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Bread

We eat nearly three million tonnes of bread every year in the UK. But back in 1961, we ate twice as much.

What happened?

1961 was a bad year for bread. In a place called Chorleywood near Rickmansworth in Hertfordshire, the Flour Milling and Baking Research Association created a new way of baking.

Real bread should contain just three basic things: flour, water and yeast. Salt is also usually added to bring out the flavour and often some fat is added to stop it going stale too quickly. But that’s pretty much it.

It’s kneaded by hand and needs to be left to ‘prove’ or ferment, ideally more than once, for anything between 20 minutes and two hours. And it takes 40-50 minutes to bake. It’s a time consuming, labour intensive process.

In 1961, researchers in Chorleywood found a way of making bread fast. They found that if you used lower quality flours you could use machines to knead dough. They discovered that adding vegetable fat along with processing aids, oxidising agents, emulsifiers, additives and ‘improvers’ meant that fermentation times could be substantially reduced. And that you could bake at a higher temperature much more quickly.

In this way, they created a way to make a loaf of bread nearly two hours quicker and with much less effort. Result.

It has become know as the Chorleywood Bread Process (or CBP) and is now used to make 98% of the bread we buy in the UK.

So why has this made us fall out of love with the loaf?

The problem with mass-produced industrialised bread is that it is much less tasty, much harder to digest and much less good for you.

How many people do you know now who are gluten intolerant or allergic? Or avoid eating too much bread because it makes them feel bloated or ill? I know quite a lot. A surprising and growing number of them.

This almost certainly because of the way most bread is made now.

Bread that is fermented quickly is much harder to digest. This is because the gluten is much stronger. The varieties of wheat that most suit mechanical mixing also have stronger gluten. Which adds to the problem.

Flour used to make mass-produced bread, is mechanically milled. High-speed milling strips the flour of most of its natural nutrients which means you need to add fats and artificial additives later to compensate. More fat is also added to help the bread hold it’s shape, something that it doesn’t do naturally because of the fast fermentation. Mass produced bread has a much higher fat content than bread really should have.

Then there’s where it’s made.

80% of mass-produced bread is produced in just eleven industrial plant bakeries. Most of the rest is produced in Supermarket bakeries which are in reality just mini versions of these plants.

Because of the highly industrialised process, these plants are very energy inefficient, typically using nearly three times as much power per loaf as a small artisan bakery or home baking. Which from a carbon foot print point of view, isn’t good.

Because there’s only eleven of them, loafs have to be driven all over the country, wracking up food miles. Your mass produced loaf is probably quite well traveled. Bread baked at a local bakers or at home has far fewer food miles than one of the best known brands.

So what bread should you buy?

Well, ideally, you want to buy bread from a local artisan baker who has made it using their hands. Bread made with hands tastes better. The Real Bread Campaign, who are trying to raise awareness of the bread problem, has a real bread finder on their website.

You want bread made with stone ground flour. Stone ground flour is made using the slower, traditional method and means that most of the good stuff remains in it. It’s also likely to be easier to digest. So is spelt flour which was used by the Romans and hasn’t been modified or cross bred since.

Should it be organic? Well this is up for debate.

Only 15,000 hectares of organic wheat is grown in the UK,  only one percent of the wheat we grow. We’re 80% self sufficient in bread wheat but much of the organic wheat we use is imported.

Organic wheat takes only two thirds of energy to grow, mainly because you don’t need to use fertilizers. But it needs three times the land for the same yield.

However, fertilizers and pesticides are not good for bio diversity. The recent crash in the bee population is partly attributed to their use. And without bees many of our fruit and vegetables wouldn’t be pollinated.

Most non organic bread also contains residues of pesticides, not at harmful levels but they’re still probably not too good for you.

So if it’s made of organic wheat grown in the UK then definitely buy it. Help create the demand for it. Otherwise, it’s up to you.

Even better than buying bread, is making it yourself.

You can make a home made organic loaf for less than half the price of a mass produced non-organic loaf. And it’ll taste a hundred times better.

Obviously making it by hand is the best and altogether most satisfying way to do it.

However, using a breadmaker also isn’t bad. Breadmaker machines use more power to mix the dough but are more efficient at baking than a normal oven. And they’re dead easy to use. Most have a timer setting that allows you to chuck the ingredients together before you go to bed and you wake up to the smell of freshly baking bread. I can guarantee there’s no better alarm clock.

I love bread. To my mind there is no nobler food than a really good loaf. I am sad that we have debased one of our oldest, most reliable staples to the point where it’s a pale imitation of what it should be and many of us aren’t eating it anymore because it’s tasteless and almost indigestible.

So then. Make your own bread. Perhaps buy a breadmaker. Or support a proper baker by buying it from a real bakery if you’re lucky enough to have one near you. It might cost a bit more but so it should. And it’ll be worth it.

It’s the best thing since…

Oh, no, it’s much better than that.

A really simple soda bread recipe

This recipe is so easy. It takes less than 10 mins to make and less than 25 mins to bake. It’s also very difficult to get wrong. If I forget to put the bread maker on, I make this.

Ingredients:

  • 500kg flour (plain, wholemeal or I particularly like spelt)
  • 4tsp baking powder
  • 2tsp salt
  • 300 ml water/milk/thin yogurt/fruit juice or a combination

Pre heat the oven to 200 degrees / gas mark 6. Mix all the dry ingredients in a bowl. Add the liquid and make into a dough.

Briefly knead it in the bowl. Knock it about a bit. Divide the dough into two and shape into a round. Put some fresh flour on your hands and rub over the outside. Put the dough onto a heavy baking sheet and pat into a loaf shape. Cut across the top of the loaf – over half way down and stab all over. Make sure there’s space between the loaves and bake for 20-25 minutes.

The bread should be golden brown and sound hollow when you tap the base. Leave to cool on a wire rack but eat it while it’s still warm. With some butter. Yum.

You can also add herbs, olives or a spoonful of black treacle to make a sweeter bread that’s good with Irish Stew. Be creative!

If you want to know more about making bread, I can thoroughly recommend The River Cottage Bread Handbook by Daniel Stevens.

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