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Basically: bread

Food writer and Cookbook Club host Angela Clutton explores the importance of quality and provenance when it comes to buying basics. This time: bread


Image: John Holdship

For a series all about food basics, this is a fairly serious question to be posing: is bread the most basic basic of all? I mean the most fundamental. A true essential. For me at least, that answer is a resounding yes. I can’t think what could take its place, as I spread some toast with salted butter, or use a hunk of sourdough to mop up the juices in a pan of something lovely. (I cook prawns with garlic and fino just for the earthy pleasure of doing that.)

Going by the regular queues around Borough Market’s bread stalls, I am by no means alone in my enthusiasm. There is something so beautiful and readily enjoyable about the different sizes, shapes and types of loaves all piled up. You see shoppers pointing at exactly which loaf they want, because each one is a little different from the next. That’s what happens when loaves are crafted rather than manufactured – and it is not long ago that all our loaves would have been made that way.

It was in the 1960s (which admittedly may or may not be a long time ago depending on your point of view) that everything changed on the bread front, thanks – in a loose and rather sarcastic sense – to the development of the Chorleywood process for bread-making. This cut dramatically the time and labour involved. More bread could be made and more cheaply, but the realistic consequence of that was only ever going to be less quality. To be able to go from flour to finished, packaged, sliced loaf in about three hours, the dough has to have enzyme processing aids and flour improvers added to it. It is rapidly and aggressively mixed. And to be clear, just in case I glossed over it there, cutting labour means losing jobs, livelihoods, communities.

Even writing about it gets me a bit worked up, so I am going to just tell you that the significant majority of bread consumed in the UK is still Chorleywood and then shake that off and go back to thinking about properly crafted bread. Happily, that is what many of us are doing in the current push-back towards wanting proper bread.

If that includes you, it is worth bearing in mind that the labelling requirements for bread are rather looser than many genuine craft bakers would like. The only way to really know how the bread you are buying has been made is to buy from a baker who can tell you.

Go to Olivier’s Bakery, Bread Ahead Bakery, Karaway Bakery, The Flour Station and others and they will be happy to talk to you about the quality and provenance of their stoneground flour, the lengthy fermentation and rising time, the hands-on people skills that go into making their bread. Heck, at Bread Ahead you can press you nose up against the bakery windows and see that skill in action.

A small sourdough is my loaf of choice for this recipe of chargrilled vegetables, burrata, capers and fresh herbs encased in bread. Even greater skill and time go into a ‘proper’ sourdough loaf than into a plain yeasted one – the sourdough starter needs to be fed and ripened, fermentation time is longer. Hence those inverted commas around proper just now. Not all sourdough loaves are what they seem. For the same reasons of mass-production and cost of production, some loaves that call themselves sourdough can sometimes be a yeasted loaf that just has some dried sourdough starter added for a misleading tang.

You’ll know a proper sourdough by a crust so sharp you could almost cut yourself on it, by some blistering on the crust too, and occasional holes in the crumb as you cut into it. And again, you’ll know by buying from a bakery you can trust and you can ask. None of this is about maintaining traditional methods of bread-baking for the sake of it. It is about making sure the bread we slice for our morning toast is wholesome and nutritious, produced with respect (a word I make no apology for having used a few times in this series) for the people who make it as well as the ones eating it.

Read Angela’s recipe for a stuffed picnic loaf.