Article

Utopian ideals: Charles Fourier and bread

In this series, Jane Levi, writer and visiting research fellow at King’s College London, explores the many ways in which the place, people and values of Borough Market represent the concept of Utopia. Here she looks at the significance of bread

When I walked into Neal’s Yard Dairy last week and saw the deeply charred surface of the Little Bread Pedlar’s rye and beer loaf, I immediately thought of Charles Fourier, the so-called utopian socialist. Bear with me—this isn’t as much of a stretch as it might seem. Fourier was a man of many eccentricities, and of many wonderful ideas. One of his most compelling notions was that food was one of the most important elements in a good life, second only to love. It was impossible for him to imagine that we could have an ethical society if individuals were unable to reach their full potential through a process of education and self-realisation—and one of the most important ways of achieving this state of Harmony was through our food.

For Fourier, who was writing at the height of the revival of gastronomy in post-revolutionary France, the many wrongs of contemporary society were represented by its food: the great divide between rich and poor, the pontificating “experts” who were, as far as he was concerned, not in the least qualified to tell us what is “good” and were instead mainly engaged in persuading people to over-indulge (without having the constitutions to handle it) and spend too much money.

Happy conviviality
But Fourier wasn’t an ascetic; far from it. He saw food as the greatest source of personal enjoyment at every stage of our lives. He pointed out that we each have our own tastes, and it should be our life’s work to develop and understand them. To do this, we have to look at every aspect of the food system. It’s important to know where our food has come from, to understand how to grow it, how to cook it, its place in a healthy diet that works for our own bodies, and how to enjoy eating in happy conviviality.

So, what does this have to do with a loaf of bread at Borough Market? Well, it only takes a brief look around the Market to see the fantastic range of bakeries and breads on offer. It’s clear that bread remains one of the staple components of the European diet, as it has been for centuries. Fourier often used bread as a working example to explain his utopian system. In the bakeries of his future, there wouldn’t be one or two loaves that everyone had to eat, with variety restricted to only the wealthy elite (as it was in post-revolutionary Paris). In Fourier’s world, everyone would have access to a nuanced selection of breads made of various flours that ranged from salt-free to salty, from barely leavened to super-yeasty and from pale and soft to deeply, darkly crusty.

Which brings me back, finally, to that apparently burned loaf. For me (and many others), such a crust is absolutely delicious. But if it isn’t for you, you don’t have to like it and you can choose something else (or chip it off as our elite forebears would have done).

Bread

Quality, content and craft
For some, the idea of a loaf of bread costing almost £10—and one with a blackened crust at that—might not fit with the notion of a just and equitable society. But I think that is to misunderstand the Market and its ethos, as well as misunderstand what utopia can mean (and, perhaps, what bread can be). Utopia doesn’t have to be a communistic life of deprivation and misery; but a good life doesn’t have to be a selfishly hedonistic pursuit of pleasure and fashion, either. If we can develop an understanding of quality, content and craft in our food, we can begin to differentiate between cost and value.

If we are honest, most Borough Market shoppers are fortunate enough to be able choose whether to wolf down a cheap supermarket loaf or instead relish a quarter of a Bread Ahead rye or one of Olivier’s Bakery’s baguettes. If we do so in full self-knowledge, with an understanding of the different components that have gone into creating the loaf, and—by talking to the traders over their golden piles of loaves—develop an appreciation of the value of the baker’s work, then perhaps our daily bread can bring us a little bit closer to a place like Harmony.

Read Jane’s introduction to the Utopian ideals series