The public appetite for mass-produced loaves is on the wane.
So can a return to bygone baking methods put real bread back on the menu?
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Given the ever-growing emphasis on locally sourced, seasonal produce in supermarkets – or some of them, at least – it seems odd that there isn't greater clamour from environmentally aware customers for locally made or traditional artisan bread.
For many consumers, bread is a daily purchase informed primarily by price. In the UK, 12 million loaves are sold every day and in some shops a loaf costs less than 50p – the lowest price in Europe. The commercial brands Warburton and Kingsmill continue to dominate the shelf space in most of the multiples.
Yet we now eat less than half as much bread as we did 45 years ago and sales of industrially-produced bread are dropping at a rate roughly equivalent to the number of people with wheat or gluten intolerance. This, says Andrew Whitley, co-founder of the Real Bread Campaign and author of the award-winning book Bread Matters, is because since the early 1960s the chemical additives being put into commercially made bread as replacements for yeast and natural fermentation are making us intolerant to it. Proper fermentation requires time, which is something large commercial enterprises are not willing or able to invest in.
Instead they'll add L-ascorbic acid (E300), amino acid (E920) (sometimes derived from animal hair and feathers) to create stretch; soya flour, sometimes from GM plants; emulsifiers E471, E472e and E481 to control the size of bubbles in the dough; calcium propionate (E282) as a preservative; imported flour containing bleach; and a wide range of added enzymes to the basic ingredients of flour, water, salt and yeast in order to speed up the rising process and prolong shelf life. Because they are classified as processing aids, enzymes don't have to be declared on product labels, yet they can be derived from substances that are not part of the normal human diet (such as pig pancreas), contribute nothing nutritionally, and can even trigger conditions such as coeliac disease.
At the launch of the Breadshare community supported bakery at Whitmuir Organic Farm at Lamancha, West Linton, Whitley – a baker who left Cumbria for Scotland to continue his campaign for the real thing – said: "We have evolved an industrial system that produces bread that more and more people cannot, and should not, eat.
"Before the development of commercial yeast in the late 19th century, bakers had to make their own, either with a wild sourdough culture or by making a 'barm' with yeast residue from a local brewer. The process took time because the number of viable yeast cells in a sourdough or barm was relatively small. In the famous overnight bread recipe from John Kirkland in 1907, the quantity of yeast used was less than 0.1% of the final dough weight.
"But in 1961 the British Baking Industries Research Association at Chorleywood devised a breadmaking method using lower-protein British wheat, an assortment of additives and high-speed mixing, eliminating the need for fermentation. More than 80% of all UK bread is now made using this method and most of the rest uses the process 'activated dough development', which involves a similar range of additives. Apart from a tiny percentage of bread, this is what we eat today.
"The Chorleywood Bread Process (CBP) produces bread of phenomenal volume and lightness. Its name is not on labels but you can recognise it from the clammy sides of your chilled sandwich to the flabby roll astride every franchised burger that sticks to the roof of your mouth. Its soft, squishy texture lasts for days until the preservatives can hold back the mould no longer."
Recent research has revealed that making yeasted breads quickly may not leave time for important natural changes to take place. For example, fermenting dough for six hours instead of 30 minutes removes around 80% of a potentially carcinogenic substance, acrylamide, which is found in bread crusts, and long yeast fermentations conserve the highest levels of B vitamins in dough.
"Industrial baking needs to be reconstructed from first principles, of which the most important is a proper respect for time," Whitley concludes.
Meanwhile, a revival of artisan and traditional breadmaking is evident here, and even if it makes up a relatively small percentage of UK bread production it is growing. The Breadshare bakery at Whitmuir, for example, uses the slow fermentation method with locally milled organic flour without additives, improvers or chemicals to make 1500 loaves a week from flour milled at Kelso.
"It's how bread was made hundreds of years ago," says master baker Debra Riddell, who works with a team of volunteers to make the bread and sell it to the community.
Likewise, the Dunbar community bakery, the first in Scotland which launched last year, is flourishing. Its team makes around 2500 artisan and traditional loaves each week for local people, using imported flour traditionally milled at Carr's Hutchinson mill in Kirkcaldy. It is now looking to expand its customer base.
But if demand for Scottish-baked and Scottish-milled bread is growing, we don't yet produce wheat that contains sufficient protein for bread – although Scotland's climate is great for growing softer, lower-protein (sometimes called weak) wheat, perfect for use in cakes and biscuits.
"Much of the bread we eat is made from Canadian, North American, Russian or German flour as they grow stronger, high-protein wheat," says Andrew Chisholm, commercial director of Carr's Hutchinson, which is building a mill at Kirkcaldy Port to facilitate greater volumes of homegrown wheat as well as imported bread wheat for milling. "English flour is getting better, but the problem is inconsistency with the weather and the risk of poor harvests. You need hot, dry summers to grow strong wheat. In 21 years I've been here the Canadian wheat has never wavered in quality."
Chisholm, who is also a baker, agrees that there's a link between modern bread-making and intolerance to commercially made bread. "Up until the 1980s all the old Glasgow bakeries like Sunblest, City Bakeries and Flecks used slow bulk fermentation, but that's all gone now," he says. "Almost everything commercial is made with the CBP process, which involves high-speed mixing to encourage more volume to be added, and though some companies such as Morton's have retained the slow fermentation process for their rolls, they don't shout about it," he says. "It's a sad reflection of what used to be available 20 years ago, before the supermarket bread wars of the 1980s put the craft bakers out of business."
Alex Waugh of the Flour Advisory Bureau refutes the idea that CBP causes intolerance. "There is no evidence to suggest the way bread is made makes any difference to the reaction of individuals. We have commissioned studies but have not found anything."
Andrew Whitley and Whitmuir Organic farmer Pete Ritchie are keen to re-establish a Scottish "grain chain" by finding farmers willing to grow ancient wheat varieties of the type that used to be grown in Scotland – in particular, the Black Isle, Aberdeenshire and East Lothian, where bread-quality wheat was grown, though they say they need funding for research and development. Whitley says, "Finding Scottish bread is the biggest challenge to local food development, but the market is definitely there."
The Scottish Government is supportive. Richard Lochhead, Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and Environment, said: "As one who ate only Scottish food for a week to promote Scottish produce, I found one of the most challenging issues was sourcing local bread. It's ironic that Scotland has a growing reputation for being a food-producing nation, but that everyday items are not as local or Scottish as they could be.
"The seeds have been sown for growing local food, with many initiatives taking off. That momentum is something I'm very keen to build upon and encourage.
"Making bread locally ticks all the right boxes in terms of lowering carbon footprint and increasing food security." n
Nourish, Scotland's Sustainable Local Food Network, is holding a conference, Scotland's Food 2020, at Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh, today. For details, visit nourishconference2012.eventbrite.com.