All flesh is grass
– Isiah 40:6
As Bread is the best nourishment of all other, being well made, so it is simply the worst being marred in the ill-handling
– Dr. Thomas Muffet (1553-1604)
The appeal of exotic cuisines and esoteric diets has done little to diminish bread’s status as the primary foodstuff of the Western world, and many areas besides. Symbolic as the ‘staff of life’ and ubiquitous, the OED describes it in wholesome simplicity as a ‘well-known article of food prepared by moistening, kneading, and baking meal or flour, generally with the addition of yeast or leaven’.
But charges of adulteration have long been laid against the baker, the miller and the farmer. Today, more than ever, bread has departed from the purity of its essential elements: flour, water and usually salt for savour. In the early-modern era fast-acting yeast, derived from brewers’ barm, began to replace the traditional sourdough leaven (simply flour and water containing a live culture similar to yoghurt). The addition of yeast was the beginning of a downward spiral that has culminated in today’s industrial loaves, products of the insidious Chorleywood Bread Process.
A list of the ingredients, wheat apart, of a familiar brand of sliced white bread reads like a pharmacopoeia: Emulsifiers, E471, E472e, Soya Flour, Preservative, Calcium Propionate (added to inhibit mould growth), Flavouring, Flour Treatment Agents, Ascorbic Acid (Vitamin C), E920, Dextrose. Such chemical defilement and bland uniformity led Elizabeth David to muse: ‘A technological triumph factory bread may be. Taste it has none. Should it be called bread?’
The quality of the approximately nine million loaves of bread sold each day in the UK should be a matter of public concern: the nutritional consequence of inferior bread, our staple, is devastating. Perhaps more importantly, the satisfaction derived from the breaking of quality bread approaches the divine.
The most commonly used grain (or ‘corn’ as it was previously known) for bread is wheat. A grass native to the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East where agriculture and civilisation began, it is now cultivated across the globe, though often in marginal climatic zones. Worryingly, the last century has seen the genetic erosion of wheat strains resulting in dependence on artificial fertilisation.
In the 1940s Norman E. Borlaug and his collaborators developed new strains of wheat, correcting a structural deficiency in the stalk which could not support heavy grains. Previously the most fruitful plants collapsed under the weight of their own seeds before maturity. Borlaug’s group developed dwarf strains that could stand up to the weight of bulbous grains, thereby doubling yields.
Today, almost every kernel of wheat consumed by man and beast is derived from Borlaug’s selective breeding. But the resulting monocultures require greater use of pesticides than plants with genetic diversity. Furthermore, farmers must purchase these hybrid seeds from large corporations. Thankfully the clamour to introduce genetically modified strains has been resisted thus far.
Animal waste and crop rotation, traditional methods of restoring nitrogen to the soil after each growth cycle, are insufficient for the dwarf strains which require synthetic fertilisation. Wheat is now dependent on human intervention like the modern domestic turkey, unable to reproduce unless artificially inseminated.
To manufacture synthetic fertiliser, enormous quantities of natural gas are required, both for heat and as a source of hydrogen. According to Fraser and Rimas in their recently-published work, Empires of Food, ‘without a secure supply of nitrogen the world would starve’. Our agricultural model, and perhaps survival, is dependent on a finite fossil fuel.
Further, it is said that stressed vines make better grapes. One wonders whether the same principle applies to today’s pampered wheat crop, insulated from any struggle with nature by human intervention. Did diverse strains of wheat from yesteryear offer superior nutrition and better flavour?
Getting a Rise
Notwithstanding the use of unleavened bread in Western (though not Orthodox) Christian ritual, it is my conviction that bread should not be so called without leavening (the fermentation of flour before baking). This action of yeast and bacterial culture aids digestion of the grain, compensating for our relatively short intestines compared to dedicated herbivores like the cow. Human ingenuity produces what amounts to an external stomach.
Good bread, like Swiss cheese, contains holes or ‘eyes’ left by carbon dioxide produced by fermentation and trapped by glutinous flour. This is why strong flour with high gluten is used by bakers, although lower- protein soft flour, usually reserved for cakes and biscuits, is now used in mass-produced breads. Fermentation is achieved using one of two agents: the age-old sourdough leaven method or through the addition of yeast.
A late-seventeenth-century French journal succinctly describes the two methods of fermentation in use at the cusp of modernity: the most commonly used one, called French leaven, is dough made with only water and flour and kept until it becomes sour… The other, which is called yeast, is the foam released from beer when it ferments. French leaven acts more slowly, causes the dough to rise less, and makes a heavier, denser bread. Yeast ferments more quickly, makes it rise more, and the bread it makes is light, delicate and soft.
These same methods are in use today; though since the breakthroughs of Louis Pasteur (1822-1895) brewers’ barm (usually derived from barley beer) has been replaced by cultured yeast with the same fast-acting effect but which offers greater consistency. Sourdough bread, leavened by a fermented dough ‘starter’ which has ‘caught’ yeast from the air, is denser than yeast bread. This starter contains a lactobacillus culture with sufficient yeast for bread to rise, though it is less active than pure yeast. The acetic note, the extent of which depends on culture and method used, emanates from lactobacilli which assist the benign bacteria in our digestive tract.
In the seventeenth century bread was a vital element of the diet of the average poor Parisian, who ate an impressive kilo-and-a-half per day. Indeed, the price of bread was one trigger of the French Revolution, inspiring Marie Antoinette’s famous, apocryphal, solution: ‘let them eat cake’.
The perceived adulteration of bread with barm was therefore controversial. A dispute between guilds of bakers and innkeepers over the sale of bread brought the matter to a head. Innkeepers claimed that traditional sourdough Gonesse bread, purchased from out-of-town traders for retail, was superior to the yeasted ‘Queen’s bread’ sold by bakers. This bread, innkeepers alleged, was a corruption of pure bread, i.e. dough made with only water and flour and kept until it becomes sour.
This early health scare led to the formation of an expert medical panel to address the issue of the use of barm, mostly imported from breweries in Flanders, sometimes in a state of autolysis. The origin of the adjective ‘barmy’ recalls the distrust, even in beer-friendly Britain, for this puzzling, fizzing substance. At that time, as today, wine was the preferred beverage in France and the inclusion of barm from beer in bread was considered unpatriotic.
Following the debate between the guilds, a French police inquiry observed that one could take precautions against bread that was visibly poorly baked, but added: It is not the same with fermentation, which makes the dough rise; which refines it and makes it lighter. Because the worst is sometimes what gives bread the best appearance of goodness.
These are sentiments echoed centuries later by Elizabeth David in relation to the deceptive scent of baking: it is a fact of life that all bread, homemade, factory-made, bakery-made, good, indifferent, gives out a glorious smell, but to buy bread on its smell while hot is asking for disillusion. It seems that human senses are not always equipped immediately to discern good quality bread. Quality is revealed not just by sight, smell or even taste but by how we digest it, or rather the extent to which micro-organisms have already digested it. This is consistent with the ideas of the oft- misrepresented Epicurus, who argued that one should avoid those foods which, though giving pleasure at the time, afterwards leave one feeling deprived.
In condemning the use of yeast, the leading medical expert in the case, Gui Patin, stated: To say, as those who defend it do, that they have not seen anyone drop over sick or dead from eating this bread is not a good way to clear it of the faults with which it has been charged. It is like sugar refined with lime or alum, or heavily salted, peppered and sliced meats, or wines in which one tosses lime or fish glue, or other things bad in themselves which men concerned about their health avoid, even if none of these things causes death or threatens one’s health on the day it is ingested.
In spite of this advice the Paris parliament maintained a policy of laissez faire. The preference for yeast may be explained by its faster action than leaven, and many prefer the fluffiness that it imparts. Today in France pain au levain is less common than the yeasted baguette de tradition française, which is now, ironically, a symbol of France. Alas, in most countries fast- acting yeast has taken the place of the slow action of traditional leaven. Yet worse was to follow with advances in industrial technology.
Elizabeth David’s English Bread and Yeast Cookery (1977) provides an outstanding contribution to the subject of baking, exploring the history, science and practice of the craft. It offers a caustic assessment of the baking industry that remains as vital today as when first published; though one limitation, in my opinion, is that the great bulk of the recipes call for yeast rather than sourdough leaven.
David wrote in the wake of the Chorleywood Bread Process, invented in 1961, and known in chilling Orwellian language as the ‘no-time method’. Eighty-percent of bread in the UK is currently prepared using this method, which involves a super-quick fermentation; the slow maturation of dough is replaced by a few minutes of intense mechanical agitation in special high-speed mixers. This sounds miraculous, but solid fat is necessary to prevent the loaf collapsing and a large quantity of yeast is required. David asserts that sixteen times as much yeast is used with the CBP as in some traditional recipes; a bit barmy really.
Such an amount of yeast is used in order to speed up the process and to increase volume by maximising dough expansion. Powdered gluten may be added to lower-protein soft flour. Admittedly this has reduced the UK’s dependence on the ‘harder’ strains of wheat imported from warmer countries. Writing in the wake of the CBP, Elizabeth David remarked: It will be interesting to see the efforts of the milling industry to sell us bread which is more suitable for cake, or at any rate for cattle cake.
In fact preparing bread with soft British wheat is possible using artisan methods, it just requires a longer fermentation period to develop the gluten. As a result, over-worked bakers in the past acquired a reputation for being strong and dumb. But the convenience of modern methods comes at a nutritional cost.
Stone and Fire
In early feudal times the lord of the manor automatically held a monopoly over the milling rights on grain grown by anyone tilling the land within his manorial domain. But by the late-fourteenth century, in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, millers are lampooned as cheats who over-charge for grinding corn. This is an enduring stereotype. It reveals the resentment felt towards the wealth of the emerging capitalist class of millers at a time when field crops formed eighty percent of the diets of poorer sections of society. Our civilisation of bread-eaters requires the deployment of sophisticated technologies that often lead to the emergence of social hierarchies and monopolies. Today three companies (Warburtons, Allied Bakeries and Hovis) account for eighty percent of the UK’s bread market.
Quite recently the need for sufficient roughage in the diet was recognised and an age-old order was reversed. Previously, white (or, more accurately, yellowish) bread had been more expensive and reserved for the wealthy. This can be explained in part by the tendency for dark breads to be adulterated with inferior grains, unground husks and even indigestible matter. Relative whiteness indicated purity, though the bran and wheatgerm was never entirely extracted using pre-industrial techniques. The first roller mill was opened in Glasgow in 1872 and since then white bread has been affordable for the masses who assumed the bread esteemed by their social superiors was of better quality. Soon bread was even being bleached to conform to the consumer’s expectation for pristine whiteness, though most bleaching agents are now banned under EU (though not US) law.
The oven is the last piece in the jigsaw of technology and accumulated wisdom that attends bread-making. Bread may be baked in a pan over an open fire in the form of ‘griddle cakes’, but a hot oven is best, filled with steam which gelatinises the outer layer of bread to give it a firm crust. A critical mass of population and wealth is required for such ovens to be built and fuel gathered. Less developed communities usually heat a cauldron over an open fire, consuming grain in the form of soup called frumenty and other stir-a-bouts.
The Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions ended most domestic bread- making in Britain: the Enclosures denied rural communities access to common land where fuel could be gathered; it was too expensive for urban households to maintain ovens; and coal, which came into widespread use, billowed black smoke that was not conducive to baking. Shop-bought bread became the norm, especially as many women joined the labour force.
Our Daily Bread
Any attempt to understand the history of bread is like taking apart a Russian doll: a multi-layered revelation that exposes a great deal of our civilisation. Perhaps above any other food it requires human ingenuity in agriculture, engineering and cuisine. No wonder it provides the metaphor of transubstantiation: cultivated grain milled into flour combining with a mysterious airborne substance before rising into holy bread.
Sadly, the dominance of indigestible white bread from immature dough has been a nutritional and gastronomic calamity for Britain. Constipation is the large and rather pained elephant clambering about the room. Now, bread is even marked with the dreaded sign of fat. But it need not be this way: unadulterated sourdough bread combines nutritional benefit with supreme gustatory enjoyment, in the true Epicurean sense.
One issue for us to consider is an over-reliance on wheat when other grains such as barley and oats are more suited to British weather conditions. The present fluctuating climate recommends diversity. As omnivores this is to our nutritional benefit. Khorasan, an ancient non-hybridised wheat variety not requiring artificial fertilisers or pesticides, should be regarded as a delicacy. The Classical Greek author, Atheneaus, records seventy-two varieties of bread baked in his time. Today we verge on homogeneity. The spectre of food shortages looms due to over-reliance on finite fossil fuels, but that one-third of the nation’s food is wasted shows we could husband resources much better.
Individuals and communities also need to take control of their bread supply. Domestic baking is tricky but rewarding. In Denmark all schoolchildren are taught how to bake, a valuable lesson that could be introduced to British schools. Those with insufficient time should be willing to spend a little extra to ensure their bread is of high artisan quality. This would make a worthwhile investment as sourdough keeps well without preservatives (and, owing to its great taste, it rarely goes to waste). For most of us bread is a com-pan-ion for life. We should settle for nothing less than the best.
This article was written after consultation with artisan baker, Rossa Crowe, of Le Levain Bakery in Dublin. The author takes responsibility for any errors and omissions.