…And forgive us our sins – which are many as far as our daily loaf is concerned. I’m not interested here in the religious or historical significance of bread, important though I’m sure it is, but more in the nutritional value of something that a large proportion of the population still rely on as a food staple. If you doubt this fact, the statistics bear witness: according to the flour advisory bureau 99% of households buy bread and the equivalent of nearly 12 million loaves are sold each and every day.
Andrew Whitley, the original owner-baker of the Village bakery in Melmerby, Cumbria, is right when he wrote that ‘bread matters’ in his 2006 book of the same name. If we are eating that much of something, it certainly does matter not only what’s in it, but how it is made. If you are not familiar with the ‘Chorleywood Method’ of bread production, you may want to acquaint yourself with the basics, as it’s the way the majority of our bread is made, whether by the supermarkets or your local baker. The bread you can buy locally may be freshly made and baked, as opposed to the supermarket loaves, which despite their appetising smell, are generally frozen, but the method will probably be the same, unless you are fortunate to have an artisan baker in your neighbourhood. I don’t propose to go into the method here, but suffice to say that over 80% of UK bread is made using low protein wheat, an assortment of additives and high speed mixing. This produces the volumous pappy light white bread that so many Brits today favour.
As those of you who make your own bread will know, all that a loaf needs is four ingredients: flour, water, yeast and salt; fat can be added, but it is not essential. You may like to consider that the modern loaf can contain up to eight additional ingredients including an array of ‘enzymes’ which have no nutritional value and aren’t required to be included on the ingredients list because they’re considered as ‘ processing aids’. They are made from a range of delightful products such as pigs pancreas and fungal bacteria, often produced by genetic engineering (yum). The reason they are there is to delay the staling process, increase the volume, and generally assist the industry to make a cheap, long keeping, palatable product. You decide if that’s what you want from your loaf!
The continentals have a different approach : the French put the ‘daily’ back into bread and will queue to get it. Bread is designed to be made and eaten fresh, not kept for a week before turning mouldy! I know the arguments for convenience, but to my mind it’s time to claim back our national loaf. Not everyone will want to get stuck up to their elbows in dough a la Hugh Fearnley -Whittingstall or Jamie Oliver, and make their own, but bread machines are a great alternative for the time poor or less confident, and turn out a decent product. At least you can control what goes into it, and the time it takes to make. I’ve had my bread maker for 7 years, and wouldn’t be without it. Prior to that I made bread by hand, on and off. I worked full-time and managed a family and household as well as doing a part-time college course; I am not of the ‘domestic goddess’ persuasion, so I feel sure it should be within the grasp of most of us to make and bake our own bread.
Thankfully there is a resurgence of interest in ‘real’ bread and community bakeries have set up in various places, providing tasty and nutritious loaves to local people who may not have the time, skill or confidence to do it themselves. The ‘Real Bread Campaign’ has been a major player in raising awareness of the poor quality of our national loaf, and encouraging the artisan bakery movement. The bread may be more expensive than supermarket loaves, but there is no comparison in taste and texture. Having the cheapest bread in Europe is not necessarily a positive accolade. As the price of wheat rises and supermarkets are forced to increase the price of basic commodities such as bread, maybe it’s time to look at the alternatives. At the very least we could campaign for something more worthy of the name bread than the nutrient poor, tasteless, air-filled, time-rushed technological loaf which adorns the shelves of the majority of our supermarkets.