“How can a nation be called great if its bread tastes like Kleenex?” – Julia Child.
The King of the Table; The Staff of Life: just two epithets that indicate the fundamental importance that bread once held in this country. At one time, real bread bakeries could be found at the heart of almost every neighbourhood, providing skilled employment opportunities for people from that community, and allowing everyone else to find a key staple foodstuff within walking distance.
Sadly, the way in which the vast majority of the products marketed as ‘bread’ are now manufactured and sold, could lead one to question whether we as a nation give two hoots any more. The good news, however, is that change is underway and real bread is, as I’m contractually obliged to point out, on the rise.
What is real bread?
The Real Bread Campaign, an open-to-all network run by the food and farming charity Sustain, defines real bread as made with time and care but without hidden processing aids and other artificial additives. From that simple, universally accessible starting point, we find and share ways to make bread better for us, better for our communities and better for the planet.
One of the big issues is that the law isn’t always on the side of the shopper. Certain artificial additives used in industrial loaf fabrication can be deemed ‘processing aids’ and, at the wave of a regulatory wand, vanish from product labels. When it comes to unwrapped loaves, supermarkets and other retailers don’t even have to display lists of ingredients, leaving customers blissfully unaware of a potential litany of additives that could have been used.
Often, such naked loaves peddled as ‘freshly baked’ by supermarkets, convenience stores, baguette/sub stalls and the like, were in fact manufactured in an industrial unit a motorway away and held in ‘cryostasis’ (well, frozen) until needed. They are then merely rebaked in the shop’s loaf tanning salon it calls a ‘bakery’, a half-baked idea that roughly doubles the energy used.
To tighten up such loopholes in order to protect shoppers from being misled and help people make better-informed food choices, we need an honest crust act!
Is real bread the same as artisan bread?
As an organisation, we tend to avoid using the word ‘artisan’ as, being without any legal definition or adequate protection, it is fast becoming meaningless. With little to no practice, anyone can turn out a half-decent loaf from flour, water, yeast and a little salt. I mean, our Lessons in Loaf initiative has seen more than 10,000 school kids do so. Genuine artisanal bread, however, can only be made by a baker who has built up the experience, knowledge and skills necessary to elevate the practice to an art in order to craft superlative loaves time after time without recourse to corner cutting chemicals.
Unfortunately, it seems that certain big businesses might have started to see ‘artisan bread’ as nothing more than a marketing ploy in order to shill a few more quid from shoppers. Does putting in a few wooden shelves and baking lumps of what might well be the same additive-laden dough in supposedly ‘rustic’ shapes, rather than training and employing larger teams of highly-skilled bakers to make real bread with integrity, an artisan bakery make? We think not.
We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: not all loaves are created equal!
Why does this matter?
Beyond the chance to feed your family food that’s been crafted, not created with the aid of a ‘chemistry set’, buying Real Bread from a local independent bakery helps to sustain more skilled jobs per loaf than grabbing an industrial product from a supermarket. That money you spend with the member of your local community whose bakery is helping to keep your high street alive is more likely to get reinvested locally than the supermarket pounds that trickle away into in the pockets of distant suppliers, advertising agencies and fat cat shareholders.
When it comes to health, we ask whether the apparent rise in the number of people reporting they have issues with wheat or gluten is in fact due to the way the industrial system turns it into loaves. Something like 80% of the loaves sold in the UK are contrived by the Chorleywood ‘Bread’ Process. In order to churn out loaves in about ninety minutes from start to finish, this utilises high speed mixing, a fair dollop of bakers’ yeast and perhaps ten or more artificial additives. Compare this to the hours that Real Bread bakers allow for their dough ferment to ‘ripen’ in its own good time.
Though much more research is needed, there is growing evidence that long fermentation, particularly using a live sourdough starter, could have a range of health benefits. These may include lower GI, helping to unlock certain minerals in the bread so that our bodies can make better use of them, reducing levels of the thing in gluten that triggers the coeliac response, and perhaps making bread digestible for more people. Then again, could it be that cocktail of additives to which some people are having an adverse reaction?
Besides, loaves from the best real bread bakeries will be the most delicious you’ll ever try, and of course those you’ve made at home yourself always taste great!
What can I do to make a difference?
Support your local real bread bakery! The Campaign has a map on its website to help you track ‘em down. If you feel unwilling or unable to invest in that way, another option is to make your own. Shying away from rolling up your sleeves? Then dig out or adopt an unloved bread machine to do it for you. A fine time to start any of this is now: Real Bread Maker Week, during which loaf lovers around the land with be running classes, tastings and other activities to help everyone to enjoy bloomin’ brilliant bread.