Real Bread Is On The Rise

Declines and resurgences in foods tend to reoccur in cycles as can be observed with bread, which Suzanne think is currently on the up.

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In my last blog I ranted about the rapid decline in people’s ability to cook and the consequent decline in the quality of ingredients available.  I remind myself that declines and resurgences are nothing new and tend to reoccur in cycles – just as things are reaching rock bottom there is a desire to save the “lost” foods, accompanied by a campaign to reacquaint people with the “real” thing.  Bread is the example that I want to explore here because our most fundamental food has been affected more than once by this cycle and, to a certain extent, is currently managing to emerge on the positive side. 

People have been buying rather than making their bread for years.  Initially, this was principally to do with the lack of an oven in most houses, although a hybrid solution was to make the dough at home and take it to a baker for cooking.  A distrust of what went into the bread that was for sale goes back for as long as there have been commercial bakers, and often with very good cause. However, things reached rock bottom in the 1960’s when government scientists, seeking to make bread with lower-protein British flour, invented the Chorleywood process.  Previously bakers had made their dough at the close of the day, allowed it to ferment and rise overnight and then baked in the morning. The Chorleywood process sped things up with highspeed mixing and various additives so that suddenly it was possible to make many batches of bread per day.  Of course, the equipment was expensive, and the process became centralised in just a handful of large makers, who not only baked the bread but sliced and wrapped it too.  This was initially hailed a great success – you will be familiar with the phrase “the best thing since sliced bread”.  However, over time more people experienced difficulties in digesting bread and some fondly remember that the bread of old had more flavour.

In 1980 The Sunday Times established a Campaign for Real Bread aimed at getting people to bake at home.  It was part of a general backlash against mass produced foods and a growing awareness of healthy eating.  It followed the 1977 release of Elizabeth David’s book English Bread and Yeast Cookery, in my view the best book she ever wrote.  Revisiting The Sunday Times Book of Real Bread which followed the campaign, there are some illuminating interviews that illustrate the difference in attitude towards taste shown by The Scientists (behind the development of the Chorleywood Process) and The Cooks:

The Scientist: “Elizabeth David represents perhaps 0 .1 per cent of the population. We’re not concerned with such a small minority.  Our job is not to cater for tastes which are too bland or too tasty.  We aim at a middle spectrum.  The vast majority of people don’t have highly educated, highly sophisticated, very delicately-tuned tastes like Elizabeth David.  She’s not representative of the bulk of people.  She’s at the gourmet end.”

Elizabeth David: “I don’t bake bread “for pleasure”.  I bake it because I can’t eat bought bread.  Not that breadmaking isn’t a creative and satisfying process which everybody, and I mean everyone, should be taught at school, but it is a tyranny to be driven into making bread because what the bakers supply is so awful…. The only way to get better bread is by educating the population to demand it. You have to teach people to think about what they’re eating and to distinguish between one kind of bread and butter and another, above all to want to know what they’re putting into their stomachs…”

These conversations could equally apply to other mass-produced foods being created by scientists today.  It has taken half a century for us to fall out of love with mass produced bread even though it still accounts for around 70% of what is sold, but most people now have some experience of good bread.  However, it has been possible to imitate elements of the Chorleywood process on a smaller scale. Home breadmaking machines were designed to use dried fast-acting yeast that could be added without pre activation. Although we have now also fallen out of love with bread-making machines (according to recent research by Recycle your Electricals which says there might be 1.4 million going unused in peoples’ homes) we are left with ingredients more suited to them than handmade bread. Fresh and traditional dried yeast have become much harder to buy.

Campaigns such as that initiated by The Sunday Times usually have a limited lifespan but when Andrew Whitley began a new Real Bread Campaign in 2008 he decided to partner with a more permanent campaigning charity – Sustain. The biggest advantage of this long-term presence has been, if you will forgive the pun, a sustained pressure on the claims made by bakers and tireless campaigning against misleading or inadequate labelling.  Sadly, other than when someone has died, there have been very few changes made to labelling laws.

Every year the campaign stages a Real Bread Week, which in 2024 runs from 17th to 25h February.  It aims to get people both baking and buying Real Bread, which they define as being made without additives.  On their website you will find recipes, places to learn how to make bread, and over 600 bakeries where you can buy additive free bread. 

To Buy or Bake?

The reason I asserted near the start of this article that bread in the UK has turned a corner and is largely on the up is that there are now a good number of bakers selling real bread. I say real bread without capital letters, as the 600 listed on the Real Bread map is far fewer than I believe exist. There is even a Real Bread Loaf Mark that bakers can apply to use, which is meant to reassure shoppers, but it has not really become commonplace.

Whilst I feel confident in my own ability to ask the relevant questions to determine whether I consider the bread real or not, I’m less confident that most people would be able to judge.   There are many ways in which the truth is hard to uncover.  Have a look at the website, especially the marketing and labelling sections, to get some idea.

If you live in a city, you are almost bound to have more than one real baker to choose from.  In rural areas they are fewer and farther between because a decent footfall is necessary to keep them viable, but if you are lucky you will know of one where you can stock up.  So, baking your own bread is not the necessity that it was when Elizabeth David wrote.  However, the educational benefits of learning to make your own will enable you to be a more discerning shopper.

I tend to have just a few types of bread that I make regularly.  Even professional bakers stick mostly to their tried and trusted recipes.  I bake bread about once a week, and on that day, we eat bread still warm from the oven for lunch, perhaps with soup or just with some good cheese.  The rest is then sliced and frozen to be taken out and toasted as and when needed. I also keep some bought loaves in the freezer that are different to the types I bake.  A weekly bake should be possible for most people, perhaps at the weekend, although people working from home will find that making bread takes up very little of your time, it just needs you to be around at intervals to move it on to the next stage.

Slow Bread

During my time with Slow Food I chaired another bread campaign called Slow Bread, where the use of the word slow was particularly pertinent to the fermentation time.  Many of the additives and processing aids used in bread are intended to speed up the fermentation process.  Despite the fact that time equals flavour and that many people find bread that has been fermented for at least 10 hours to be easier to digest, time costs money. So, if someone is making bread with at least 10 hours fermentation, they are unlikely to be using additives or processing aids, or at least not knowingly.

There are two main ways of ensuring a slow ferment, both of which relate to the yeast used.  The first is to use a natural yeast, commonly referred to as a sourdough starter, which works at a slower pace than the commercially manufactured yeasts.  The second method is simply to use less bakers’ yeast.  Quickly risen bread typically includes yeast at a rate of 3% of the weight of flour, whereas 1% was more traditional in overnight risen doughs and 0.5% will still do the job. If you can’t find fresh yeast, and it has become much harder to buy, you could keep a tin of dried yeast in store.  Just make sure that it is the traditional dried yeast and not anything that says fast-acting or similar as this is where hidden additives, which do not have to be listed, lurk. The only traditional dried yeast that appears currently to be available (online) is BioReal.

                Sponge and Dough

 A popular way of making overnight risen dough using compressed yeast is called the sponge and dough method in the UK (the sponge has other names abroad, e.g. biga in Italy).  Essentially just half of the flour receives long fermentation with the yeast (hence only half the yeast being required), which produces a ferment that is then used to raise the remaining flour.  In a warm room or airing cupboard this rise can be achieved in just two hours, or you can slow this down too by using an unheated room or even refrigerator.  I use this method for my granary or seeded loaf, but inspired by Elizabeth David, also for enriched doughs such as my Hot Cross Buns

Understanding how you can affect the final product by minor variations in the core ingredients flour/yeast/salt/water and/or temperature opens up an unbelievably large range of breads, one at least of which is bound to fit your dietary and lifestyle needs.  One of the most popular homemade breads of the 1980’s Campaign for Real Bread was the Grant Loaf, which requires no kneading.  There is another no-knead recipe on the Sustain’s Real Bread site, which is baked in a Dutch Pot.  When allowed plenty of time, and with a generous quantity of water, the protein molecules will join together without the aid of vigorous kneading, either by hand or machine.  Of course, in the commercial world time is a cost, but as is observable in so many areas of food and more widely in life, these commercial considerations do not carry the same weight in a home setting.  It is ridiculous to allow solutions that were designed to achieve one aim to be foisted upon us all. 

                Sourdough

The first slow method I mentioned was to use a sourdough starter rather than bakers’ yeast. Making sourdough became one of the key activities of lockdown and, although I don’t think it has been continued by that large a proportion, the experience will have taught them to respect the real thing and know how to find it.

As soon as people became keen to buy sourdough bread it began being faked, and the trouble is there is no legal definition and so nothing to prevent people calling anything sourdough.  Sourfaux has been one of Real Bread’s biggest campaigns. 

                Shelf-life

One of the advantages of sourdough is that it naturally keeps for longer than bread made with bakers’ yeast.  The bread will become drier with keeping (when there are a variety of recipes that call for its use) and it is slow to mould – the very best Panettone are made this way, without the need for artificial preservatives.  For some reason people seem to expect food to have long shelf lives.  Packs of long-life wraps, full of preservatives, feature in recipes that purport to be healthy.  Our experience of sourdough is mainly of crusty loaves with a chewy crumb, but sourdough starters were how all bread was leavened before bakers’ yeast and therefore it appears in all cultures. As we embrace foreign breads, I wonder why quality versions are sometimes harder to come-by, or is it just our reliance on supermarkets and the prioritisation of convenience over flavour?  Ironically, these flatbreads would have been a better way of using British wheat than what the scientists came up with because they aren’t intended to be high-risen.

We are fortunate to have a wholesale bakery in Bristol that supplies delicious sourdough pitas.  I like to keep a supply in the freezer – they can be reheated from frozen. When I served some at a barbeque last year everyone was asking where to buy them, so they could clearly taste the difference.  Our favourite Greek restaurant also serves great freshly baked pita.  When I asked about the recipe, it transpired that they use bakers’ yeast but keep the dough in the fridge for several days, cutting off just what they need for baking fresh, so the dough will have become slightly sour.  If making them at home, (see recipe below), you probably don’t want to keep heating the oven for small quantities, so I would bake the entire overnight dough at one time (I find the oven gives a better pocket than a griddle).  Don’t overbake them, they shouldn’t take on any colour because they are going to be re-cooked on a griddle for serving.  Five minutes should be sufficient for them to puff up, then stack them wrapped in a cloth to keep them supple as they cool ready for freezing.

What Next?

The stage is certainly set to see bread in the UK continue to improve.  If you eat at a decent restaurant, you are likely to be served with excellent bread, either made on the premises or supplied by a good baker.  In the UK, we tend to see bread as a pre-starter, brought to the table with drinks to keep the hunger at bay.  Foreign visitors are often surprised to find any uneaten bread removed from the table as soon as the starters arrive because they are more used to using it to mop up sauces.

Our habit of eating sandwiches for lunch could be our Achilles Heel, because all too often these are bought from a chain store and made with mass produced bread.  Childrens’ lunchboxes are quite likely to contain mass produced pita bread, which is why I have highlighted them as something we need to improve.  Sadly convenience often wins over taste where lunch is concerned.

Why not use Real Bread Week to review all the bread you eat and identify which change could give the most benefit.  It might just be a matter of finding a better source, but if you want to have a go at making bread too here are links to some recipes:

Recipes:

My Hot Cross Buns

Overnight White

Pitta

No-knead Bread



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