Week 30: I will make bread great again.
Updated: Nov 15, 2020
A few weeks ago, I found the end slices of an old supermarket loaf in the bread bin whilst hunting for a pre-bedtime snack. It was 2-weeks past the date on the packaging, but it was still absolutely fine. I had a bonus few slices of toast, and went to bed feeling like a winner.
It was only a bit later, that I realised that I had found some bread, that was several weeks old at the bottom of the bread bin, and it was absolutely fine. Not a speck of mould, and as soft as the day we bought it. Wrapped in plastic, but not sweaty in any way whatsoever.
It made me wonder: what on earth was in that bread?
Bread, is very different of fruit and vegetables from that perspective. If our vegetables last a long time, we rightly celebrate this. It is a signal they are fresh, and are more likely to have been grown well. It hopefully means they have been correctly stored, and have been transported with care. If we are able to add the last few strawberries to a smoothie, after a week in the fridge, we tell everyone. They become celebrities in the house, and long after the last slurps we reminisce with amazement about that ten-day old strawberry.
The celebrities of the bread world however, are quite the opposite in terms of lifetime. Good bread is the mayfly of the food world. The celebrity of the bread world, is the loaf tucked under your arm on the way back from the boulangerie. Warming your ribs, and sending wafts of joy to your nostrils. The kind of loaf that you can't help but tear the crust off on the way back from the store, as the justifiable reward for doing the legwork. The first moments of fresh loaves are It is also the best moment. It is made with love, handed over the counter, and already it is ageing in the most wonderfully natural way.
Warm, crusty, wrapped in paper, and after 24-hours as hard as a boulder.
Having fresh bread seemingly available on every corner, has become rare and has made a luxury out of a staple. We eat a lot of bread made without this kind of love these days.
It is also really sad, because along with being one of life's essentials, really good and really fresh bread transcends what it simply is. If made with care, and made with love, it is versatile and can bring joy in many ways. It can be dipped, slathered, toasted or eaten plain and simple. It can be presented in a basket in the middle of the table, under a napkin and as a piece of theatre. It is the cornerstone and showpiece of communal eating. Bread made with love, can make it onto social media.
Bread made without this this kind of care, becomes simply a tasteless and nutritionless vehicle for whatever you put on it. It doesn't fill you up, or even worse - you are not fulfilled, but also feel horribly bloated. I do not open the plastic tie of a crustless loaf and breathe in the aroma. There are moments that it has its place, and for me that is when wrapped around a few good slices of bacon - but overall the bread we have at our fingertips, has got a bit disappointing.
So why have we forgotten about bread? What is different about the elderly loaf that I fished out of the bread bin, that should have expired many weeks earlier?
The main reasons appear to be not what is lacking from a lot of mass produced bread, but what has been added. It is also not the fault of the bread producers, because I believe they produce bread with care and as a reaction to data and needs. I do not think it has been forced upon us - more I think we have changed, and we have neglected our relationship with our staples.
In other words, it is not you, it's me. Relationships are complicated, and by saying that I think we have fallen out of love with bread, I might be projecting my own feelings. If this is the case then I apologise, and please bear with me. But if this does sound familiar, then please also bear with me because love is enduring, and we save this particular relationship.
I know this because since that moment in the bread bin, I have been on a family mission to make bread great again.
It feels like bread and I have drifted, an that we have to get our relationship back on track. It feels like that in order to make bread great again in my life, and just like any relationship that is going through a bad patch, I have to get to know bread again. And so to do that, we have started making our own, and it has become a wonderful journey together of getting to know each other.
We started by understanding what went wrong for us. Just like many relationships, it feels like the first thing that has happened, is that we have over-complicated things. I asked bread to be something it isn't. A simple loaf of bread, can have as few as four ingredients. It can be baked right next to where it is sold with a high level of success. Yet it appears that bread has become sucked into the mass consumption machine, convenience and automation has overtaken basics. We had forgotten the simple joys of our relationship.
I demanded ubiquity and variety. In our local supermarket, there are over two full aisles dedicated to different brands, types, and varieties of bread. In our bread bin, we have at least four different formats of bread at any one moment. We are asking our bread to be a ciabatta one day, and a farmhouse loaf the next. We change our minds on a whim, and expect our bread producers and stores to anticipate this. If we're having a wrap day, and there are no wraps, we might shop elsewhere. This has created an environment where stores have been dragged into the relationship and are on tenterhooks. We are a fickle and volatile partner, who might become emotional because we have no soda bread, even if we didn't even know that soda bread was a thing.
We demand convenience. We don't want to have to shop for bread more than once a week, or even once every few weeks. It is not even that we want to chuck the loaf in the freezer, and pull out a few slices a day. It is more that we expect a freezer style shelf life from a fresh loaf. We expect our bread to be on top form, at all moments and in all conditions. Our expectations have gone beyond the bread we first fell in love with. We put unrealistic expectations on it, and have forgotten that the joy in a perfect loaf of bread comes from some of its imperfections.
This has created an industry that will find it hard to be kind to the planet, because we are creating unnatural expectations of a products with natural ingredients, which creates artificial conditions.
What this has created firstly, is a loaf of bread that has many more ingredients than it really needs to have, to keep it soft and fresh in all conditions. The illusion of fresh bread, has become a scientific rather than a human process. If you read the back of the label of a regular loaf of bread, then you will see many more things listed than flour, yeast, water and salt. You may see anywhere up to twenty ingredients, and have the feeling that the bread on our table, might not have had a pair of human hands on it until our own.
Secondly, if you choose to step away from the plastic wrapped section in the bread aisle and to the in-store bakery - the perception is that this bread is a more virtuous loaf, and that buying bread from there would at least mean you are buying something with predictable provenance. But from my research the illusion appears to continue. The first three bakery loaves I picked up off the shelf of our local supermarket at random and researched, have even more ingredients than the manufactured and sealed loaves. The first even contained palm oil.
This might be a generalisation and unfair to some stores, but certainly makes me think twice before connecting the image we are sometimes given of the baked loaf. This is not bread, that was delivered up a cobbled street, by a small boy on his bicycle.
In fact, the bread that has been promised to have been baked on the premises may well have been finished off in the ovens in-store, but may have been mixed, part baked, frozen, and then shipped many miles. Because it is warm, we believe it is fresh.
Many reading this, will believe that I am naive, or that I do not understand our regular lives, and the pressures we have. Tat it is impossible to find the time or have the ability to make bread. This was my own perception, I always thought that home baking included the need for complicated equipment, endless time, and a degree in a scientific discipline. Sourdough starters, home grown yeasts, and a thousand carefully blended seeds.
I am here to say that this does not have to be the case. You can take the best bits of the world we live in, and the best bits of the planet, and bring them together to make wonderful and simple bread with very little effort at all. You can save miles of transport, plastic, and save your body additives and chemicals it does not need. If you have a busy life, you can wake up to the smell of home baked bread. You do not have to spend hours hunched kneading, tending or applying cultures with a pipette. You can make pizza, without the need to build a wood powered stone oven in the garden. You can have a modern relationship with bread that is also in many ways planetwise.
I'm building this up, perhaps also because I feel slightly embarrassed to say that in the end our relationship with bread has been saved through a gadget. It has not been through getting up to our elbows in flour every morning at 5am or by growing our own yeast. But as an investment in our life and in our relationship with bread it has been one of the best purchases we have made.
We bought a bread maker.
They are not too expensive, and have become one of the most-used and life-changing gadgets in our kitchen. There are many types available, and many reviews of the best one for your lifestyle. Some come with timers to make bread while you sleep, most come with recipe books to break down the barriers and demystify bread. It has made me realise that a pizza dough has only four ingredients, and focaccia has five. It makes bread, but also makes dough so that we can feel our bread in our fingers. We can make funny shaped loaves and have pizza-making competitions. We laugh and spend time together around the bread making process. It has not just made our bread great again, but it has also renewed our love of bread and given us fun activities as a family. It is a cheat in some way, but I forgive myself at the first bite of a piece of home made bread, smothered in hot butter and fresh out of the pan.
It is also I guess an electric gadget, and also requires ingredients. These will need to be sourced well, but even if you buy the best of all those available, a single loaf will cost under £2. We economise by cutting the loaf in two and freezing half, because you will eat less anyway once you realise how a piece of good bread can fill you up. Therefore this might not pay back entirely compared to loaves that can be source in a mass produced way, which means this is a life choice and a commitment to our relationship. As with many products, bread makers can be sourced second hand at a good price.
It also considers basic bread only. Having a gadget, just confirms sourdough for example as the beautiful and mystical beast that it is. If we are in the mood for a treat such as this, then we will hunt out a good bakery, and forgive this small indiscretion to our bread maker. But the good news here, is that independent and artisan bakeries opening in good numbers in our high streets, and right now it is always a good time to support these stores. In these great places, are the artists who are creating the create symphonies of bread. Craftspeople who never lost the love. Places that can send us into spirals of nostalgia, of strolling down a Parisian street whilst patrons wash down the pavements of restaurants. A fantasy made real, artisans who should be supported.
But for basic bread - I have made a commitment to give up additives, food miles, plastic, film. All these things are not planetwise decisions, and although perhaps bread is not a big contribution to our carbon footprints, it is attitudinally something that I can change, that might have an affect on other things. We are all connected, and our ideas are connected. I have found that when I start to think about one thing, it can lead to small changes in other areas. Thinking about plant based meals, got me thinking about commoditisation of food in general, and changed many more things than simply my volume consumption of meat.
Perhaps bread can help do this also for staples. To think about the simple things, and how they might have changed into something that I take for granted, rather than something I love. This information about our bread, even if I accept it might not be true for all bakery stores, was a wake up call. How can I claim to have the relationship with bread that I do, if I don't pay attention to these things and at least make a conscious choice? I can choose to have a loaf of sliced white in the freezer for convenient sandwiches, but this should not be an afterthought. It should be a decision and a last resort that because of the pressures that we I have in moments of my lifestyle. But also I should think about that decision, and whether that is right for me and right for the planet.
If I can make a focaccia, then anyone can. And together, we can make bread great again.