Our daily bread

Sourdough rye and wholemeal boule
Sourdough rye and wholemeal boule

It has been a while since I last posted on the blog. Once again, we have been busy renovating bits of the house, which has kept me pretty busy. Thankfully we can see some light at the end of this ten year tunnel, although there is a mountain of odds and ends to finish off, including a pile of fourteen doors to treat and hang, and I imagine we will then move outdoors and start fixing up some of the rather rough areas of the plot. I have also been spending quite a bit of time indulging in another obsession – baking.

I love making bread. For some time now I have been improving my knowledge of artisan baking techniques and developing my own formulae for my preferred loaves. I have become so irritated with the mass produced supermarket offerings and how far removed they are from real bread that I have vowed never to buy another loaf, save from an artisan baker. Whether I really can stick to that promise remains to be seen, but I shall certainly be looking to step up production of my own bread.

There is something special about bread that makes it my favourite thing to prepare in the kitchen. The transformation of the four key ingredients – flour, water, salt, and yeast – is not much short of miraculous. The range of shapes, textures, and flavours that can be achieved with different flours and variations on the process is remarkable.

White baguette
White baguette

The supermarket and mainstream bakery offerings fail on two counts: the bread has poor flavour and texture, and it is full of junk that has no business being in our bread. The ubiquitous sliced loaf might be handy for a sandwich or toast in the morning, but the texture is just awful; like chewing on a soggy sponge. The aroma of homemade or artisan bread is one of the most enticing, yet the sliced loaf more often has a nasty, musty, smell that is far from appealing.

A great many traditional breads are made with nothing more than flour, water, a little salt for flavour, and some sort of leavening agent such as a baker’s yeast or the wild yeasts of a natural leaven, often known as a sourdough. Only the flour and water are essential ingredients. Some breads are not even salted, such as the Pane Toscano, left unsalted and consumed typically with salty cured meats. Some, such as focaccia, are flavoured and enriched with olive oil, others incorporate some milk or butter. What place, though, does palm oil, soya flour, emulsifiers, caramelised sugar, and so on, have in our bread? Examples of ingredients from three of the main producers are listed below, for a white and a wholemeal sort.

Warburtons white: Wheat Flour [with Calcium, Iron, Niacin (B3) and Thiamin (B1)], Water, Yeast, Vegetable Oil (Rapeseed, Sustainable Palm), Salt, Flavouring, Soya Flour, Preservative: Calcium Propionate (added to inhibit mould growth); Emulsifiers: E471, E481; Flour Treatment Agents: Ascorbic Acid (Vitamin C), E920 (Vegetarian).

Warburtons wholemeal: Wholemeal Wheat Flour (57%), Water, Yeast, Vegetable Oil (Rapeseed, Sustainable Palm), Salt, Wheat Gluten, Emulsifiers: E481, E472e, E471; Soya Flour, Preservative: Calcium Propionate (added to inhibit mould growth); Flour Treatment Agent: Ascorbic Acid (Vitamin C). With 57% Wholegrain.

Hovis white: Wheat Flour, Water, Yeast, Salt, Soya Flour, Fermented Wheat Flour, Emulsifiers: E472e, E471 (made from Vegetable Oils); Vegetable Fat, Flour Treatment Agent: Ascorbic Acid (Vitamin C).

Hovis granary: Wheat Flour, Water, Original Granary Blend (Granary Malted Wheat Flakes (11%), Malted Barley Flour, Toasted Wheat, Wheat Bran, Toasted Rye), Wheat Protein, Yeast, Salt, Vinegar, Caramelised Sugar, Vegetable Fat, Soya Flour, Barley Flour, Emulsifiers: E471, E472e (made from Vegetable Oils); Barley Fibre, Flour Treatment Agent: Ascorbic Acid (Vitamin C).

Kingsmill white: Wheat Flour (with Calcium, Iron, Niacin (B3) and Thiamin (B1)), Water, Wheat Fibre (5%), Yeast, Wheat Protein, Salt, Vegetable Oils (Rapeseed, Palm), Vinegar, Emulsifiers: E471, E472e, Soya Flour, Psyllium Fibre, Preservative: Calcium Propionate (added to inhibit mould growth), Flour Treatment Agent: Ascorbic Acid (Vitamin C).

Kingsmill wholemeal: Wholemeal Wheat Flour, Water, Kibbled Malted Wheat, Wheat Protein, Yeast, Sugar, Salt, Vegetable Oils (Rapeseed, Palm), Malted Barley Flour, Vinegar, Emulsifiers: E471, E472e, Soya Flour, Preservative: Calcium Propionate (added to inhibit mould growth), Flour Treatment Agent: Ascorbic Acid (Vitamin C), With 61% Wholegrain (Wholemeal Wheat Flour, Kibbled Malted Wheat, Malted Barley Flour).

The unnecessary ingredients are only part of the problem; the manufacture of mass produced loaves has more in common with a production line for plastic bits and bobs than what one might hope for in this important staple food. The process is optimised with profit in mind. That inevitably results in time being a critical factor. Time works miracles on flour and water; a slow fermentation develops both flavour and structure. Within reason, the slower the process the better the bread. To get a loaf from raw ingredients to sliced and plastic wrapped in just a few hours, all sorts of junk is added to the dough, along with an excessive amount of yeast. Various enzymes are often added that, as they are considered part of the production process and not an ingredient proper, do not even have to be listed on the labels. At the heart of the process, high speed mechanical mixing is used to develop the dough. This process, though, is detrimental to the quality of the bread, resulting, for example, in the oxidisation of certain flavour giving compounds. Unfortunately, this process, known as the Chorleywood Bread Process, accounts for the majority of the bread produced in the UK.

Is this approach justified? Not really. It is entirely possible to produce superb bread with hardly any mechanical work. Kneading is, essentially, a shortcut to gluten formation, which is why there can be such a thing as no-knead bread, which relies instead on a long fermentation to develop the dough. A gentle mixing of ingredients and a few stretch-and-fold operations are all that is really necessary. I do not, of course, object to a certain amount of mechanical work – careful mixing and a brief, slow speed, kneading, as part of a slower and more traditional approach.

Some facts regarding the bread industry, from the industry body, The Federation of Bakers, put matters into context. The bread industry is worth £3.6 billion producing something in the order of 11 million loaves per day. By volume, 80% is produced by large plant bakeries, 17% by in-store bakeries, and just 3% by master bakers, with the three largest producers accounting for more than three quarters of the industry by value. Three quarters of our bread is of the plastic wrapped sliced loaf sort. In-store bakeries cannot be relied upon to produce their bread from scratch, often being supplied with part-baked and frozen products by the large plants to finish in store, a practice one might find rather misleading.

Interestingly, the Federation of Bakers notes that most of the increase in market share enjoyed by supermarket ISBs has been at the expense of the smaller craft bakers”, and, even more telling, that in contrast to the UK, craft bakeries still dominate the market in many European countries which means that exports of bread and bakery products currently account for only a very small proportion of the total market”. It is, of course, true that wonderful artisan bread can be more readily found across much of Europe. The small bakeries of France are famous for their bread and beautiful patisserie. A wonderful diversity of excellent bread can be found across France and Italy, whilst Germany, Eastern Europe, and the Nordic countries are well known for an assortment of delicious dark ryes. The UK is, sadly, (in)famous for its plastic wrapped sliced loaf. That is not to say that one cannot find artisan bread in the UK – it is just vastly outnumbered by grossly inferior products, the best of which are just passable, the worst of which are barely edible.

As if eating an unpleasant smelling, poorly textured and flavoured product were not bad enough, many consider modern mass produced bread to be unhealthy. Not only does it contain unnecessary ingredients, some of which do not appear to be appropriate in foodstuffs, but the process bypasses the slow fermentation that makes bread more digestible. There are many reports that people who struggle with eating mass produced bread find that they can enjoy certain bread whilst abroad. Artisan bread, especially sourdough, is not only delicious, but arguably a more healthy proposition, and appears to be less likely to cause digestive problems.

Olive fougasse
Olive fougasse

Of course, there is, depending on one’s perspective, a drawback with artisan bread. It tends not to last too long. It is best the day it is baked. Sourdoughs keep longer, but none have the sort of shelf life of the mass produced stuff. It is not, of course, supposed to last long – it is a fresh product. If it lasts for more than a day or two in good condition one ought to wonder how that has been achieved and whether that might, in fact, be a rather bad idea. Many of the continental breads, such as the French baguette or the Pane Toscano of Italy turn into bricks after a day or so, but then bread is bought at least daily and enjoyed at its best. The idea of buying a loaf on Monday and still eating it on Friday is, to my mind, just wrong. The very notion of daily bread seems to have disappeared here. Baking or buying fresh baked goods on a daily basis has, until relatively recent years, been an essential part of our lives. Even the most oft recited of Christian prayers asks God to ‘give us this day our daily bread’. We would, perhaps, be wise to take note.

Sourdough white and rye baton
Sourdough white and rye baton

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