The realisation that most of us don’t eat real bread at all has sparked a revolution in home baking with more and more of us wanting better quality bread and willing to do it ourselves. Real Bread Week is coming up – from 10-16 May – and Andrew Whitley, co-founder of the Real Bread Campaign and author of the new book DO SOURDOUGH – Slow Bread for Busy Lives, explains how real bread can be good for us and the environment – and maybe even world peace…
‘Without bread, all is misery’, wrote William Cobbett in Cottage Economy. The simple truth of this observation is painfully visible in the rubble of Syrian cities and in the turmoil, often sparked by bread shortages, that has afflicted many communities following the global financial crash.
In materially wealthier places, misery comes not from having no bread, but from eating the wrong kind. For lack of real bread, thousands (if not millions) of people struggle with digestive discomfort and bowel disorders.
But relief is at hand – in the shape of bread fermented slowly with a simple culture of yeasts and beneficial bacteria that are naturally present in flour. It’s called sourdough; and if you want to do one thing to make life better, for you and your environment, start a sourdough.
The Real Bread Campaign’s basic definition of ‘real bread’ is that it should contain no additives or processing aids. Its gold standard requires the use of long fermentation, ideally with sourdough bacteria and without any added industrial yeast. Real Bread doesn’t get better than sourdough.
What is it, really?
Sourdough is a mix of flour and water that ferments spontaneously in the right conditions (warm and wet). Flour naturally contains ‘wild’ yeasts and good bacteria that, given time, will make a light and delicious loaf that is both nutritious and easily digested.
But sourdough isn’t just arguably the best method for making bread. It’s a set of relationships, an example of the way a healthy world works: it is cyclical, not linear; self-renewing, not defined by external inputs; symbiotic, not monopolistic.
From a symbolic point of view you could even say an awareness of the process is essential to the key tasks of our times – to recognise the impossibility of across-the-board ‘growth’ in a finite world and to cultivate the habits of a ‘circular’ economy.
Sourdough isn’t just a ‘case-study’ of circularity, though. The more of it we make, enjoy and share, the better it will be for us and our environment. Sourdough baking and circular thinking can transform our lives and our communities.
Better for us
I’ve detailed the good things that happen when bread is made with sourdough in a previous article.
The key agents are lactic acid bacteria.
Increasingly, research is pinpointing the vital role that a diversity of bacteria play in combatting disease and allergy by creating the right conditions in the gut – and the sourdough bacteria, especially the lactobacilli, are major players.
They break down problematic wheat proteins (the kind that trigger sensitivity and outright gluten intolerance), they make nutrients more bioavailable, and their residues in the bread we digest have antioxidant and cancer-preventive potential as well as facilitating appropriate fermentation in the lower intestine.
These digestive and nutritional benefits take time to develop. The yeasts that occur naturally in flour and which work in harmony with lactic acid bacteria in sourdough, are both slower-acting and less numerous than the industrial yeasts on which fast-made bread depends.
So, adding a little dried sourdough powder to an ordinary yeasted dough (as happens in some outlets desperate to cash in on a healthy innovation without either understanding or respecting it) is a sad con, because it ignores the vital role of fermentation time in transforming bread for the better.
Making our own bread can save us money, especially if we don’t need to buy yeast, and it gives us control over an important piece of our diet. This leads to longer-term benefits – a growing sense of connection with vital processes that can be trusted to do us good and the delight of sharing the results with others. A sourdough culture is full of literal and metaphorical associations.
Better for the environment
It is widely accepted that the way we grow, process and distribute food is a major cause of environmental degradation and climate-altering emissions. Real sourdough bread can be part of the solution, if we choose.
Sourdough works best with organically produced grains, free from residues of herbicide and fungicide that kill the yeasts and bacteria on which the process depends. Sourdough is made without added yeast, whose production depends on sugar (a heavy user of agrochemicals) and generates pollution.
Above all, sourdough is simple and flexible. It ferments slowly, giving longer time windows for critical operations such as getting the bread into the oven in the best possible state. It doesn’t need chemical or enzyme adulterants to hold it back, or speed it up. With a naturally slow process, there’s no need for energy-intensive refrigeration to manage production.
Sourdough’s coming home
All bread was raised with sourdough before the invention of industrial yeast. Mothers passed the skill – and the culture – to daughters. Domestic production, sharing and mutual aid kept body and soul together for most people, most of the time. Now, by revealing how it works, science is putting sourdough bread at the cutting edge of a revitalised food culture – for good and all.
We have two copies of DO SOURDOUGH – Slow Bread for Busy Lives to give away.
To win, email email@example.com including the words ‘I LOVE REAL BREAD’ in the subject line and be sure to include your name and contact details in the email.
The competition is open to UK residents only. Entries must be received before 5pm Friday 16th of May. The winner will be drawn at random after that date and notified no later than the morning of May 19th.
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