Regular readers will know I often rant about how supermarkets sell food products selected for their own convenience rather than because it offers the freshest, tastiest customer experience, be it rubber tomatoes, strawberries that look large, red and inviting but taste of precisely nothing, apples that have been chilled for months, and many more. It can be done differently, and you only have to look at the French, German, Spanish and Italian equivalents to see how better supermarkets might operate. More to the point, more fool us, the consumer, for accepting third rate food products so blandly. We have sleepwalked into accepting mediocrity and worse.
But this particular blog is about bread, arguably one of the simplest but most wonderful foodstuffs imaginable when it’s done right – and all it needs is excellent flour, yeast, salt, water and a practised hand.
It’s targeted as much against the manufacturers as the supermarkets, though both are highly culpable. I’ve also said before that all a manufacturer cares about is reducing cost per unit, increasing shelf life and retaining consistency of products – for the achievement of which they can and do add any ingredients, regardless of impact, until the effects are discovered and publicised by the press. Providing the consumer with the best possible product is very much third best, whatever they might tell you. How else could they persuade us that the Chorleywood baking process, an evil relic of the 60s, was somehow in our interests? Consider this from the Wikipedia article:
“The aim of the Chorleywood bread process is to use cheaper, lower-protein wheats and to reduce processing time, the system being able to produce a loaf of bread from flour to sliced-and-packaged form in about three and a half hours. This is achieved through the use of chemical improvers, solid vegetable fat, higher quantities of yeast, and intense mechanical working by high-speed mixers to incorporate air into the dough. The last requirement means that the CBP cannot be reproduced in a domestic kitchen. Solid fat is necessary to prevent the risen loaf from collapsing — in traditional methods, this structure is provided by the gluten produced by higher-protein flour….The CBP’s use of cheaper wheat, to produce bread acceptable to the bulk of UK customers, means that the process is still used for 80% of UK bread production.”
In short, the product is infinitely worse than traditional techniques in flavour, texture and nutrition, but like drones the British shopper buys because it is generally sold at a lower price, and because of the preservatives added tends to keep longer without going stale. The inferior nature of the product, whether it is sold as plain white, wholemeal, seeded, whatever, is readily apparent. The lack of texture means it does not hold together when spread, though part of its appeal is because it toasts reasonably well. Compare it to real bread and it’s plainly obvious that we are talking chalk and cheese.
What is most horrifying is that generations have been brought up to regard CBP bread as the standard for what bread is or should taste like, and while most French shoppers would sooner slit their own throats rather than buy awful bread (they still queue early in the morning to buy fresh baguettes, croissants and pain au chocolat), CBP has found its way into no fewer than 26 countries.
Nowadays supermarkets do sell some breads made properly, though the description applied to “stone baked” bread in Tesco did stick in my craw. It read something like: “bread made using traditional artisan methods, but on a larger scale.” This is more marketing hype, since the whole point about artisan methods of doing anything is that they are made in small batches by a skilled baker (or whatever) who personally supervises the process from beginning to end. It is totally distinct from industrial production, which by its very nature commoditises products to reduce cost.
Shame though that many of the traditional small bakeries have been long since driven out of business by supermarkets, and the high street bakeries that remain mostly ape the supermarket CBP product lines. That said, it’s still good to see La Brea sourdough products on sale at some Tesco branches, even if they are not a match for the likes of Poilâne. This is the Rolls Royce of manufacturers, using the same sourdough and producing a higher quality loaf. Though primarily a Paris-based outfit, they have one shop in London, and at one time you could buy their products in Waitrose. Try and you will discover what real bread should taste like.
There are a few others around, of course – seek out the Exeter Street Bakery range and a few other small-scale craft baking companies, but best of all look out for farmer’s markets in your area. These days, most will have a craft bakery stall selling the real deal products. Quite a wide range too! Not just crusty white tin loaves and baguettes, but a wide range of flavoured products, sweet and savoury.
There is another alternative: bake it yourself. The easiest way is with a bread maker, which has the advantage that you can add the ingredients, set the timer and wake up to the smell of hot fresh bread, one aroma without compare, but neither is it difficult to make your own from scratch, and does have the satisfying byproduct that you can take out your frustrations by kneading and punching the dough! Ingredients: couldn’t be simpler – strong flour, dried yeast, oil, salt, water, plus whatever flavourings you want to add. Lots of styles, lots of recipes, just a little work to make it rise with a good texture, then away you go – what could be more satisfying?
Gain more experience and the product will almost certainly be better than you can buy in a supermarket or local bakery, does not take long, can be made in a batch so you have loaves in the freezer, and is ultimately better and cheaper. Try it!
However, the question remains: why, when continental shoppers won’t accept anything less than the best, do UK shoppers seem happy to take 4th best? Answers on a postcard…
PPS. Seems 60% of our bread retains pesticide residues – see here.