I have been absolutely delighted to see that this book, Bread Matters by Andrew Whitley, has been in the bestseller lists for non-fiction in the UK for a couple of weeks. It is a scholarly work for our times and a revelation to read.
Andrew Whitley started The Village Bakery in
Over the past thirty years Andrew Whitley has almost single handedly changed the taste of supermarket bread in
I have a number of bread books of which, until now, only one
was pre-eminent. Elizabeth David’s classic English Bread and Yeast Cookery was first published by
In his excellent and informative book Andrew Whitley notes that coincidentally it is from round about the same period that people first started reporting allergies or intolerances to bread, specifically wheat bread. Now nearly everybody remarks on, if not full-blown wheat allergies, at the very least a feeling of bloatedness after eating supermarket bread. There are even products on the market targeted at the condition!
Bread Matters describes the complex, and scandalous, adulterations that have led to this completely unnecessary situation; the additives – some admitted and some not – the huge amounts of yeast, the wheat hybrids bred to take advantage of intensive modern chemical agriculture, the unseemly rush from flour bag to shelf, all of which force onto the public a superficially attractive product that is doing most of us active harm. The book offers a thought-provoking explanation of this state of affairs and a detailed guide to producing your own bread. He is particularly good on the Russian ryes, spelt and sourdough, and, as Elizabeth David is completely hopeless on the last, and many contemporary writers overcomplicate the business, this is extremely welcome.
My own breadmaking skills are in a constant state of evolution. I remember vividly the first loaf I ever made, inspired by Mrs David; it consisted of heavy 100% wholemeal flour, dried yeast, water, olive oil ( I was in my early Mediterranean phase, it wasn’t her fault) and six teaspoonfuls of salt (she had had a stroke and lost her sense of taste, it wasn’t my fault). It baked like a house brick.
But one thing she did mention, and it stuck in my mind. She said that she often used a very small quantity of yeast – half a teaspoonful of the dried kind – and left the dough overnight on the kitchen table.
Over the years I practised and, speed equalling desirability, I could eventually produce a fairly creditable loaf, i.e. one that looked as if it had come from Tesco, in about four hours from start to finish. It tasted sort of all right, on the day, but frankly it still didn’t really taste of very much. And up to this point I have to admit that ‘boughten’ bread was still a better choice than mine, unsliced of course to give the illusion of rusticity.
Lionel Poilâne’s rugged country loaves became fantastically fashionable in the 1980s, just as I was getting serious about cooking. I lugged a couple back from
However, this story does have a happy ending. My bread is pretty good now, edible for the entire week, and infinitely preferable, I think, to supermarket candyfloss. I let it prove for longer and it tastes a lot better, but it is still often a bit of a leap in the dark. Which is where we come back to Bread Matters. Andrew Whitley attempts, heroically in my view, to bring some order to the mysterious and somewhat chaotic process that is domestic breadmaking. Whilst stressing that the feel of the dough is something you achieve through experience – you just ‘know’ – he lays down some very exact rules for temperatures and weights which should, in a perfect world, produce a perfect loaf, perfectly risen, with a perfect crumb and crust.
Now if you want to start a bakery all this will be very important, but if you don’t, if you make one loaf at a time, perhaps only once a week and perhaps with varying meals, you will find that all the weights and timings in the world will not be enough to make a good loaf, because in the end you just have to ‘know’. And this much I know:
You can keep your sourdough starter in the fridge for two or three weeks and resurrect it – it will be fine.
Make your dough soft and somewhat sticky – it will be fine.
Try to do the same thing each time – you will not succeed and it will be fine.
Use less yeast, prove for longer – it will be fine.
Take no notice of printed proving times – poke the dough with your finger, it will be fine.And wonder, as Elizabeth David does, at this quote:
“Do you mean to tell me that this thing is only flour and water? Then what on earth do they do to the bread in the shops?”
M. Vivian Hughes, A London Home in the Nineties, 1937 quoted by Elizabeth David in English Bread and Yeast Cookery Penguin 1979
The state of modern bread and a definitive guide to baking your own
by Andrew Whitley
Fourth Estate www.4thestate.co.uk