Bread deals with living things, with giving life, with growth, with the seed, the grain that nurtures. It’s not coincidence that we say bread is the staff of life.Lionel Poilâne ( French Boulanger)
When I was a child, the staple English white sliced loaf was welcomed by a nation newly emerging from the deprivation of WW2 and ‘toasted’ by the nation as a convenience readily accepted by all and sundry, remaining until recently the most popular type of bread in the supermarkets.
Due to the rising trend of home baking and artisan bakeries cropping up, this is changing for the better with an increase in good quality ingredients coming to the fore as an imperative, after the commercialization which altered not only the way in which bread was produced but also the taste. England was eager for modernization and hungry for the perceived benefits of this long life, plastic wrapped and crucially, cheaper ‘Wonderloaf’ and only now are the consequences coming to light.
The method that led to industrial bread production on a scale that was hitherto unseen is still responsible for 80% of the bread sold in Britain currently and it all began at the Chorleywood Flour Milling and Bakery Research Association laboratories in 1961 when the ground-breaking Chorleywood Process entered the stage and would change the face of bread manufacturing. The national loaf, which was uniformly introduced in 1942 during the necessity for rationing as a solution to the shortage of white flour, was dismissed by consumers for the alternative soft white bread that retained its freshness for longer. Coupled with praise from the Flour Advisory Bureau who made the following statement in an advertisement in 1975, the fact that British wheat could be at the heart of bread making was an additional economic advantage.
‘Already, thanks to the Chorleywood process, nearly half the wheat in our bread is British. The industry’s current development programme could bring about a situation where British bread is made from an even higher proportion of British wheat – thus making the British loaf even better value for money in relation to world bread prices.’
Clearly it was intended that there be less dependency upon imports, however, as a child I observed the difference between the light and airy stuff and the continental loaves that my parents would buy as a treat from the market. Oh, how I loved the discernible flavor oozing from my sandwich when it was chewy and not at all symmetrical. After school, if there was only the white sliced option available, I would head for the crust and butter it, adding some cheese in an attempt to avoid the tasteless featherweight fare that felt decidedly unsatisfying.
If we look into the archives we can see that the Chorleywood Process became less of a culinary art and more of a science, as the discovery that by adding chemicals along with a combination of other ingredients such as hard fats, injections of gas and air and double the amount of yeast and mixing at high speed would create a dough which also baked quickly, therefore leading to mass production, as well as one that did not go stale, this masking the elements which naturally inform us that something is fresh.
Now I will refrain here from the health issues that show a link to digestive problems, intolerance and allergies to wheat, as I write about this elsewhere more fully, but will simply add that bread made at breakneck speed will need to have additives for supplementation and will be bound to lack taste.
What I would like to share is the pleasing experience of learning how to make bread and in particular sourdough loaves with Emmanuel Hadjiandreou at the School of Artisan Food on the Welbeck estate, Nottinghamshire.
His bread has won the soil association organic food Awards and his bakery in Hastings is the proud recipient of many other awards. Not only did I learn the fundamental principles of making an exquisite Sourdough loaf but also the principles behind milling, what constitutes good flour and much more, I came to understand the importance of slow versus quick, the time it takes to deliver flavor and texture and that loaves are not enhanced through longer shelf life but through old time methods which are fortunately springing up everywhere again in homes and communities as people discover these recipes and ways anew.
Bread making is an enterprise that can occupy a lifetime or simply provide a family with a nutritious and may I add, an endless variety of breads as even when using Sourdough as a starter, there are many different recipes to choose from as well as other ways to bake up a treat. In Emmanuel’s Book, you will find the information you need to bake all manner of breads, be it sourdough, good white bread, soda bread, multigrain, ciabatta, focaccia, baguettes, bagels, pita, flatbreads, wheat free and gluten free, his famous stollen, brioche, croissants, pizza and much more. You don’t have to leave home to acquire a wealth of knowledge and expertise in this superb manual and who knows where this may take you.
Indeed, there was a young man in one of the classes I participated in at Welbeck, who I could see would go a long way as there was something about the manner in which he exhibited an interest in acquiring these artisan techniques.
Ben Mackinnon, now has his own bakery, the E5 Bakehouse, which has often been featured now on television and radio. He is doing a marvelous job of bringing the art of sourdough baking to Hackney in London and I will happily quote from his website, “Everything we bake, make or sell embodies our passion for artisan methods, organic local products and delicious food. Our breads are entirely hand-crafted and baked daily, at sunrise; we source our flours from local mills and deliver our goods by bicycle. We even serve coffee from a local east-end roaster. But we are also creating a new kind of community space in London. Our bakery is home to a small, committed group of bakers, chefs and baristas, and we do our best to promote the work of local artists and entrepreneurs. To consistently bake beautiful sourdough loaves, requires a great deal of attention and care of the leaven. Leaven incidentally coming from the German word leben, meaning life”.
The relationship between ‘life’ and ‘bread’ is something that cannot be overlooked and it is mentioned by Leviticus 26:26 ‘And when I have broken the staff of your life, ten women shall bake your bread in one oven’, in the Bible, revealing the necessity of this vital provender even then.
Breaking bread together is a time old expression which unifies people in sharing not only food for sustenance, but also threads that bonds their spirit in togetherness. Bread and butter is not just a pudding, but also denotes a basic source of income that is relied upon and the word dough is also attributed to mean ‘money’.
Another experience that remains embedded in my DNA is when travelling to France and enjoying the wonderful breakfasts there, which despite consisting of bread, croissants, preserves and coffee were sustaining till lunch and no weight gained either!
French bread is made daily and expected to be stale the next. It is full of taste and we can understand why when delving into some of the history behind some of the traditional bakeries in France, when reading of the passion that inspired Lionel Poilâne a young baker from Normandy to open his first shop in Paris in 1932 in the charming area of Saint- Germain des Prés. His persistence in sticking to sourdough loaves paid off and led to a further shop in Paris and two in London as well as an expanded production through his ‘manufactory’.
He rose to the challenge of extended supply by creating with his wife, 24 wood fire ovens which each had a baker, rather like a franchise in fact, and this created outlets for his flagship bakery which expanded the business considerably.
During this expansion, the quality remained his focus as it does today and the ingredients are sourced with care. Notably, there are only four and these are flour which is stone ground, water, salt and sourdough starter. This brings home the alarming amount of additives commonly inserted into commercial loaves and no wonder that our stomachs, which haven’t changed much over time may have difficulty in digesting this.
The Poilâne Bread Library is a resource available to anyone through request and houses over 2,500 items in several languages related to bread, as well as Lionel Poilâne’s own books and research.
So having said all of this, the good news is that you if so inclined may also easily become a baker in your own home and enjoy all the benefits of knowing exactly what it is made of. There is nothing like the aroma of freshly made bread to arouse the taste buds of a morning and set the day up in style, or add nurture to lunchtime in the form of a chunky sandwich and romance to an evening with some wine and cheese.
As with anything in life, it is best to be prepared with the right kitchenware equipment and tools.
Here is a list that will make it easier for you to gather what you need and if you are a seasoned pro, then hopefully this will also assist when you wish to replace any well used items:
Baker’s linen (couche) for proofing
Baskets/proofing and dough rising
Bread or pizza peel
Metal dough scraper
Non-stick parchment paper
Pans, Roasting, loaf
Plastic dough scraper
Sharp serrated knife
Weights and measures, jug, cups, spoons, electronic scales
Wire rack cooling
A little hint from Emmanuel too for any of you wondering about bread machines! He is all for them as an alternative to hand baking and says they work a treat. If you are using good ingredients and making your own bread, that is far better than buying inferior produce, so go for it, if this slots more effortlessly into your lifestyle.
‘Bread is the staff of life; in which is contained, inclusive, the quintessence of beef, mutton, veal, venison, partridge, plum-pudding and custard: and to render all complete, there is intermingled a due quantity of water, whose crudities are also corrected by yeast or barm, through which it means it becomes a wholesome fermented liquor, diffused through the mass of bread.’ Jonathan Swift (1667-1745)
If you find yourself drawn to becoming a ‘Breadwinner’ and starting up a business, you will no doubt find a ready market in your community. Even by beginning small with friends and neighbours as some people do, you would be filling a need and helping by supplying your very own ‘Staff of Life’ to those who are unable to find the time or resources themselves.