I was eight when I visited Paris for the first time. I wore a scratchy red pleated Cacharel skirt with a matching jumper and a cream pie-crust-collar shirt, also scratchy. On that wet, grey weekend I was overawed by the casual ordering of steak frites for lunch and the viscous chocolateyness of the chocolat chaud served in a café under the colonnades in Place des Vosges. Mostly, though, it was Poilâne bakery that impressed me: its wooden shelves heaped with dusted delicacies and massive rounds of rustic bread stacked up against the wall. Down the road, at the red-shuttered Bar du Marché, we ate great slices of it slathered in unsalted butter. It was unlike any other type I’d ever eaten: chewy, sour, textured – a meal in itself, as opposed to the sliced-white version back home that always turned into sticky cement in my mouth.
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Over the past few decades, food values have changed radically, and nowhere more so than in the world of bread – specifically sourdough. After World War II, shortages meant farming was steered by science to develop industrial-grade cereal crops that were dependent on chemical fertilisers and pesticides to feed the hungry masses. The soil suffered, and so did the quality of the product. People were fed, but they weren’t entirely nourished. Intolerances to wheat began to emerge gradually, resulting, half a century later, in the gluten-free movement.
Now bread has come full circle, with bakers looking to a time when ingredients were grown naturally, less tampered with and, crucially, had more flavour. True leavened loaves, or sourdough, is what bread was before modern yeast was developed in the 19th century. It’s made with only three ingredients: flour, water and salt. The natural yeast is created when the water-and-flour mix ferments, making the dough rise and creating the distinctive sour notes and a strong crust. Today, it has become something of an obsession for chefs and restaurateurs around the world, from cult bakeries such as San Francisco’s Tartine – which heralded the new wave of traditional baking on the West Coast at the turn of the century – to the ultra-slow-proofing, European-style Iggy’s Bread in Sydney and Vancouver’s museum-like Flourist. Raising the craft to a proper art form, though, is Swedish creative Linda Ring, who carves Picasso-inspired images into her loaves.
Indeed there has been no question that during the lockdown in 2020 the world’s attention was drawn to baking on a whole new level as supermarket shelves emptied and people went back to basics, rediscovering both the possibilities and rewards of making their own bread. Suddenly it was not unusual for Zoom meetings between media professionals to open with comparing notes on flour ratios or stretch-and-fold tips. When Tartine released sourdough tutorials on Instagram, hundreds of thousands of followers tuned in.
There has been a quiet revolution in grain over the past 20 years. Some far-sighted farmers concerned with soil health made their land organic, risking a loss and attendant financial doom. Among them was Dr Andrew Wilkinson, a wheat farmer, miller and research scientist working with Newcastle University. Using heritage grains, he developed strains that stayed true to the taste and nutritional profile of more digestible ancient flours while managing to achieve an improved yield. Gilchesters Organics was born, and with it a different style of local grain. A generation of chefs and bakers were hooked, resulting in the creation of local quality flours and, with them, artisanal bakeries. Now a croque monsieur at Violet in East London carries as much cachet as lunch at The River Cafe did 20 years ago. Trials have shown that these new-old grains, along with this new-old method of baking, are helping with wheat intolerances – it’s not the presence of gluten that is the problem for many, it’s the quality and treatment of it.
Meanwhile bakeries are commissioning, mixing and sometimes even milling their own flours to create the perfect loaf, pursuing the concept of terroir. The Hackney Wild by London’s E5 Bakehouse combines grain milled at the bakery and a specially created heritage wheat from Gilchesters Organics. And Tartine has spent the past seven years working with farmers in Washington’s Skagit Valley to develop grains for their flavour, nutritional value and sustainability.
The root of the word ‘companionship’ lies in the Latin for bread – panis. With bread at least we’re all in it together.