Thursday, April 26, 2007

Bread Matters

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 Melmerby, Cumbria, in 1976, because all that was available in nearby Penrith was supermarket white sliced bread. Melmerby is a tiny place, frequented by walkers and climbers, with the fells rising immediately behind the houses. The Village Bakery is the largest employer in the area.

Over the past thirty years Andrew Whitley has almost single handedly changed the taste of supermarket bread in Britain. His sourdough loaves, boules de campagne and Russian rye breads now jostle for space on the shelves with steamy white sliced. He produces 20,000 loaves and buns a week, using organic flour from Shipton Mills, and each batch can take up to 24 hours, depending on the weather.

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 Allan Lane in 1977, one year after Andrew opened for business in Cumbria. Two years later Penguin brought out the paperback version and I still have mine, completely stained and fallen to pieces. It is a book about breadmaking, its constituents and its history, and I read it through from cover to cover when I bought it. I was fascinated by the erudite nature of the writing, her enquiries into meal and fat and salt, and shocked to read, for the first time, of the Chorleywood Bread Process. Developed in 1961, at Chorleywood in Hertfordshire, this process meant that a loaf was mixed, proved and ready for the oven inside one hour. Supermarket bread still uses this method.

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 Paris, paying overweight to BA. I learned about sourdough and tried my best, but honestly, my versions were dreadful.

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

Bread Matters
state of modern bread and a definitive guide to baking your own
by Andrew Whitley
Fourth Estate


HerbanGirl said...

What a lovely post! I have been too busy to bake bread for the last several weeks, and reading this immediately brought back the familiar feeling of joy and mystery I have about the bread-baking process. Thank you for the reminder!

June said...

Thank you! What a nice way to put it - joy and mystery - that about sums it up for me too.

Ulrike said...

Don't ask how I stumbled across your great blog but it's interesting and informative. I am a German food blogger baking her own bread. If I see bread books, I don't own I can't resist. I prefer sourdough baking and I ask myself if it is worth to buy? Would you recommend this book?

BTW: I have no problems with Polaîne style breads

June said...

Hi Ulrike
Thanks for this comment. This is a very good academic book, with lots of excellent and thoughtful information aout the state of commercial breadmaking today. There are also a lot of very detailed recipes. I think if you are interested in what goes into our flour and most of our bread you will find it interesting. I am sure that you don't need any help to make good bread! Your Poilane loaf looks very good. I think it is difficult for us in England to get the same flour as you use in Germany. I have written elsewhere about spelt flour, and if you haven't used it do try it.

Ulrike said...

Hi June, in my experiences the British flour is much better. The last two years I bought flour in Great Britain to take it home to Germany ;-) to duplicate a recipe from Dan Lepard.

Happy baking and may your breads always rise. BTW: Sometimes I try to write in English, you find there also tried and tested bread recipes.

Welshcakes Limoncello said...

A beautiful post. Thanks for the tip about this book. I will definitley put it on my wish list. I, too, have a stained copy of the Elizabetn David - and I wouldn't part with it for anything!

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