Week 3 and I couldn’t possibly start my journey around the world without spending some time getting to know one of Britain’s oldest and most historically significant foodstuffs of all time: bread. More than 30,000 years old, the significance of the humble loaf extends well beyond mere nutrition and is to be found in everything from religious ritual to the Magna Carta. Simple, cheap and adaptable, bread is the “staff of life” and I’m sure to ingest it in its many doughy guises on my travels this year.
Despite thousands of years of baking history, bread production in the UK changed forever in 1961. Following years of rationing, a group of scientists set about experimenting with production methods to allow bakers to use low protein British wheat, which meant they no longer had to rely on foreign exports. What resulted was the infamous Chorleywood Bread Process – a production method which added hard fats, chemicals and extra yeast. The dough was then mixed at high speeds so that the dough needed little to no time to prove. The result was softer, cheaper bread with almost double the shelf life. It is no coincidence that we in the UK produce 80% of today’s bread using the Chorleywood Bread Process.
Although conceived of with the best intentions, the production method led to a number of complications: 1. The process is highly reliant on petroleum and energy inefficient. 2. The process loses many nutrients along the way. 3. Bakers do not need to declare the use of enzymes and improvers on their ingredients list, the use of which some claim to have resulted in increased bread-related allergies. 4. Time = Flavour. You take away the time, you take away your flavour. 5. 1,000s of small local bakeries were forced out of business as they could no longer compete economically. Taking these factors into account it is unsurprising that since the invention of the Chorleywood method the UK’s bread consumption per person has fallen by half.
Mindful of the above I thought it only just that I work at a bakery that used traditional pre-Chorleywood methods. Championed by the www.realbreadcampaign.org, I wanted to learn how to make real bread with real bakers that support local communities. Thankfully during my years as a tea guru I got to know Tom Herbert, a fifth generation baker at the Cotswold bakery Hobbs House. One half of Channel Four’s Fabulous Baker Brothers, Tom claims to have been born with flour on his fingers. In light of over 90 years of experience passed down from generation to generation Tom understands the important role of tradition in baking.
After a few emails back and forth Tom agreed to let me spend some time with him and his team of talented bakers in Chipping Sodbury. “Welcome to the home of real bread. We’re going to make a baker out of you!”
Up next…The Fabulous Foodish Baker.
Interested in learning more about real bread? Why not give these talks a listen to?
Tom Herbert, ‘Why Good Bread Needs to be for Everyone.”
Andrew Whitley, ‘Why Bread Needs Time’
Peter Reinhart, ‘Bread’