The knead for time: how real bread is made

To celebrate Real Bread Week (Feb 24-March 4), I’m sharing an article I wrote for Great British Food, which takes an aromatic journey around some of Britain’s best craft bakeries, uncovering the skills and tradition of artisan bread making and baking in the UK…

Not many people would admit to keeping a 45-year-old wild creature in a bin in the back room, but every morning baker Sam Wells diligently feeds his ‘Wild White’ and makes sure its every whim is catered for. It might sound like a scene from a gothic novel, but for Wells it’s all in a day’s work.

As head of production at the multi-award winning Hobbs House Bakery, in Chipping Sodbury, he’s responsible for nurturing the culture of bacteria, or starter (acquired at the ripe old age of 30), which is used to make sourdough. It’s a process that cannot be hurried.

“We’ve been perfecting our recipe for more than five years,” says Wells, who works alongside brother Clive, brother-in-law Trevor Herbert and nephew Tom. “It contains just four ingredients: water, salt, organic white flour and the fourth – and most important – time. It goes through a 70-hour process before it’s popped in the oven.”

Although the bakery has been stamped with Rick Stein’s Super Hero status, the staff are not, in fact, imbued with special powers (though the taste of their lovely loaves might make you think so): they simply know what makes great bread.

Wells, who’s been baking in the five-generation family business since he was nine, says unlike the bagged, mass-produced bread you find in the supermarket, they wouldn’t dream of adding any other ingredients to the recipe. “If you want to make a loaf quickly you have to add chemicals. We don’t stick anything else in our bread to make it stand up in the tin, taste delicious or last longer – we just give it a bit of time and it’s all there.”

Slice of life

But the starter is not the only thing Wells is striving to nurture: he’s one of a handful of British craft bakers fighting to keep the traditions of artisan bread making alive and well too.

As one of the oldest crafts in the world, the skilled process of bread making stretches back to Egyptian times. In Rome, circa 160BC, bakers were held in such high regard that a professional Bakers’ Guild was formed, the members of which enjoyed the freedom of the city and special privileges (it’s said they were also forbidden to mix socially with ordinary folk in case they should be “contaminated”). In the Middle Ages, bakers had to serve an apprenticeship of seven years before qualifying, with laws protecting their craft and status.

By the Victorian era, however, industrial-scale gas ovens, automated baking units and roller-milling systems, had put paid to all but a few craft bakeries. The 1960s saw the introduction of the now famous, high-speed Chorleywood Bread Process, which enabled dough to be made in as little as three minutes and transformed into a sliced loaf in less than three hours. It sounded the death knoll for many more artisan bakers.

Today, while countries such as Italy can boast up to 90 per cent of its bread is made in artisan bakers, in Britain, only around five per cent of bread is made in this way. In our fast-paced, fast food lifestyle the 70-hour sourdough has fallen out of favour.

“In the pre-industrial era, time was an essential ingredient in bread making. But today, for the British baking industry a more serious race has been on: to make mass-produced, no-time bread in the interests of profit and low prices,” says Andrew Whitley, a baking teacher and former baker, with more than 30 years experience. “Without time to ferment the dough, bread not only lacks flavour but may not be the staff of life we fondly imagine.”

Loving every crust and crumb

Compare a standard sliced loaf with a deeply flavoured yeasted artisan loaf, or a dark and thickly crusted rye sourdough and you’ll see what all the fuss is about. Step into a craft bakery and experience the mingling aromas of wood smoke, fresh-baked bread and fruity starters – and it’s likely you’ll be converted forever.

“Whenever I visit a market I seek out the bread, and once I’ve bought a loaf: I’ll squeeze it, then I’ll smell it, before having a long, lingering chew,” says cookery teacher Susan Spaul, author of Leiths Baking Bible. “The crust can be crisp or chewy or even soft; the insides have even greater variety depending on additions to the dough: I love them all.”

River Cottage chef Dan Stevens first got bitten by the bread bug when he began baking in his mother’s kitchen as a child, and says the unpredictable nature of bread making is what makes it so absorbing.

“My first attempt was bad; the second similar; the third slightly better. By the sixth time I thought I was starting to nail it, but then the seventh attempt was awful,” says Dan, author of The River Cottage Handbook 3: Bread. “My mother insisted on taking my efforts over to my grandmother’s house and they all ate it politely, even though it tasted like a brick.”

“Despite this I became totally fascinated,” continues Dan. “I realised there was so much to learn about bread making and an incredible amount of science behind it. I still have bad bread days, but I love the fact it keeps me on my toes!”

Linda Collister, author of Quick Breads and many other books on baking, learnt the basics at Cordon Bleu, and La Varenne cooking school in Paris. “The chef who taught us made perfect bread and expected nothing less from his students; you just had to practice until you got it right,” she says. “In Paris I discovered pain Poilane, a rustic style sourdough loaf with deep flavour and chewy crumb, and baguettes with a razor-like crust. When I got back home I found the bread here a bit of a let down. Once you’ve eaten the best bread you won’t settle for second best!” 

Bread of life

A similar disillusionment with standardised bread led architect Jamie Campbell to go the whole hog and build a bakery at his home in Long Crichel, near Wimborne, Dorset. “I constructed a wood-fired oven in the stable block and baked my first loaf in 2000,” says Campbell from Famous Hedgehog Bakery. “But what started as a hobby became a total fascination. Although it’s demanding, it’s totally mesmerising.”

Today, his small bakery produces 10 different kinds of bread – from sourdough to yeasted loaves – as well Continental bread, viennoiserie and patisserie. He employs a team of bakers and supplies both the local community and the Abel and Cole box scheme.

Campbell is passionate about converting more people to artisan bread and agrees with Andrew Whitley that the vast majority of bread available in shops is “uniform pap”.

“Bread is a living thing and you have to have some humility about the process, you can’t know it all,” says Campbell. “Time and experience are crucial in helping to develop flavour. Factory-made bread that’s dressed up to look and taste the same is simply incorrectly made, and I for one don’t want to eat it.”

On a knife edge

Former baker Whitley became so enraged about the state of bread making in Britain that he set up the Real Bread Campaign to promote all-natural bread to consumers.

“Many professional bakers don’t seem to love what they do anymore. They are so busy baking by numbers – producing ‘good-looking’ products with unnaturally soft crumb that last for weeks – they’ve become alienated from bread making altogether,” says Whitley. “The bread industry has conspired not to reveal the additives and enzymes that go into ordinary loaves, selecting on yield rather than nutrition or digestibility. The public, meanwhile, remains largely ill-informed.”

West Country miller Michael Stoate, whose company Stoates Flour has been supplying traditional stoneground flour to craft bakeries for 180 years, agrees: “I think there is an overall lack of trust with large corporate organisations who put profits before provenance and this has worked to our advantage. I can’t help feel that our heritage has a positive impact and is respected by our customers.”

Real bread renaissance

Thanks to bakers like Campbell, Whitley and Wells, artisan baking is finally making a comeback with more traditional bakeries appearing on the high street. “It’s been a really interesting decade for bread making,” says Campbell. “People are becoming more aware of what goes into their average loaf…but there’s still a long way to go.”

According to recent figures, sales of bread makers and loaf tins are also on the rise as more people turn to home baking. “There’s a lot that goes into mass-produced bread that does not reach the ingredient list on the bag and people have realised that by making their own they have full control,” says Stoate.

Sam Wells has certainly seen public perception changing. “Every week I sell my bread at Stroud farmers’ market and I’m often asked why it’s more expensive than supermarket alternatives,” he says. “I tell them to buy a loaf, take it home and taste it, and if they don’t think it’s worth £2 or £3 to come back for a refund. No one has bought their bread back, and if they do return: it’s to buy more. That says it all.”

First published in Great British Food in 2010

Real Bread Week is an annual, international celebration of real bread and the people who make it. Its three aims are to encourage and help people to buy real bread from local, independent bakeries, bake your own and join the Real Bread Campaign.

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