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The new bread

The New Bread.

From the cultural upheaval which marked the 1960`s and 70`s, emerged a new agenda with respect to food and eating. Deconstruction of industrial food and modern diet revealed deep flaws particularly with regard to nutrition. The industrial diet which , while created earlier, reached a new level of refinement and chemicalisation in the modern era immediately after world war 2. This, associated with the looming environmental crisis documented in “Silent spring” and followed by “Diet for a small planet” highlighted the serious shortcomings of the new industrial foods being mass produced and widely consumed. In part this was another phase of the rejection of the industrial paradigm which ushered in the greatest change in human diet since the post-neolithic farming revolution. Earlier rejection of the industrial diet arose even as it was unfolding in the late 19th century, from notable reformers such as Kellogg, who was quickly assimilated by the machine however, with his wholesome breakfast cereals rapidly morphed into a cheap simulacra. Cultural dissent chronicling the loss of the artisan was widely voiced in England and resulted in the birth of the arts and crafts movement which deeply impacted aesthetics, but did not extend to food production.

Everywhere in the industrialised world, bread was rapidly altered by the application of industrial technology and ingredients. The artisanal production of bread actually disappeared in the UK, and never recovered especially after World War 2. Virtually all bread was made under the new Chorleywood process which used highly refined flours and chemical ingredients to produce the “no time dough” and “white sliced” as the convenience food of the masses. Bread production was centralised in factories owned by ever larger corporate structures which sought to control bread from farming to marketing. Even smaller bakeries used the chorleywood process which replaced men with machines and additives. Craft or artisan bakers held on notably in France, the historical centre of good bread, but were much reduced in their custom as white refined bread captured the imagination and habits of the public. Indeed to a generation, it became the norm throughout the western industrial world, with corporates striving to produce faster whiter higher lighter bread.

Eventhough many were aware of the plight of bread, the key text which was seminal in providing a way to make non-industrial bread was the Tassajara bread book, first published in 1970. “Many people consider it the bible of bread baking, one of the most influential cookbooks ever.” The will to make “alternative “ breads was there, but most turned out well documented bricks. Tassajara changed that, yet was not a technical book at all, it was the vision imparted, “what we could be if we could remember how to use our hands”….which could be the words of Victorian era English reformer and inspiration to the aesthetic movements artisanal revival, John Ruskin. Beautifully idealistic, yes, but most of the artisan-revival bakers of the US, who in turn influenced the next generation of artisan bakers, now hugely popular and successful, were directly inspired to bake commercially by The Tassajara bread book. The huge home bread baking network in the USA was actually enabled by the vision of this book. Its influence was personal and political. One fan wrote that “learning to make his own bread had liberated him from corporate America”. This was the exact epiphany I received from this book, and the subsequent subversion of the industrial food paradigm which is rapidly unfolding.

One can track the emergence of the new bread from these humble beginnings to a correspondence with the organic food movement, the new awareness of nutrition and the slow poisoning effect of industrial food and the pillaging of the natural environment, all intertwined and now mainstream agenda. Apart from that the “vision” permeates gastronomy and is instrumental in liberating traditional baking and grain growing and carries on into the reform of conventional eating. The “vision” released enabled the revival of breadbaking by famous bakers such as Lionel Poilane in France, because customers were informed by the zeitgeist and were looking for authentic food.

Today, the interest in real bread is huge and growing. While sales of conventional breads were plummeting in the 1980-90`s, it was noted that artisan breads sales were soaring…people voted with their feet/teeth. What characterises the new breads is Ed Browns Tassajara vision, “im convinced that working with your hands is fundamentally nourishing”. This is a “silent, hidden, quiet revolution” which now has a huge commercial culinary and aesthetic impact. The corporates have jumped on the bandwagon of course, because there is money to be made, but essentially, bread has improved markedly and now one can find real or better-than-factory bread in many locations. The new bread is also marked by a prevalence of organic flour, which has enabled the development of organic agriculture and the re-discovery and celebration of heritage or landrace grains, all of which balance our headlong rush into high-tech singularities.

The new bread is a signifier. The sourdough technique, now sweeping through the baking industry is a recall to a reality submerged but ever-present, treading water while the waves of industrial corporatism crash on an oil-soaked beach. Genuine sourdough bread is the philosophers stone, handed to us in our formative epoch. It was the way we made cereal grains digestible, it nourished us through all, was nearly drowned by the tsunami of capitalism, but its irrepressible nature-as-nature itself is now informing and nourishing us again. The new bread is appearing everywhere and is being documented widely…look at the internet buzz on artisan and sourdough bread, made by hands with intent…that is to nourish and delight, to re-birth our birthright to wholesome food.

Ed Brown says in his 2009 edition of The Tassajara Bread Book, “Working to bake bread can renew our spirit, and with this work we renew the world, our friends and neighbours. We are reconnecting with the earth, reconnecting with our common heritage, our shared life and livelihood”. A vision shared by a rapidly growing number .