What’s happened to bread over the last 60 years or so, is something of a tragedy – an elemental food source was turned into something of a nutritional deficit. With the arrival of industrialised bread-making processes of Chorleywood, almost everything about the making of bread has changed, with the introduction of enzymes, preservatives, texturisers and industrially produced yeasts. Bread, which is based on four ingredients – flour, salt, water and yeast – now has an array of ingredients, most of which you can’t pronounce. In-house supermarket bread, the kind that looks freshly-baked, that most of us think of as the healthy bread option in the store, is among the worst.
When the lockdown took hold, one of the ingredients most in demand was flour. The return to home-baking was one of the more lovely surprises of the lockdown, and baking bread was one of its most comforting manifestations. But it should be said, that despite the love of ‘The Great British Bake Off’, Britain is not a country of bakers. Statistics show that 48% of Brits have never baked and a further 19% bake less than once a month. So, within the broad category of home-baking, we can pretty well assume that baking bread is not high on the agenda for most people. Why the resurgence during the lockdown then?
Bread is one of the foods – perhaps the only food? – that is widespread across almost every culture in the world. And, surprisingly, there is evidence that it may pre-date agriculture, so it really does go deep into the core of our evolution as a species. Given this, you could argue that we are losing something of ourselves, in our loss of what is now called ‘real’ bread. And maybe it is that longing for the loss, that made us want to bake bread again? Was it a way of restoring ourselves in the lockdown?
My relationship to bread is one of deeply emotional familial ties. My mother baked bread when I was growing up in the 1970s. She baked deeply wholesome brown bread, which went into the lunches that I took to school. Her sandwiches were stodgy and often soggy, especially when they were made with tuna. I didn’t dislike them but negotiating them was sometimes tricky as they were often drippy. And when they weren’t drippy, they were sticky – made with peanut butter – and the bread stuck to the roof of my mouth when I bit into them, taking some time for me to chew them well enough to be able to swallow. Sometimes, I wished I could have the Wonder Bread my friends’ sandwiches were made from.
My mother also made a rustic ‘French’ bread for dinner parties, which could be lovely or deadly. If overcooked, it became crunchy enough to break a tooth on and I have memories of gnawing on it, trying to make my way through the crust to the bready bit. As an adult, I tried to make it, based on the recipe she scrawled on an index card that I have carried with me for decades – it was not a success and after several attempts, I gave up on recreating it and moved on to more palatable recipes.
However, and strangely, my mother left me with an enduring love of good bread. Living in San Francisco in the 1990s, good (real) bread abounded and while it cost more than the crappy, processed supermarket bread, it wasn’t that much more. That’s changed now – ‘artisan’ bread, while very much worth the money, is unquestionably expensive. Visiting a friend in San Francisco on a recent return to my home state, I was shocked to find that her sourdough bread was running at $8 (£6) a loaf. Artisan bread in the UK remains more tenably affordable (unless you are in Central London), thank god!
My husband and I both bake bread and have done for many years – he, much longer than me. He has become quite an impressive home-baker of good sourdough. Our bread baking is pretty much a daily thing. We’re farmers and we have a roster of volunteers who live with us throughout the year, and come to learn about growing food and what it demands. Most are young and have ferocious appetites – if we didn’t bake the bread ourselves, we’d go bankrupt. On the whole, our volunteers are amazed that we bake so regularly; baking bread is still largely perceived as an onerous, complicated process by the uninitiated.
To be honest, I’ve never been a great bread maker. I do the easy breads and stay away from the sourdough (why compete!) – I make tortillas when we’re eating Mexican, simple flat breads for wraps, a brown batter bread that is quick and easy, a yeasted white bread (great for sandwiches) and my most favourite, soda bread. Soda bread is so distinctive in its flavour – a deep salty deliciousness – and so easy to make. It’s great if you are in a hurry as you can make it from start to finish in around an hour. As a starter loaf for the beginner baker, it’s a very satisfying initiation.
Let’s not forget who we are and keep the lessons of the lockdown close!
Soda Bread Recipe
From Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s ‘River Cottage Family Cookbook’
This is a double recipe, making an ample loaf:
18 oz good quality flour – white, wholemeal or a mix
2 tsp baking soda
2 tsp salt (flaked sea salt is really nice in it)
4 tsp dark brown sugar
450 ml plain yoghurt or buttermilk
Mix ingredients in a large bowl with fork until they pretty much stick together, then bring together in a ball with your hands (the dough will be sticky – you can add a little flour if it’s super sticky).
Place your loaf on an oiled baking sheet and cut the top into a cross, creating space between the cuts.
Heat oven to 230 degrees Celsius and bake for 12 minutes; then reduce to 200 degrees Celsius for a further 15 – 20 minutes. Check the top isn’t soft at the end of baking and if so, give it a few more minutes.
Let sit for about 15 minutes on a baking rack before slicing. This bread is best eaten immediately, but will make nice toast on the following day.
Want to have a go at baking sourdough bread? Ellie Athanasis (formerly of the SFT) and Rosy Benson run Field Bakery at Gothelney Farm, in collaboration with farmer Fred Price. They are running a series of ‘Field to Loaf Sourdough Workshops’ for homebakers. Visit www.fieldbakery.com/workshops for more information.
Photograph: Doctor Rose
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