Julian Sheather: Our daily bread

A few days ago I was reading an account by a journalist of a visit he had made to the refugee camps on the Nord pas de Calais coast just days before they were destroyed by the French police. Known collectively as “the jungle”, these camps are – or were – home to a floating population of refugees and economic migrants, mainly young men from Afghanistan and Eritrea, men consumed by a desire to get to the UK so passionate as to be almost suicidal.

Along with the expected descriptions of filth and struggle and desperation there was a single almost consoling image, a picture of men crouched in the dark around an open fire baking flat bread on hot stones. I have no desire to sentimentalise or diminish the suffering or the courage of these men but I was struck by the timelessness and the simplicity of the image. In desperate circumstances, facing an appallingly uncertain future, they gathered round a fire and baked bread in the flickering dark. The picture is powerful in part because it is made out of elemental things: darkness and light, hunger and food, companionship and loneliness. It is also a strong reminder of community and continuity, linking the damp French night to the mountains and deserts of East Africa and Afghanistan. At the centre of the image though is the bread itself. It would be difficult to exaggerate the significance of this extraordinary substance. It reaches into the heart of so many human cultures. It is nutritive and richly symbolic. It is among the most simple of foods and yet it feeds the most complex of metaphors.

For anyone concerned about the state of modern bread, 1961 might just be a bad year, for in 1961, boffins at the Flour Milling and Baking Research Association  in Chorleywood developed a high speed method of bread production now known, unimaginatively, as the Chorleywood Bread Process (CBP). By using a combination of high-speed mixing, hydrogenated or fractionated hard fats and a variety of chemical improvers, it became possible to make a sliced and packaged loaf of bread in just under three and a half hours. As the Federation of Bakers puts it in one of their fact sheets:

“Dough development in CBP is achieved during high speed mixing by intense mechanical working of the dough in a few minutes. Not only does this save considerable time (which helps keep down the cost), it also produces bread which is better in respect of volume, colour and keeping qualities.”

All other things being equal, I would rather pay less for my bread than more. If good things can be had for less, then we can all have more good things, and how can that be bad? Industrialisation, and the economies of scale that have grown with it, have brought us numberless benefits. The intense mechanisation of the Chorleywood Process has also meant that “weaker” English flours can be used in favour of “stronger” North American varieties, improving food security and reducing a loaf’s carbon footprint. But missing from the Federation’s list of benefits are two that, when it comes to food, we usually consider important: flavour and nutrition. Critics of the CBP – a rainbow coalition of artisan bakers, whole-earthers, wild food fans, domestic goddesses and appalled nutritionists – point to its low vitamin content. In the UK, destruction of vitamins by high speed milling has to be compensated, by law, with fortification. The intensive manufacturing process also means that a variety of chemicals have to be added to support the flour. For thousands of years, bread has been made from simple things: flour, water and salt. For risen bread, yeast is added. To these industrialisation has added a host of others: soya flour, hydrogenated or fractionated fat, ascorbic acid, emulsifiers, anti-fungals and much much more yeast. Eighty per cent of the bread eaten in England is made by the CBP. In an attempt to account for recent increases in coeliac disease, irritable bowel syndrome and thrush, some are looking to our bread for clues.

I do not know what the evidence base for the health concerns looks like. No doubt time will tell. When it comes to food there is certainly a vogueish contemporary distaste for all things technological. Again, I do not know how the economics of low-tech food would pan out. I also have my doubts about how well some of the extollers of natural food of my acquaintance would survive an agrarian economy. Their rejection of technology is highly selective.

But there is one area where the evidence is incontrovertible. The evidence of the senses. Open an average pack of sliced white bread, howsoever fresh, and smell it. It smells of sweat. Taste it. It is sweet and bland and free from recognisable flavour. Chew it and it is without resistance, collapsing to an innocuous paste. It is food for the toothless and the tasteless. It is food for babies.

These days I make my own bread. Mostly I use a machine. The bread it makes is not lovely to look at, but I know what goes into it and the flavour is good. It only takes a few minutes to throw in the ingredients, and now, after a few years it has paid for itself several times over. When my more artisanal friends accuse me of backsliding I remind them of a line by George Orwell. We should ask of every machine, he said, whether it makes us more or less human. To my lights, the bread machine comes out in our favour. More recently I have been making it by hand. It takes time, too much time for me to make all the bread we need, but it is beautiful and it gives me a keen pleasure.

I am told that people buy bad bread because it is cheap and because they do not have time to make it. I know this is true. But then I think of those young men in northern France. In desperate circumstances they find a handful of flour, a little water and salt and they bake their bread on stones heated in a fire of scrap wood. Thinking about these young men I cannot help thinking that we have made something simple far too complicated. And in doing so we have lost touch with some of the basics of life.

Julian Sheather is ethics manager, BMA. The views he expresses in his blog posts are entirely his own.