Humans have been turning cereals into flour and making bread for at least 30,000 years. After wheat and barley became the first plants to be domesticated 10,000 years ago, bread was soon the staple food of over half the planet; the very symbol of a basic need in culture, religion, philosophy and economics as well as gastronomy. But around 9,900 years later along came profit-greedy free-market turbo-capitalism to destroy what had seemed indestructible and bring bread, of all things, to today’s sorry and scandalous state in the UK.
Bread needs just three ingredients: flour, yeast and water (pinch of salt and spoonful of sugar optional) – and even yeast is unnecessary for unleavened breads and sourdoughs. Yet the average commercial loaf bought by 80% of the UK population contains a battery of laboratory-concocted chemicals, such as ascorbic acid, hydrogenated fat, fatty acids, bleach, glutenates, cysteine, genetically-modified soya, emulsifiers, refined sugar, calcium propionate and acetic acid. If you’re lucky there’s a bit of wheat too! This mass-produced travesty also contains a multitude of various sinister ‘enzymes’ that don’t have to be declared on labels thanks to a convenient loophole which classifies them as ‘processing aids’ instead of ingredients. Derived from sources that would not normally be digestible by humans, enzymes are one of the baking industry’s dirty little secrets. Their scary powers include the ability to make bread hold more gas and retain more liquid so as to reduce the quantity of dough per loaf and boost shareholder dividends. Untested and unregulated, these enzyme abominations are a major factor in the diabetes, obesity, gluten allergies, digestive tract illnesses and chronic bowel problems that are at epidemic levels in the UK; while the uninformed, uncritical millions who ingest this junk daily are contemptuously treated as spoon-fed suckers who will obligingly damage their own well-being to act as a revenue stream for Big Business.
Bread is now just one more by-product of the giant corporations that bestride the globe; invisible, unchecked, unelected cartels with cross-over portfolios that include oil, chemicals, plastics, agriculture, construction, mining, detergents and cosmetics, all engaged in a lowest-common-denominator race to the bottom to squeeze out every last crumb of profit, line the pockets of a miniscule elite with unimaginable wealth, and to hell with the planet and its people.
It is somehow appropriate that today in the UK, with its parasitic, unsustainable, pointless economy entirely reliant on dumb, debt-fuelled consumerism, it has actually become extremely difficult to obtain adequate bread, the primary and simplest of all consumables.* The tasteless, lifeless, squelchy, air-pumped blotting-paper sold in supermarkets for under £2 is a disgrace that a starving sparrow would reject. Those in-store bakeries are an illusion of course: each loaf is factory-prepared in advance, delivered in truck-loads and then finished off on the premises by steaming it for a few minutes in a plastic bag – while an artificial aroma evoking fresh bread is pumped through the store via the air-conditioning. Having cut through the spray-tanned shards that pass for ‘crust’, the slightest pressure causes the disgusting stuff beneath to preserve a perfect forensic-standard fingerprint while squashing into an inedible gunk that doesn’t bounce back, and after a day or two the vinegary whiff of preservative and the pissy stench of chlorine kick in to cloak the natural moulds festering within. It’s the worst thing since, well, sliced bread. The equally-profitable flip-side of this deliberate degradation of a product for the mass market is the elevation of plain, natural, wholesome bread, so recently the ultimate poor man’s food, into a ‘luxury’ item found only in ‘artisan’ bakeries in those middle-class areas where there are enough people who can afford £6 a loaf – precisely the same perverted process that has made housing built for workers only affordable for millionaires.
I wouldn’t desecrate my gullet let alone my intestines with commercial bread and have been making my own for decades. Learning such a fundamental skill was one of the many advantages of being a curious young hippy in the 1970s. Thousands of similar idealists learned to make bread in that era, not merely because we wanted something better than what was on offer, or because home-made then as now was so much cheaper (we never had any bread, man); we also wanted to change the world, to take a new road into the future where respect for the planet and fair shares for all the people were the bottom-line principles. As is all too apparent if you glance out of your window, we failed completely. However that doesn’t mean we were wrong – just years ahead of our time, waiting for everyone else to catch up.
My partner gave me a breadmaker for Christmas a few years ago, a thoughtful, loving present intended to stop my griping and save me time. After unwrapping the unwieldy machine my first response, a gleeful trampling on all the treacly Christmas conventions of bogus ‘goodwill’, was “I’ve got a fucking breadmaker already – it’s called an oven!” I’ve never used the thing and it still sits in its box under the stairs (one speed-read of the instruction booklet was quite enough to put me off for life). No, you don’t need machinery to make bread – well, not when you’ve got a pair of hands at any rate. Here’s my easy, tried-and-trusted, infallible method:
Makes 2 large loaves
1.5kg (3lb) 100% wholemeal flour
50g (2oz) fresh yeast
1 tbsp salt
1 tbsp brown sugar
1 litre (1¾ pints) warm water
1. Mix flour and salt in a large bowl, keep in a warm place.
2. Mix yeast and sugar in a smaller bowl with 450ml (¾ pint) of the water. Leave for 15 minutes to froth up.
3. Pour the yeast into the flour and gradually add the remaining water. Mix well by hand.
4. Cover with a cloth and put in a warm place to rise for 30 minutes or so.
5. Divide the dough in two and knead each piece on a lightly floured surface for a few minutes.
6. Put the dough into two greased, warmed bread tins.
7. Cover with a cloth and put in a warm place to rise further for another 20 minutes or so.
8. Bake in a hot oven for about 35-40 minutes.
9. Tip out of the tins and cool on a wire tray.
Making bread this way involves some sporadic effort spread across a couple of therapeutically comforting hours. I do it once or twice or month while compiling rude anagrams and naughty cryptic crosswords at my kitchen table – the very definition of a constructive morning. The cost, including power, works out at about £2 a loaf and the bread both freezes well and defrosts quickly. This is a far cry from the fetishised, faffy baking that nobody will ever attempt, as seen on the BBC’s endless roster of faintly obscene food-porn programmes. It’s the opposite: cheap, plain, practical, proportionate and achievable. Try it, and reject the bread of hell that bleeds you till you can’t no more, bleeds you till you can’t no more.
Recommended independent bakers in Cardiff:
Allens Bakery – Arran Place, Roath
Cerdin Foods – Roath Farmers Market
Derwen Bakehouse – National History Museum, St Fagans
One Mile Bakery – Syr David Avenue, Pontcanna
Riverside Sourdough – Riverside Farmers Market & Roath Farmers Market