What came first: bread, or civilisation? Consider the baker. There is skill, heat, an early morning, an understanding of dough’s subtle chemistry. Consider the farmer tending a field of grain. Consider the miller. Consider their wives and children, all living settled and proximate in the joint venture of making and breaking bread.
Wheat is an unlikely staple food. The wholegrain is a seed, and like most seeds, it contains all that is needed for life: fat, protein, vitamins. The fermentation that happens in dough helps make these nutrients available to the human digestive system, deeming all manner of grasses palatable, allowing us to consume calories which we hadn’t personally hunted or gathered.
Theoretically, you can live on bread alone. It’s a complete protein. But when we behold the commercial white loaf, its germ has been extracted, its fibres washed away, bleached, blitzed and blended into a fine white powder, all the nutrients and roughage and vitamins removed and then added back by an industrial process: fortified with vitamins and iron. Sugar is added to give a golden colour to the crust, and in varying quantities dependent on the sweet tooth of the market. American bread is sweeter than British bread. The bread on the Israeli market is both the sweetest and the saltiest. The wholesome origins of the bread basket and the cereal bowl have been corrupted. No wonder Wonderbread is making us all sick. We should be ashamed, and immediately go back to that fizzing Herman Ze German sourdough starter maliciously gifted to us at the school gate and which we’ve been trying to kill by leaving in the airing cupboard under the stairs ever since.
Never feed anything that lives under the stairs.
The historic role of the bakers oven is fascinating, and it’s here that the idea of us all baking our own bread falls down. We can’t all be baking our own stable food, the very notion is historically, socially, economically and nutritionally bollocks. Baking in most societies has been outsourced to someone with all the skills, experience, equipment to do it, because bread is a fickle and tricky substance, and bakers are badly paid alchemists. Or, the work of baking the daily bread was down to The Women, working all day in the home to meet the calorific needs of the family. Unpaid and undervalued, but part of the joint enterprise of family life, village life, community life. As more and more human moved to cities, and more and more female humans went out of the house to work, the more reliant we became on shop-bought bread. And for decades we were sold nutritionally bankrupt and absolutely fucking delicious sliced white factory-made bread, pleasingly cheaply.When the prices went up, or the commodity became scarce, we rioted. And now, in urban centres, it is fashionable for small-batch artisan loaves to be baked and bought and sold for "How much?!?!" and very lovely it is too. Baking your own bread in 2018 London is a lovely thing to do, as a hobby, if you are time rich, or just rich rich.
I’m deeply suspicious of all this harking pack to the golden age of prelapsarian Ur-bread. Our ancestors, bread eaters since before the time of the pyramids, were famously, short lived and short statured. Tales of adulterated bread run through the history books, scare after scare, each appropriate to the fears and tabloid bollocks of the day. Ergot poisoning, adding of allum, chalk, lead, bones, feathers. And then there are the failed harvests, the shortages, the fluctuations of supplies and prices and taxation. Scarcity of bread or massive price hikes have cause riots and revolution from Scotland to Syria, from the year dot to date. Bread is necessarily safe, nutritious, cheap, available.
But lots of people do have trouble with bread. I am one of them. The occassional Pret sarnie is unavoidable and basically fine, but give me beautiful, crusty fresh bread, lovingly made by someone with cool, strong hands, and I have a bellyache for days. For some unaccountable reason, which doesn’t stop me being irresistibly drawn to them, pretzels make me instantly throw up. I can’t digest crumpets but I am sworn to die trying. The healthy spelty seedy loaves go straight through me, like I’m one of those little birds merrily eating and shitting on the bird table.
I have to get my gluten kicks elsewhere. I think croissants are the perfect food, and the 50/50 butter to pastry ratio deems them perfectly acceptable on any low GI or low carb diet. That’s #science. Enriched doughs, like brioche, panettone, chollas, bubka, are the best of both breads and cakes and greater than the sum of their bready, cakey parts. You will take my giant panettone from my cold dead buttery hands. I am the proud inventor of the hot cross jamon bun.
“I would bet if you took a dozen people with a gluten intolerance and gave them [sourdough artisan’s] bread they’d be fine” Pollen says, dangerously, irresponsibly.
“Air cooking starches makes them delicious and digestible” he says. Take a bite of this sour bread and you start to salivate, which is essential to the digestive process”
Before you get BLINDED BY SCIENCE just consider this bollocks, and try to eat ANYTHING in the absence of saliva.
Pollan never uses the word “clean eating” but his (often justified) rejection of the western diet has underpinned the philosophies of a lot of shysters, hucksters, well meaning disordered eaters and skinny bitches alike. I get so annoyed because people’s body chemistry and emotional make up are so complicated when it comes to the simple act of eating. Let’s not over complicate it, or fetishise it or fear it. And as a wise man almost said:
Eat bread, not too much, mainly toast.