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Thursday, July 18, 2024
FoodThe Bread Line

The Bread Line

Nominated for another BAFTA for his documentary, Coppers, Simon Ford turns his attention to our daily bread.

We are undergoing a quiet revolution in our bread eating habits. Some of us are beginning to cast off the tyranny of the supermarket loaf and embrace proper bread. But as ever in this country the revolution is gradual.

Unlike in the cradle of civilisation where a full-blown revolution, the Arab Spring is being fuelled by bread. Of course we would prefer to believe that what drives it is a yearning for freedom democracy and an impatience with tired old dictators. In fact the demonstrators in the squares fear the global spike in wheat prices was about to treble the price of bread that tipped many into actually taking to the streets in protest. In Egypt the word for bread also means life, so it is not surprising that in a country which is the world’s largest importer of wheat and where fourteen million Egyptians are given subsidised bread every day, there was profound fear that the government was planning to withdraw the subsidy as they did two years ago.

There has always been a connection between bread and revolution. The Bourbon dynasty in France had had it once the mob heard that Marie Antoinette had supposedly coined the original (and best) one line gaffe in political history “ Let them eat cake!” This sentence both condemned her to general knowledge immortality and sparked the French Revolution. Like all the best political gaffes it is a little more complicated when you really look into it. For a start it is seldom accurately quoted, in fact it was a naïve question asked when she was told that hungry peasants were revolting because there was a shortage of bread, “Why don’t they eat cake?” Something many of her aristocratic kin would never enjoy again, after the guillotine was unleashed on them in response to her insensitivity.

Internationally the cost of wheat has risen 105% in the past year and we have seen the price of every type of bread increase with it. Perhaps the poor harvests and speculative buying of commodities which caused the rise will unleash a rebellion on our own high streets.

Some people believe we only have government and civilisation because of bread. Nomadic hunter-gatherers found that if they soaked unpalatable wild seeds and grains in water and then dried them by the fire, by wonderful alchemy these hard seeds would became digestible and tasty. They found they had invented bread.

But making bread requires plenty of grain and grain can only sensibly be harvested with agriculture, so man began to settle in the fertile lands of the Middle East where farming was easy. Plentiful bread meant larger populations could be sustained and villages grew. Once you have villages, towns and cities you need laws and government and rulers. Naturally the citizens will blame their rulers, especially if a regular and cheap supply of bread is not forthcoming. A failure to supply bread will generate revolutionary fervour. Bread was a brilliant way to feed the masses, but when the masses gathered they quickly realised that together they are powerful.

So far our revolution is more prosaic, evolutionary even. Nationally there is the online campaign – the, and an increasing number of people are home baking. In our area there is real growth in artisan bakeries. The regime that all three are taking aim at is the modern way of baking bread that has given us pappy supermarket bread.

We have developed a taste for the soft collapsing texture of modern bread. As a child I would be sent to buy a loaf and if it was in any way warm I would begin hollowing it out as I walked along, by the time I arrived home there would sometimes only be a box shaped crust. Like all teenagers my brothers and I ate huge quantities of toast, to fill the hungry gap between returning from school and our evening meal. It was cheap filling and kept us in the house and so marginally improved the chances that we would start our homework. A growing child’s need for extra calories may also take us back to the Arab Spring. Egypt and the other countries in revolt have all suffered the commodity price spike at the same time as a population are growing at 2% a year creating what is called a youth bulge. That is many more young people all with a taste for freedom and toasted pitta.

It was fifty years ago that the British loaf went through its industrial revolution – the Chorleywood Process. The process speeds the production of bread. To do so a bewildering array of salt, fats, enzymes, yeasts and other additives are mixed into flour under pressure to create the rise that long proving does for handmade bread. It is energy and chemical intensive and the “improvers” and “processing aids” don’t have to be put on the label because they are not classed as ingredients, even if they leave residues in the loaves. Bread is made much faster with poorer quality wheat and with a lot less labour so it made economic sense. Staggeringly since the process was invented the price of a loaf has risen from the equivalent of 4.5p then to more than £1.26 – an increase of over 2,700% far more than all other basic commodities. So someone is making a serious profit.

As a child I once drove past the original Chorleywood bread plant with my father, it was fairly dull from the outside but let me into the secret of how they had corrupted traditional baking and from then on it became in my mind’s eye the reverse image of Charlie’s Chocolate Factory. A bad place with something sinister at it’s heart, a process that made everything emerging from its bowels entirely bland.

Thankfully there is no shortage of freedom fighters in the real bread battle in the South West. Bakers go out on night time manoeuvres at the excellent Leakers in Bridport, or the Town Mill Bakery in Lyme Regis and now Dorchester. The Evershot Village Bakery and the Good Loaf bakers at Stentwood Farm are all making fantastic hand made bread.

As ever the old order are trying to take the sting out of the protests by conceding some demands and telling us all is well. Supermarkets now stock a huge range of breads but little of it is hand made or even well made. But it really does look like you have a great choice as you wheel down the aisle trying to choose from malted, wholemeal multi grain loaves alongside the sliced white and brown, you know you could go continental or even organic but remember they will all have been through the “process”. You may ask how can this be? The air smells so warm and yeasty and the signs tell you they sell Fresh Baked Bread.

You may conclude that this indicates that what they are offering is as good as real hand made bread. Think again.

A far as food and supermarkets are concerned we need always to ponder very carefully the exact meaning of their message. One thing is for sure, they have spent much longer thinking about it than you will. Fresh Baked Bread is a clever phrase and a great marketing ploy. It is true that there is dough being baked in the in-store “bakery” and it is indeed the authentic smell of baking bread which is pumped throughout the shop but what they don’t tell you is that what is being baked is frozen – the baking bit is done there and then but the making was done a long time ago and elsewhere. I suppose in a way it is as fresh as anything could be that was frozen up to a year ago (but do remember they are still charging the new high price on a product where the flour may have been bought for half the price). By law they don’t have to declare that the bread has been frozen, so of course they don’t. To me this is a clear case of those who give us our daily bread trespassing into downright misleading territory. I don’t think we should forgive them for it.

The sad thing is that most traditional High Street bakeries are also in thrall to the Chorleywood Process. No matter that they may look (and smell) the part, they produce their share of the nine million loaves we get through every day, more than eighty per cent of the bread we eat.

So I went to see Aidan Chapman, the Che Guevara of our local bread revolution.

He has helped build small resistance cells everywhere he has worked. His latest incarnation is the Phoenix Bakery. He’s spent two years now raising the standard of bread in Weymouth with his wife Lisa but before that he helped set up Bridport’s best bakery Leakers, a shop with a loyal band of followers who travel miles along the coast to scoff delights like the Jurassic foot. His next stop was the Town Mill Bakery which he established with Clive Cobb in Lyme Regis as a bakery cum café restaurant, this idea has been so successful other outlets are beginning to open and Waitrose is keen to work with the brand.

Aidan uses traditional techniques to make his bread. He uses top quality ingredients – no added fats, and organic flour (though he doesn’t make a big deal of it, he uses it because he is convinced it is the best flour). He even uses much less salt than bog standard baking because high levels of salt are needed to control the speed of the yeasts in industrialised baking and to compensate for the lack of flavour. He couldn’t even imagine adding dextrose.

Obviously he has been hit by the rising cost of flour. Interestingly, organic flour is now the same price as conventional – the organic market is insulated a bit from the speculative bubble surrounding standard wheat prices, so prices haven’t risen as fast. Even so his standard white loaf at £2.50 probably costs a pound more than a supermarket loaf, but it is a pound well spent. You get a fine crumb, a crisp crust, it doesn’t collapse as you eat it and it has a lovely fragrance and a deep taste. Just as importantly you swerve the surplus salt, hydrogenated fats and those nasty residues the processed bread people don’t have to tell you about.

Flour accounts for 2% of the base costs of Greggs The Bakers who style themselves as the home of fresh baking, compared with closer to 20% at the Phoenix. Using sourdough mothers with their wild yeasts and lactic bacteria or the yeast sponges for other breads is certainly more time intensive than the rapid rise technique and probably more labour goes into it (even if much of the work is done for him by natural fermentation.) There is no doubt that more love goes into it, and we all know good food needs to be cooked with love.

Aidan is convinced that his bread is better for you. Many people complain that they find bread indigestible but he says “that’s because the flour is literally hard on your stomach, processed bread hasn’t been given enough time to absorb water and soften, that’s why we give it as long as we do to rise”. He shows me a sponge for the next batch of bread it smells delicious. It is the pre fermentation mix which is then incorporated with the most simple ingredients; flour, water and salt. Because the dough is given time, it slowly rises as the yeast does it work. This gives it structure, allows the flour to absorb the water and develops the subtle complex tastes that set his bread apart.

He says “The Chorleywood Process has been around so long that many new customers are trying proper bread for the first time when they come to the Phoenix. They haven’t actually tasted real bread”. What this means is that he can’t rely on the ‘this is what it used to taste like when I was kid’ factor that is so effective when selling something like real bacon. Even so he is winning lots of converts to the cause. “Once they taste it they come back, so far only one person has complained about the price having to go up”.

Aidan likes to bake in the time honoured way but he is a modernising force. The shop window is as lush and colourful as a mini farmers market and he has a café selling every conceivable delicacy that could come out of a baker’s oven.

At the Phoenix his most significant change to the old ways of doing things is to shift the time the baker bakes. He now works more family friendly hours, six am till four pm. The only exception is the Friday night into Saturday shift. It is the biggest day in the shop and for wholesale bread, but such is his legendary status that people have started paying for the chance to be his apprentice for the night.

The Common Loaf Bakery at Stentwood Farm works in even more traditional ways. They don’t run a shop, and they relish the slow pace of life in a lovely part of Devon. It is a religious community who have established a cottage industry. This division of the guerrilla army in support of real bread is made up of thirty-five people. They now bake a thousand loaves a week, although when they began they travelled to market with just twelve sourdough ryes. They say, “Because the focus of our life is being together we found baking is something we can do together from home, we make our relationships first before baking our bread.”

Although they now make a wide variety of breads, biscuits and cakes they have specialised in perfecting a spelt loaf. Spelt is an ancestor of wheat. But they do acknowledge, “It is a tricky grain, it varies from batch to batch and you really have to know how to bake however it is worth persevering with. It has not been so intensively hybridised so it seems to be easier on the digestion than its wheat cousin”.

No one at the community earns a wage, any profits support each other. This means with no labour costs they can make their bread good value, a plain spelt loaf is about the same price as supermarket loaf at £1.40. They relish the time they can put in spreading the word at the five farmers markets they sell at. (They also sell wholesale into quite a few independent shops.)

They are so keen on having a good relationship with their customers that they will bake bespoke. One office worker loved his four seed spelt loaf but he preferred to take a roll in his packed lunch. So now they bake him five rolls a week for Monday to Friday, lucky for him because the slow fermentation of the dough prolongs shelf life and his roll is still good on Friday. I am sure this makes him happier with the daily grind.

Revolutions rarely happen when people are genuinely starving. The most dangerous time for a regime is when the population’s bellies are half full and their minds aspire to something better. So the message is get out there and buy real bread that wont bloat you and might just inspire you to demand a better world.

A last word on that famous gaffe. A small but delicious irony is that a more accurate translation of what the young French Queen asked about the starving protestors was “Why aren’t they eating brioche?”

Brioche is, of course, not cake but bread enriched with eggs and butter.


Aidan Chapman, The Phoenix Bakery, Weymouth DT4 8HP.

The Common Loaf, Stentwood Farm, Dunkeswell Honiton EX14 4RW.

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