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Hands on my bread!

by Andrew Whitley

Bread is on the rise. In one sense this is always true, but it hardly applies to industrial loaves, sales of which – in the UK at least – have been in steady decline since World War 2. It is real bread that is making a comeback, defined as being made without additives, fermented for several hours and always touched by human hands.

The rise of real bread attests to a slow ferment of social change. The superficial attraction of ‘convenience’ cannot for ever mask the bland uniformity of processed food, nor supplements compensate for a drastic decline in the nutrient density of basic foodstuffs. Alarmed by the evidence of diet-related ill-health, people are asking where their food comes from and how it is produced. For some, the move to re-skill is prompted as much by an instinctive rage against the machine as by imminent unemployment. For others, it is the personal inability to digest industrial bread that propels them to take matters into their own hands. And of course, once you start making your own, you discover the fun and fulfilment to be had from this simple, creative and nourishing process.

But this is also about power. Bread and related products (pizza, burger buns etc) still form a significant part of the diet. The ‘grain chain’ from soil to sandwich links powerful interests in plant breeding, agriculture, milling and baking, not to mention the speculators whose gambling has so distorted commodity prices of late. To buy bread at the supermarket, especially if low price is the reason, is to be in thrall to these self-interested forces. ‘The distinguishing sign of slavery is to have a price, and to be bought for it’, wrote John Ruskin. But the hand that proffers the credit card can also knead the dough. Baking your own bread is a small act of self-reliance with revolutionary potential. For many it is the first step on a journey to take control of how we nourish ourselves.

The uncomfortable truth is that we cannot trust market capitalism to foster health (or fairness, for that matter), except in the form of added-value niche products. The fate of bread, which stands as a symbol for all food, is instructive. In the past 50 years, wheat has been aggressively hybridised to yield more and to go better (bigger, quicker) through the mixers, moulders and ovens of industrial baking. These modern varieties contain significantly fewer micronutrients (and more intolerance-triggering compounds) than older ones. Millers rip the grain apart and leave so little vitality in their basic white flour that the law insists they add four synthetic nutrients in a vain attempt to make good the deficit. Bakers have replaced fermentation time with additives and enzymes (which in the UK are not declared on labels) and now millions find they cannot eat such loaves without bloating or other digestive discomfort. So there are many reasons why taking time to make your own bread, and taking an interest in where the grain and flour comes from, are both radical and rational responses to the distortions and deceptions of our commodified food culture.

Taking bread into our own hands is about more than the production of sustaining food products, important though that is. In the age of ‘no-time dough’ and ‘instant’ yeast we forget that for most of our bread-eating history, it was a given that the mysterious force which brought flour and water to life and made bread rise was passed on from one batch to the next. Bread therefore speaks of continuity, of the unseen work of transformative agents, of real nourishment being dependent on creating the right conditions for the work of transformation to occur, of patience, hope, watchfulness, humility and, ultimately, wonder and gratitude. In this way, for instance, Christ’s statement that he came so that people should ‘have life more abundantly’ is not so much about material accumulation, which is an output, as about getting the transformative process right by which healthy life can pass from one organism to another. If we do get that right, we have a sustainable system that will bring a certain harvest; if we get it wrong, life (in any meaningful sense) comes to an end.

Teaching breadmaking I am struck by the way people are moved by the process. ‘There is nothing more satisfying than knowing you can feed your children with exciting and nutritious bread’, wrote one student. ‘My future is fermenting slow and sure’, said another, easily adopting the life-changing metaphor. ‘It all starts with a loaf of bread, which is a very powerful thing’, says Connor Rose, the first baker in Breadshare, our local community-supported bakery. Making bread with others, for others, is an antidote to the atomised and selfish striving that is sometimes said to be ‘human nature’. Economic growth counts for little without companionship, as the rate of depression and anxiety in ‘advanced’ societies indicates. And companions (from the Latin cum, panis, ‘with’, ‘bread’) may be those with whom you make or share bread.

So when we see community bakeries beginning to appear in a country like Britain where 95% of the loaves people eat are factory pap, we are right to feel hopeful. For it would only take 75,000 neighbourhood bakers to make the 12 million or so loaves bought each day. Working in threes, that would be 25,000 micro bakeries – or rather fewer than exist right now in a similar sized country, France. If just one in every 35 of the 2.6 million unemployed people in Britain opted for good ‘company’ rather than the dole, we’d have bakers a-plenty to bring real bread to every community in the land.


Andrew Whitley

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