Bread Matters

The other book that has fired me up with New Year zeal is Andrew Whitley’s ‘Bread Matters: the state of modern bread and a definitive guide to baking your own’.

Having just devoured Bad Food Britain, I read it with my radar twitching for signs of snobbery, either my own or in the text. The polemic of Bread Matters is different. Its message echoes that of Bad Food Britain but the argument is simpler, more powerful and almost unanswerable. Modern bread, industrially produced, is bad for you. You will be healthier, and happier, if you make your own.

Modern production processes have reduced both the nutritional quality and the digestibility of bread, already depleted by the use of roller-milled rather than stone-ground flour since the 1870s.

To make modern bread on an industrial scale in a reliable and cost-effective way, the bread is made very quickly. Large quantities of yeast are used to accelerate the rising process. Numerous additives, chemicals and enzymes are used – ingredients which would have been superfluous if the bread had been made in the traditional way, and the yeast had had time to work on the dough. And, just as bad, much of the flavour that a longer fermentation process creates is lost.

Only some of these additives are required to be listed as ingredients. One such enzyme, sometimes used, is derived from pigs (phospholipase): something that most Jews, Muslims and vegetarians might wish to know.

One interesting finding he cites is that the chemical reaction which takes place in the traditional (slow) bread-making process works to break down the particular chemicals that cause problems for coeliacs. Gradually, starting with the use of commercial yeast in the late 19th Century, and the subsequent industrialization of bread production, the amount of yeast being used in dough has increased by over 20 times the amount that bakers would have used 150 years ago …and for millennia before that.

It is hardly surprising that our guts have found it difficult to adapt. Whitley describes how the emergence of coeliac disease, wheat and gluten intolerance and yeast sensitivity has been a post-war phenomenon, and links this with the start of industrial scale bread production (the Chorleywood Bread Process) in the 1950s.

This book footnotes references to many scientific studies. I’m not a scientist, and I don’t know to what extent the scientific claims have been subject to peer review, but I found the arguments compelling.

Bread Matters starts as a treatise on the state of modern bread, and then becomes a recipe book. The initial chapters describe the basic processes that all bread-making involves (and what can go wrong). The later chapters run through different types of bread: starting with a basic yeast bread and progressing to sourdoughs, savoury breads and sweet breads, gluten-free breads, and even what to do with leftover stale bread. The early recipes function more as a learning guide than as a recipe book.

So I’m going to try making my own bread, at least some of the time. I can buy stone-ground flour at the farm shop, produced from a mill only a couple of miles away. I will make it by hand because I have enough under-used kitchen gadgets. I will work through the recipes in Whitley’s book and when I have progressed that far, I will try to make my own leaven and sourdough – cultivating my own yeasts. I expect early results will be mixed. I doubt I will reach self-sufficiency. Never mind, I’ll get there in the end and my insides will thank me. I’ll record my attempts here…


~ by jobes on February 3, 2008.

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