On Wednesday December 2nd from 7 pm at the Bernard Shaw in Dublin, Bretzel Bakery & Real Bread Ireland are holding The Real Bread Gathering. This landmark event brings together some of the best craft bakers and campaigners for better bread in Ireland.
Organiser William Despard of Bretzel Bakery asked guest speaker Andrew Whitley – baker, author and co-founder of the UK’s Real Bread Campaign – why a campaign is needed and how a new breed of bakers is already transforming British bread.
William In your keynote speech at the Real Bread Campaign’s Uprising in September this year, you drew attention to what’s wrong with industrial bread and how the conventional market is failing to meet people’s needs. Are there similarities between Ireland and the UK?
Andrew The situation is the same in most English-speaking countries. Industrial loaves are cheap and convenient, but sales are in long-term decline. Large numbers of people have found that standard loaves don’t go down too well, apparently contributing to bloating and all kinds of digestive discomfort or worse, so they steer clear of them. Coeliac disease and irritable bowel disease affect more and more people. When we started the Real Bread Campaign in the UK in 2008, we were told that only a small number of people had ‘true’ coeliac disease and all the rest were kidding themselves. Seven years on, hundreds of research papers have been written to explain ‘non-coeliac gluten sensitivity’. And the irony is that the industry whose products seem so hard to stomach is now piling into the ‘free-from’ market where it can charge higher prices to the nutritional refugees that it has helped to create.
However, more and more people are wondering whether the absence of key nutrients as well as the presence of a cocktail of additives and ‘processing aids’ may explain why bread isn’t what it used to be. While the commodity market fails the nutritional needs of the citizen, bakers who use time and skill to make real bread are popping up everywhere, on both sides of the Irish sea.
Wiliam Your second book is called DO Sourdough and enables people to fit making slowly-fermented bread into their busy lives. Why is this important and why is it better for us?
Andrew Sourdough means ‘naturally fermented’ – bread made with flour, water and salt, without any added yeast. Flour contains natural yeasts and beneficial bacteria, so if you mix it with water and keep it warm it will ferment. This takes time and there are no short cuts. But the evidence is piling up that this fermentation step is vital: it makes wheat gluten more digestible, helps our bodies assimilate nutrients and promotes healthy gut conditions. Sourdough is the way ordinary people have made bread for thousands of years. It isn’t difficult. In fact, it works slowly while we are asleep, at work or at play so it places less pressure on our precious time than fast-rising yeasted bread. One of my recipes takes only about ten minutes of actual work. Anyone can do it. Sourdough is really the people’s bread. Taking it back into our own hands is better for each of us, for our communities and for the natural world.
William I’ve noticed that, as real bread campaigners highlight the benefits of fermentation and sourdough, the industrial bakeries begin to hijack our message. Just three weeks after the Uprising, one of the main plant bakeries in Ireland launched its "Soft Grain Sourdough" pan loaf during Ireland's Bread Week. What’s your view on that?
Andrew They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but this isn’t imitation. It’s passing off. We call it pseudough, because it exploits the lack of any legal definition by adding some dried deactivated ‘sourdough’ powder to a normal additive-laced dough and calling it ‘sourdough bread’. But if the dough hasn’t been fermented for several hours to allow the beneficial sourdough bacteria to work, it’s a con. And people who’ve discovered in recent years that they can enjoy real sourdough bread without bloating may be cruelly deceived by this tricksy lookalike rip-off stuff which will take their money without delivering the expected benefits. We need regulation to stop this cynical opportunism – an Honest Crust Act to define key words such as sourdough and real bread. Honest bakers have every reason to band together and campaign for such measures. Truth is on our side – as the UK Real Bread Campaign discovered recently when it won a ruling against frozen-food giant Iceland to stop them marketing their ‘ready to bake-off’ rolls with imagery of old windmills, wood-fired ovens and (if you please) a stereotypically benign-looking Dutch baker.
Wiliam There seems to be a growing interest in heritage and ancient grains. Why are real bread bakers so keen on spelt, emmer, einkorn, kamut and old varieties of wheat?
Andrew It’s been dawning on us for some years now that modern high-yielding wheats – the so-called Green Revolution varieties – meet the needs of agribusiness and commodity markets but not necessarily the needs of either farmers or citizens. Older varieties may yield less but often have higher mineral density and fewer proteins that are toxic to gluten-sensitive people. Drenching the earth in chemical fertiliser and the plants in pesticides, fungicides and hormone growth regulators to squeeze a few extra kilos of grain out of our benighted soil results in surpluses of wheat (60% of wheat farmers are losing money on their crop this year) and a trashed environment. Projects such as Scotland The Bread challenge a destructive addiction to commodity market fundamentalism. We want to reward farmers for the number of people they nourish (not the number of tonnes they produce) per hectare, encouraging them to grow less but better grain. And we want more jobs per loaf, re-building the baking skills that were once common in our communities. Any effective real bread campaign has to start, like all our food, in the soil. If everyone – plant breeders, farmers, millers, bakers, cooks and carers – does their best to pass on intact the goodness of well-grown grains, we’ll be able to call bread the ‘staff of life’ again. Best of all, it’ll be in its rightful place, in our hands, for good and all.