Bread (and specifically the gluten which comes with most breads) has had a hard time in recent years, with everyone, from your fad-dieting auntie to your dad’s best mate, announcing they are going gluten-free. And now the remit has spread beyond just wheat and gluten to going totally grain-free.
A quick google on eating bread throws up articles like “5 deadly reasons why we shouldn’t eat bread” – to me that’s total lunacy. Deadly? Bread?! It's food-scaremongering, at its best. It makes me really sad to see such a bashing of a key, cheap, nutritious food that we are so good at making and growing in the UK, and that has sustained us for so many years.
I don’t underestimate the importance of avoiding gluten if you have a disorder such a Coeliac disease. A few close friends and family members have this disorder – it is serious and not something to be taken lightly, as it really affects their day-to-day lives and how they eat. But, for the rest of us, I believe bread should be eaten and celebrated – it's just the bread and grains we are eating that we need to look at.
Deadly? Bread?! It's food-scaremongering, at its best. It makes me really sad to see such a bashing of a key, cheap, nutritious food that we are so good at making and growing
I am a big supporter of making things easy, real and approachable in the kitchen – of understanding that, for most of us, the reality is that we do our weekly shop in a supermarket, rather than the local farmers' market. The produce aisles of the supermarkets have come on leaps and bounds in recent years; in my local superstore in East London at certain times of year, I can find samphire tucked away next to the carrots and the only place I have found my favourite sherberty Meyer lemons in the UK is in the Hackney outpost of our most prolific supermarket – I really think we’ve come a long way. But, when it comes to bread, with a couple of exceptions, I wouldn’t touch most of the stuff in the supermarkets with a barge pole.
I have first-hand experience of how bread is baked in supermarkets: I worked a couple of days in a supermarket bakery, so I know the bread is made from mostly low-nutrient, bleached white flour and flour improvers and stabilisers, and that the bread is risen very quickly, meaning the yeast hasn’t quite done all its fermenting before it's baked, which means the last part of the fermentation process happens in your stomach. Both of these things can account for the heaviness and bloating a lot of people associate with bread.
On the other side of the baking world, I was lucky enough during my training as a chef to work through the night for a couple of months with a great baker who taught me the proper way to make bread. This was small-batch stuff, mostly using a sourdough starter, allowing long, slow proves to let the yeast do all its work. Eating this kind of bread was a completely different experience both in terms of taste and how it feels in your body. This kind of bread sustains and, while I wouldn’t eat it at every meal, just as I wouldn’t over-eat any other food at every meal, it is energising, nutritious and flavour-packed.
And that’s where I think we are all going off track: wherever possible, we should try to buy proper bread, made with nutrient-rich natural flours, risen slowly and with care. For me, a good slice of toasted sourdough in the morning sets me up for the day and a quick lunch wouldn’t be the same if we took away the option of sandwiching between two good slices of bread. But only if it’s the good stuff.
I buy my bread from a local bakery; it's a couple of miles away, but I make the effort to pass by there once a week. Their bread is a little dearer than the supermarket equivalent but – as you’ll know, if you are a lover of good bread – it lasts much longer and less is wasted. Most towns around the country have a decent baker, but if you can't get to one, there is an array of places to buy good artisan bread online, like the brilliant Hobbs House bakery. But best of all is to bake one yourself and, as the nights draw in and the box sets come out, the slower pace of baking seems called for.
I believe in varying the grains I eat, and I find wholegrain flours more delicious and much more nourishing. So, here is my current favourite loaf: half spelt and half rye, with a little honey, lots of seeds and some caraway on top, if that’s your thing. Slicing a just-warm out-of-the-oven bread satisfies and nourishes me in a way a thousand green juices couldn’t – trust me.
Honeyed rye bread
Makes 1 good loaf
250g rye flour
250g spelt flour
1 tsp fine sea salt
3 tbsp runny honey
7g sachet of dried yeast
50g seeds (I use poppy and sunflower)
1 tbsp caraway seeds (optional)
- Get all your ingredients together. Put the flours into a warm, generously sized mixing bowl with the salt and mix well.
- Mix 300ml of hand-hot water with the honey and yeast, stirring to dissolve. Leave for a couple of minutes, until bubbles rise to the top, then pour into the flour. Mix first with a fork, then with your hands, until you have a sticky dough, and tip on to a floured board or work surface. Form the dough into a ball, then knead by hand, pulling and stretching the dough for a good four or five minutes. If you have a stand mixer with a dough hook, you can use it to get the dough to this point.
- Lightly oil the bowl, then return the dough to it, cover with a tea towel or clingfilm and set aside in a warm place for about an hour, until the dough has risen by half (it won’t rise as much as a normal loaf because of the rye flour).
- Remove the dough from the bowl, place on a lightly floured board and knead again, briefly, for just a minute or two, adding and kneading in the seeds as you go.
- Shape the dough into a flat oval and put it on an oiled baking tray. Cover with the tea towel again and leave to rise once more for 30 minutes or so, until it has risen by half again.
- Preheat your oven to 240ºC/fan 220ºC/gas mark 9.
- After 30 minutes, slash the top of the dough in a criss cross with a sharp knife and scatter over the caraway seeds. Half-fill a deep baking tray with boiling water and place on the bottom of your oven. This will create steam as the loaf bakes and help give your bread a lovely crust and texture.
- Now bake the loaf in the oven for 30 to 35 minutes, until golden all over. Be really careful when you open the oven door, as some hot steam may come out. To check if your bread is ready, lift it up and give it a tap on the bottom. If it sounds hollow, like a drum, it’s good to go. Cool on a rack, so the bottom keeps its lovely crust.
Anna is the author of A Modern Way To Cook and A Modern Way To Eat. You can read recipes and more from Anna here on The Pool.
Photography: Bryan W. Ferry