interest in science has driven him to try to understand sourdough at a molecular level, so has his medical knowledge made him aware of the wider issues concerning bread. Think smashed avocado on sourdough has no place in discussions about public health? Think again.

“Most of us are in medicine to make a difference, to make people better, healthier, happier and public health has the biggest potential for that,” he says. “What we do in a day to day basis is important, but it’s small fry compared to mass changes in society – things like changing what’s considered acceptable when it comes to processed foods.”

And there’s little in our diet which is more processed than our beloved white bread. Just last week it was revealed that a 17-year-old boy in Bristol went blind after existing on a diet of chips, crisps and white bread.

Morton is well aware of the many individual health issues linked with poor diet, from bowel cancer to type 2 diabetes, but at a national level he thinks obesity is the more pressing issue. “We get a bit obsessed with these other things because they make good headlines but the biggest thing is obesity and getting people to lose weight to be healthier. Bread gets a bad reputation – it’s carbs – but actually good bread you’ve made yourself that’s chewy and enjoyed in moderation is certainly part of that.”

Perhaps, then, it’s not what’s on your piece that’s important – it’s what it’s made with. Bread, as James Morton would attest, is serious stuff.

Super Sourdough by James Morton is published on September 19 (Quadrille, £20)

Best Trait?

Being a good doctor, or trying to be.

Worst trait?

Ease of distraction. Also thinking ‘I’ll get to it later’, and then not.

Last book read?

Bernard Moitessier’s The Long Way, read immediately after Sir Robin Knox-Johnston’s A world Of My Own in a sailing double bill.

Last film watched?

Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, for the second time

Jam or marmalade?


Who’s going to win Bake Off this year?

I can’t tell you that.

Best advice received?

Don’t choose a path in life because of the sort of people around you doing it when you make the choice: they’ll be gone when you’ve made it. Do what you like most.

Ideal dinner party guests?

The Hairy Bikers [Si King and Dave Myers], Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins, Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie.