Thorough bread

IN France, "give us our daily bread" is a saying that still stands and the trip to the boulanger for a mouth-melting fresh baguette is a cherished part of life. The French like their bread fresh, traditionally made and free of preservatives, which means it goes stale very quickly. In Italy or Greece, the stuff is dipped straight into olive oil and eaten with every meal. In Arab countries, it comes flat and chewy while in some parts of Germany it is black and made with rye.

In contrast, British bread is mostly awful. As a result of our weekly supermarket shopping habits, it comes in stay-fresh foil packets. Bizarrely, it rarely goes stale but it can become mouldy and still feel soft thanks of to the crumb-softening enzymes within the mix.

In the 1960s, a revolution happened in Britain. A combination of a law fixing the price of bread as well as the invention of the Chorleywood process – a super-cheap, industrial method of mixing yeast with hard fat and preservatives to create a “notime dough” and a forced loaf – pushed thousands upon thousands of traditional bakers out of the market. The original product had already been altered by the introduction of brewer’s yeast in the late nineteenth century, which made a faster, larger product available. There are now fewer than 3000 craft bakeries in existence across the whole of the UK . But many consumers want better quality.

“Traditional bread production in Britain has all but collapsed, ” says Allen Hanby, Peckham’s master baker. “It now takes place in supermarkets and a few specialist shops like ours. People come here because they don’t want to be dosed up to the eyeballs with additives. A lot of factory-made bread is already two days old before it reaches the shelves and supermarkets don’t actually say what goes in the bread they bake in-store. It’s just a packet of flour and a sachet of chemicals, but that is what most people buy.”

Every night, Peckham’s produces a traditional 1940s-style bread at its own bakery. “Bread is such an important part of our diet, ” says owner Tony Johnstone. “Unfortunately, a lot of the goodness has gone out of it to be repaced by chemicals. We produce a natural product.”

And like Peckham’s, bakers catering to the niche market of those in search of decent, hand-made bread are reporting strong demand. Doug Cookson, who turns out organic, hand-crafted, wholemeal loaves from a bakery in Cambus O’ May near Ballater, Aberdeenshire, is finding a market hungry for his wares.

“We make sourdough bread in the way it would have been made 150 years ago. We don’t use artificial yeast – only what is already present in a bag of flour, ” he says. “We wash the dough with water and leave it in a warm place for two or three days then mix it with more flour and water and let it rest for another 12 to 15 hours.

“During that time, the yeast and flour react together. We then add ingredients like salt, leave the bread to prove and then bake it. It takes a long time and you come out with a different product. With the Chorleywood product, lots of other things are added to the mix to make it rise and bake quickly. In the end, you are eating something that is basically semi-raw.

“That’s the reason why so many people say they can’t digest bread – it is actually processed bread they can’t tolerate. Many customers say they haven’t eaten the stuff for years, but they love ours.”

As well as using English organic wheatflour, Doug also makes a popular barley loaf. He believes it is closer to what Scots would have had in the past, because wheat does not f lourish here.

He bakes twice a week, has a stand at Aberdeen farmers’ market and others in the area, and delivers to farm shops, delis and coffee shops.

Alan Robertson, of Deli-Cacies in Stonehaven, says: “We would like to have Doug’s bread every day. Customers really like it. What he produces is completely different because it takes time and preparation. Even the stuff that comes out of home breadmaking machines isn’t great. It’s better than supermarket bread but it still uses prepared dough and yeast.”

Off a cobbled Edinburgh street, a French baker, Au Gourmand, is faithfully replicating the ancient boulanger’s art, flipping dough that is too delicate to touch with wooden paddles, lifting it into networks of baskets and then cooking it in steam ovens. Meanwhile, a Scots colleague is making croissants, hand-cutting the dough and delicately winding strips of it
with butter before cutting them into individual shapes. The process is a laborious one.

The bakery products here are made with f lour imported from France by lorry, mixed with a wild yeast solution, left for long hours to rise, kneaded, left again and finally turned into crusty and flavourful offerings. French loaves are made from flour, salt and water only, while the sourdough kind are smaller and flatter than yeastier products. At GBP1.40, they may seem expensive, but the price is justified when you know more about the skilled craftsmanship involved.

“This is about the closest you can get to proper French bread in the UK. That’s what our Gallic customers tell us, ” says owner Derek Johnstone, who runs the business in partnership with two Frenchmen. “We pay a lot of attention to detail. Our customers get quite anoyed with us if the bread is late, particularly at weekends. They wait for the van and the bread hardly gets out of the box before it’s sold. But only certain people are
prepared to pay more for a handcrafted loaf.”

Supermarket French breads are different. “If you pull them apart, you can see they have another crumb structure, ” says Derek. “Those made with French flour are better, but the dough is usually frozen and preshaped. The experience is less tasty.”

Breadmakers are not a threat to the boulanger either. He points at the steam ovens that produce the characteristically crusty product. “You can’t do that at home, ” he says.

Au Gourmand now sells its produce to restaurants such as Fishers in Edinburgh. “The chefs want it, ” says Derek. “They get judged on everything they serve and can’t afford to spoil it all for a few pence spent on bread.”

Bread is such a signature item that, like restaurants, good delis must source their products correctly. Heart Buchanan and Kember & Jones, in the west end of Glasgow, import their organic, wholemeal bread from Trusty Crust organic baker in East Saltoun near Edinburgh, which also supplies organic box schemes. Once a week, Kember and Jones imports the famous Poilâne bread – a dark, chewy and f lavoursome speciality direct from
Paris. A quarter loaf retails at GBP3.75 and, while that may be too much for most, it is apparently poular with the upper crust.

Au Gourmand, 1 Brandon Terrace, Edinburgh. Tel: 0131 624 4666.

Trusty Crust, East Saltoun. Tel: 01875 340 939.

Douglas Cookson, Cambus O’ May, Ballater. Tel: 01339 755 726.

The Scottish Herald
January 21st 2006