About 18 months ago, I decided I wanted to learn to bake bread. There were a few reasons for this. I wanted to learn something new, and in particular to feel I had mastered something new; a change in my job meant I worked Sundays and had Mondays free, and wanted to use my time productively; and I was a bit fed up with buying low-quality, low-flavour bread from the supermarket. Since then I’ve been building up a collection of great bread books, I’ve tried a range of breads, I’ve been on a day course, I’ve overcome my childhood hatred of science and read up on the theory, I’ve made some loaves I’m proud of and a very small number that have been inedible. I’ve learnt a lot.
Some friends of mine warned me at the beginning that once you start down this road, it’s impossible to go back. They were right! I do buy the odd supermarket loaf from time to time, but I’m far pickier than I was before. I’m not snobbish enough to turn my nose up at mass produced bread when it’s served to me by others – I’m always genuinely grateful for anything I’m given! Nor do I expect that everyone could or should build homebaking into their own life-routine. But by and large, I feel like I’ve come so far that much of the bread I used to eat holds no appeal to me any more. And if I ever opened a bakery, I think I would plaster this Bible verse over the lintel:
Why spend money on what is not bread… listen to me, and eat what is good (Isaiah 55:2)
This week I was intrigued to watch a programme on BBC iPlayer about the mass production of bread. Inside the Factory is a BBC documentary series, looking at the history, science and process of how some of our nation’s favourite foods are made. And the first episode featured my beloved bread.
In it, Gregg Wallace visits the Kingsmill bread factory and follows the process through, from the arrival of the vast lorries of flour to the delivery of the loaves to the shelves of our supermarkets, right across the country. A process that lasts a total of 24 hours.
There was plenty that I enjoyed about the documentary. It was fascinating to see the scale of the process and some of the techniques they used. I’m not anti-big for anti-bigness’ sake, and there was something quite mesmerising about watching loaves dance like synchronised swimmers and muffins glide down helter-skelters. Some of the science towards the beginning about the way the grain is broken down was a helpful primer, and the history slots were interesting too (I now know where the term “upper crust” came from!) The section on food waste too was fascinating and terrifying in equal measure.
But those things aside, there was a lot about the film that was downright misleading, and which reminded me why I won’t be going back to supermarket pap anytime soon.
Gregg seemed overawed by size and scale. Everything was ‘amazing’ and made his face light up like a kid at Christmas. He kept comparing the process to his own bread baking and remarking that, “This is nothing like making bread at home!” And he was right! But that is not necessarily something to celebrate. Because what Gregg valued in speed and efficiency comes at a cost.
It should not be possible for a loaf to go from arriving as flour to being delivered right across the nation in 24 hours. In bread baking, the longer and slower the proving, the greater the flavour-development. So speed literally sacrifices flavour. The documentary offered the briefest glimpse of some vats of conditioners and emulsifiers, which speed up the process, but with no explanation of what these substances are and how they affect our bodies.
Most recipes include at least two stages of fermentation, yet these loaves were mixed up and ready for their single prove within 7 minutes. They got the loaves in the oven 1 hour and 24 minutes after the flour arrived at the factory and baked them for 20 minutes at 230°c (which definitely is not long enough!) and then the bread spent longer cooling down than it did being mixed, proved and baked combined. That is not right.
(To put this in perspective, as I write this, I’m partway through making a sourdough loaf – the Hackney Wild recipe from the E5 Bakehouse – which I began on Friday night after work and won’t be complete until Monday evening. And will, if past experiences are anything to go by, taste fantastic! If that sounds like a lot of work, it’s not. A huge amount of that time is taken up by leaving the dough to do its thing and build its flavour.)
At the Kingsmill factory, unsurprisingly, the entire process is designed to produce the largest number of loaves possible in the shortest period of time, whilst achieving consistency of size, shape and colour. But in the meantime, every opportunity the bread should have to develop flavour and character is removed, and the bread is loaded with chemicals and additives.
And this is where I found the documentary most misleading. The history sections (rightly) highlighted practices of the past, which involved filling out loaves with things like chalk, or alium, or worse… but in so doing, they suggested that such practices are only relegated to the past! This is simply not the case. At one point they lamented the fact that in past eras things were added to the loaves to whiten them, which in turn decreased the nutritional value of the loaf. And yet early on in the documentary they said that they used soya to do exactly the same!
The fact is, much of the bread we eat is loaded with additives; chemicals designed to speed up the process, alter the colour, soften the crumb, make the bread last longer than is naturally possible. Not only do they produce sub-par bread, lacking in the flavour of a slow-proved loaf, but do you even know what they do to your body? Check the ingredient list of your bread and if there’s any more than four items on it (flour, yeast, salt, water – plus natural additions like oats or seeds) then you should probably stop and wonder about what those extra little bits are doing to you.
The documentary claimed that one of the bonuses of our modern situation is that all the ingredients of a loaf have to be written on the packets, but actually that’s not strictly true. Loaves made in ‘in-store bakeries’ (which in reality are often little more than tanning salons, adding a bit of golden warmth to old, already half-cooked loaves that have been shipped in from elsewhere) are not required to display full ingredients lists. What’s more, there is no legal definition of words like ‘fresh’, ‘sourdough’, ‘artisan’, or ‘wholegrain.’ So the presence of those terms is no guarantee at all!
It is no coincidence that the number of people finding that they are intolerant to bread has increased in tandem with the prevalence of mass-production techniques. Studies are beginning to show that much of what is labelled today as gluten-intolerance is more likely an intolerance to all the things that are pumped into our bread, and which we don’t need there! The cocktail of emulsifiers, fats, and treatment agents are hard for our bodies to process and breakdown. Much of the nutritious value has been processed out of our grains (along with the flavour). And most of our supermarket breads are simply undercooked. Try an experiment: Rip out a bit of dough from the middle of your bread and squash it in your hands. If it returns to something resembling uncooked dough, that’s because it basically is!!
Now imagine just how much your body enjoys trying to process under-proved, raw dough? No wonder lots of bread makes you feel bloated!
In short, Wallace and Co. have made a documentary celebrating mass-produced, chemical-filled, undercooked, flavourless, illness-inducing, quantity-over-quality bread products.
This week is Real Bread Week; a week in which The Real Bread Campaign are seeking to raise awareness of issues around bread production, health and nutrition, misleading labelling and the suchlike. If you want to know more, or figure out how you can learn to make your own bread, check out their website and particularly their insightful section on additives and bread labelling.
There are some great resources on the BBC iWonder page about bread – a strange counterpart to their dreadful Wallace-doc. There are plenty of accessible material and some great short videos on the comparative nutritional value of homemade vs shopbought bread. There is also some information on price, gluten-free baking, cutting down on waste, and some basic recipes.
This one’s a bit more technical, but there’s a great piece in the New Yorker called Against the Grain which looks at some of the assumptions behind the current gluten-free craze, and considers whether the issue really is with gluten itself, or whether it has more to do with the way the grains have been processed. See too this piece by Vanessa Kimbell.
Many people whose bodies respond badly to regular store-bought bread find that they can eat sourdough bread with no problem at all. You can read more about sourdough here to find out what it is (and isn’t), some of the health benefits, and how to tell whether the ‘sourdough’ your supermarket sells is the real deal.
And if it was the beautiful dough-choreography of Gregg’s documentary that wowed you, then check this out: a beautifully shot documentary film called The Grain Divide looking at the way modern processes in bread-making have sacrificed quality, flavour and nutritional value. There’s also a radio documentary on the film here.