Thought for Food: Our Daily Bread?
Bread is surely one of the most overlooked, understated, yet fascinating staples in our food culture. The symbolic weight of the common loaf is extraordinary, with your choice of shape, crumb-colour, and how you eat it, communicating all manner of things about your identity, including your religion (wafers or challah), class (artisanal sourdough or sliced white), and beliefs about health (wholemeal or gluten-free).
Bread’s place on the table has dramatically shifted throughout British history. From being essential; functioning as a plate in medieval times, or constituting the bulk of nutritional intake during lean times, to being an afterthought in times of plenty and even reviled in our contemporary carb and gluten-phobic culture (although we still love our toast).
Although one of the simplest of processed foods (potentially comprising only 3 ingredients), bread production varies hugely from loaf to loaf. Sourdough loaves can involve fermentation processes of over 24 hours, while the average factory produced bread can be transformed from flour to loaf in 60 minutes or less.
This expedited method – also known as the Chorleywood process - may have made bread cheaper and more plentiful, but the Real Bread Campaign argues that it comes at the cost of nutritional value and may also be key in the rise of gluten intolerance. Despite folk complaining about gluten-induced bloating and tiredness in their droves, gluten has actually seldom been proven as the cause.
Rather than placing all the blame on gluten, the Real Bread Campaign and a growing number of academics suggest we consider other factors, such as whether the flour has been properly fermented or even how the wheat in the loaf was farmed (chemical applications and soil-health can also impact quality of the final loaf).
Another campaign is investigating whether the origin of ingredients, method of processing and production, and even distribution, might impact our cultural and nutritional relationship with bread, and it's focussed on Scotland.
When I first heard about Scotland the Bread from master-baker Andrew Whitley some years back, I was shocked to learn that despite being pretty darn good at grain production (think: whisky and beer), Scotland was growing no wheat for bread production. The grains we used to grow in Scotland for bread were phased out due to their incompatibility with industrial farming methods, resulting in all our bread-wheat coming from places like Canada, France, and occasionally, England. Andrew pointed out that relying on imported grain for bread was compromising our food security, as well as resulting in well-travelled and long stored grain with reduced nutrient content. Alongside scientists and farmers, Andrew has been seeking to democratize the production of bread in Scotland, experimenting with growing heritage grains suited to our climate, and adapting farming and milling practices to be maximally environmentally sustainable and nutritious. The result - 3 different heritage-grain flours are now in production. There's a long way to go before this flour is widely available at affordable prices, but individuals, chefs and bakeries are already using it, which is a start.
I was given a bag of ‘Rouge D'Ecosse’ flour for Christmas this year. I’m a bashful baker, largely only making sourdough in secret (my friends all seem to bakers or bread-aficionados, dammit) but my first attempt is pictured above. The texture was lovely, it felt nice to work with and didn’t require much kneading. Although I could have made it more flavourful with longer fermentation, knowing the story and motivation behind this flour makes it something to savour.