What’s gone wrong with our daily bread, why is it so different from what has gone before?

John Harris – food, knowledge, experience
A continuing blog on food, drink and London’s foodie trends



(Photo Credit Nick Dawe)

Has our bread become a chemical process rather than the basic concept that has been made throughout time? In his latest blog John Harris argues that it’s time to get back to basics and be aware of the modern science that goes into the loaves we rely on in our weekly shop. (See also the step by step sourdough bread making process in action through John’s photography throughout the blog).

From this…
To this!

So what’s happened to our bread? There is certainly a lot of it stacked up on the supermarket shelves, but is it any good?

Modern bread from white sliced plastic wrapped, the standard loaf that most British households recognise as there daily bread, to the newer stuff lining the big store shelves. The specialty ranges ever increasing in number claiming to be made from original recipes from France, Italy, Sweden, Poland and even as far as Morocco or Egypt. Breads described as Artisan, or baked from scratch by our instore bakery, they tend to be a bit less regular in shape, often being described as wholemeal and made by hand, with the additions of dried fruit, a few nuts, herbs and other bits and pieces all to justify a higher price and natural feel. All of that’s great but they are still way too lightweight. Real bread when you pick it up does not feel like a little fluffy cloud of insignificance, it’s a heavyweight product, particularly wholemeal, so what’s going on?

Anatomy of a sourdough taken at Cyrnel Bakery, Forest Row
Starting with the leaven made from spelt, wheat flour and rye
Mixing the leaven with water

In our country there are 37 different additives allowed in the production of bread. The last one was granted permission for a very specific task; it is a genetically modified enzyme. Because it’s an enzyme, and is added in such minute quantities it doesn’t have to appear on the listed ingredients, as do a lot of the other additives for the same reason. The bread industry gave an interesting story as to why it was needed. They had put so many other additives such as improvers, shelf life extenders etc, so much so that the mighty white slice was beginning to smell a bit ‘chemically’, some described it as vaguely similar to a mild smell of bleach. So the genetically modified enzyme was needed to clean up the smell.

Adding flour and water till the dough has the right texture
Checking the dough for the right elasticity

It’s also legal that anything up to a third of the loaf’s dry weight doesn’t need to be wheat flour. This means the large manufacturers can take advantage of cheaper alternatives and these can be soya flour, or anything else that happens to be trading cheaply on the world’s vast commodity markets. It can be as exotic as Lupin flour (that’s right flour made from a flower). But does it matter? I think that we are reaping from the seeds we have sown. One of the highest rising allergies or sensitivities in modern Western societies is gluten/wheat intolerance. I’ve been cooking for, well let’s just say a long time, and back when I first started out I don’t remember anyone talking about bloating or any other of the many symptoms accredited to a problem with wheat in the diet.

The dough finished mixing; it changes as the gluten in the flour is worked
Going for its first prove

I’m a cook not a medic, so I know I’m not in a position to state that because of what is being done to our bread we are causing all these problems. But I am aware of some of the methods or just plain cheap tricks that have gone into our bread production. I am not aware of any that have been put in for any other reason than making more money out of the consumer. In the end, it’s always the same. Once big business gets involved in food, quality and standards tend to go out the window, being sacrificed on the alter of more profit generation.

What is this stuff going into our bread? Here are some examples; oxidizing agents such as: assorted flour bleaching agents, Azodicarbonamide(E927), Carbamide(E927b),Potassiam Bromate (E924) Phosphates and Potassium iodate.

Then there are the reducing agents, these are added to help with mechanical handling of dough, reducing mixing time and the length of time needed to prove the bread. They have wonderful names that just shouldn’t be involved in describing what is going into any food; L-cysteine (E920,E921), Fumeric acid, Sodium Bisulphate, non-leavened yeast (surely that’s a bit of an oxymoron, why would you need a yeast that doesn’t contribute to the rising of the dough?) There are many more, most of which do not get listed in the ingredients, and this is all for our benefit? How about hydrocolloids? This goes in the loose group known as bread improvers, which sound very innocuous. What could be wrong with something that is added to improve the bread? What they actually do is increase the volume of bread produced by the same dough; say without added bread improver you obtain three loaves from a set amount of dough but when you add improvers to this dough you will get 3.5-4 loaves. Combined with cutting down dramatically on the time needed for the dough to prove, you don’t need a degree in economics to understand why manufactures like this stuff. It makes the loaf lighter simply because there is more air and fewer ingredients needed to make the same size loaf, and bread is sold by size not weight. They also have an unfortunate tendency to make the loaf crumbly, almost like cake, which is not what you should get from an honest loaf of bread.

Adding stuff into our bread that isn’t needed for other than economic reasons isn’t new. Before laws to stop the adulteration of bread in 1875 it had become very widely practiced.

Stuart, the sourdough baker at Cyrnel, starting to cut the dough up weighing each piece to make sure the loaves are even
Ready to be shaped into loaves

Some of the commonly used additives in the 19th century were very novel but unfortunately in many cases they were also poisonous. To whiten bread, for example, bakers sometimes added alum (K2SO4.Al2(SO4)3.24H2O) and chalk to the flour, while mashed potatoes, plaster of Paris (calcium sulphate), pipe clay and even sawdust could be added to increase the weight of their loaves. Rye flour or dried powdered beans could be used to replace wheat flour and the sour taste of stale flour could be disguised with ammonium carbonate.

So you think we know better in our modern world? We have the science and technology. Like feeding cattle as pure as a herbivore, with parts of other animals. Cheap protein – nothing wrong with feeding cattle cow meat, it makes good economic sense, whoopsy. I sometimes wonder how John Gummer feels now. He was the Agriculture minister at the time who fed his four year old daughter in front of the press, a cheap burger van hamburger to try and prove a point. 22 years on does he sometimes wonder whether that a good call? What I’m saying, is we never know whether this stuff we keep adding to our food is all fine, till it isn’t.

Chorleywood – what are the ramifications?

Different shaping held in a cloth
Loaves having proved, tipped onto a wooden tray ready to go in the oven

Then there is The Chorleywood process invented in the late 50’s and put into production from 1961.It was the result of research carried out to come up with a faster way of producing bread in this country due to ever increasing demands, which had been on the rise since the end of the War. The Chorleywood process also provided the added benefit that British wheat could be used on a large scale for the first time. The UK climate is not good for producing high protein flour required for bread making, strong flour from mainly Canada was traditionally used, but with the new process the strong flours were not needed, thus making the process very attractive to large scale bakers.

It relies on very high speed mechanical mixers processing the flour and adding bread improvers, yeast, water and hard fat into a bread that takes less than 3.5 hours to make, from start to cut, a plastic wrapped loaf. The hard fat is required to hold the thing upright. Without it, it would just collapse into a big puddle while baking. It has been exported all over the world for the obvious economic advantages. One of the main problems, among many others, is the missing fermentation that happens when making bread normally, the fermentation that slowly takes place as the yeast works on the flour. By fermenting the flour, the gluten changes its structure into something the human body can easily deal with and digest. With Chorleywood, far less of the flour gets a chance to be fermented, bringing with it a host of problems while trying to pass the stuff through the gut.

Since it started in the 60’s lots of refinements have gone into the process in an ever increasing chase for a cheaper and cheaper loaf. Whether this is in the form of preservatives to extend the shelf life, or more inventive ways of pumping it up to gain more and more size from the same lump of dough. 80% of bread in our country is made using this process, you won’t be surprised to learn that I don’t think this a good thing. Yes, from a health prospective I think we are storing up a whole load of problems, but also we have just forgotten what good bread tastes like.

The Alternative – Real Bread

Loaves being cut to release steam during baking
Using an old fashioned double sided razor blade
Loaves ready to go in the oven

So what are the alternatives? The are two main alternatives and the first is to look for small local bakers dedicated to producing bread well and stop buying from the supermarkets and large scale bakers.

How to find good bakers near to where you are? Who’s working hard to produce good honest bread? And if you haven’t got the confidence in your own abilities to judge, then what?

One good resource is The Real Bread Campaign: http://www.sustainweb.org/realbread
It has the right principles and gives a lot of information about what is happening with bread. It lists the questions it has asked various businesses in regard to their bread use, such as Prêt a Manger and Gregg’s, where the inference is that these companies are not fully compliant with Real Bread values.

Also they have a very useful system on the website where you put in a postcode and it will come up with all the local bakers who they feel are making really good bread in the surrounding area. It’s really useful if you want to find out about what’s going on with our bread, good and bad.

Ready to come out of the oven
Checking another batch

There are a few great bakers and a small band of superstars are developing amongst those in the know, who have a dedicated following of serious bread heads. For example, the St John Bakery, housed in a humble railway arch in dodgy part of South London and set up to supply Fergus Henderson’s small group of restaurants, has a growing number who want their great bread as part of stock in trade. On Saturday morning each week they are selling around £3000.00 to the public out of the back door.

The second main alternative is to start making some, if not all, bread yourself. It really isn’t that difficult; flour, water, maybe a little fat, yeast and salt, mix it up in the right way, let it do its own thing for a few hours, and bake, that’s it really. It is not an impossible skill to make some decent bread, if you really get the bug and want to start making sourdough using your own leaven (sourdough starter). Sure it’s a bit more complicated and would need more dedication, but to make something far better than anything you buy from any of the big four food retailers, knowing what’s in it because you made it, it’s well within what most can achieve.

Supermarkets would like you to believe that there is some mystic system that would be impossible for the average Joe to understand or want to spend the hours required making. All untrue, yes good bread does take time but not your time, it does most of it all by itself as long as you give it the right conditions. Sure, things like making croissants and a real baguette need a bit more skill and understanding, but mastering the art of making a decent loaf of bread is straightforward and pleasing to attempt – it has a way of making you feel like a real provider, at its most basic.

The finished loaf
Ready for sale

There is something about the smell of rising dough and baking bread that goes deep into our collective provider selves, like almost no other kitchen art. Jam and chutney making come near, but bread making is out there on its own as far as deep soulful satisfaction quarters go. There are a few little trade secrets that can help the finished product, like making sure that during the first part of baking there is some water present within the oven, either by simply placing a roasting tray in the bottom, and pouring on some near boiling water from the kettle, or using an atomiser spray filled with water several times, again in the first part of the baking. What does it do? It sounds a bit nuts, but by adding steam at the early part of the baking it will help the loaf to develop a serious crust.

But really it’s worth the effort to make some bread when yeast starts doing its thing and this ball of dough you have made starts expanding and changing shape all by itself. It’s very satisfying pulling a lump of flour and water out of the oven having completely changed its shape and structure into something so different from where it started. It is well worth any effort involved in getting to that stage after baking when you cut your first slice, checking out how well aerated it is, what’s the crumb like, the smell or just putting some really cold butter on a slice and eating it.

For further information. Please contact arlene.tobin@epmagazine.co.uk


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