Go with the grain

Britain is progressing past “bake me a loaf as fast as you can” and rediscovering the pleasures of w

Once upon a time, not so long ago, there were only two kinds of bread in Britain - dark, knobbly wholemeal, stuffed full of flaxseed and home-baked by hippies, and the woolly white sliced sold to the rest of us. For a country once famed for its baking, the dark postwar years were little short of a tragedy: bloomers and bara brith, batch loaves and butteries, all reduced to cringeing cuboids of snow-white pap. No wonder bread consumption has declined steadily in this country for the past half-century.

What a sad fall from grace for something once revered as the most sacred of foodstuffs. (The communion host, a wafer made from the finest of wheat flours, was long believed to boast supernatural powers; remember how Huck Finn's friends float pieces of "real baker's bread" in the Mississippi in the belief that it will lead them to his body.)

Thanks to these religious associations, and bread's presence on the most refined of tables, it was a case, until very recently, of the whiter the better. But despite its holier-than-thou appearance, refined white flour contains a fraction of the vitamins and minerals of that made with the wholegrain - which means that, by law, manufacturers are obliged to add synthesised nutrients back in during the manufacturing process.
Artificial or not, this is a distinct improvement on the bad old days when, as Food Reform magazine put it in 1882, "little children [were] dying for want of bread", yet mothers spent "their last penny for that which is no bread - man's deceptive innutritious constipating white loaf".

Although the Victorians may have had to put up with flours bleached with toxins such as alum (extracted from human urine) and chlorine, and supplemented with ground bones and lime, at least they were spared the Chorleywood Bread Process (CBP). Invented in 1961 for a brave new
world where time is increasingly valued over quality, this modern miracle uses a combination of chemicals, fats and high-speed machinery to produce a loaf in under two hours, rather than the six it takes to make a sourdough. A Chorleywood loaf is conveniently uniform in size and shape, and considerably softer than most of its rivals. To anyone raised on the gritty, grey National Loaf of wartime, such an attraction was not to be sniffed at.

It will, somewhat suspiciously, stay springily fresh for weeks before dissolving into a cloud of vivid green. Such an efficient, mechanised process also makes it extraordinarily cheap.

Flannel panel

More than 80 per cent of our bread is now made using the CBP - and, fashionable as it is to decry cheap, mass-produced food, there is no proof that it is bad for our health. As yet, we do not know whether the baker and author of the influential book Bread Matters, Andrew Whitley, is right to blame the process for our ever-growing sensitivity to gluten, for example. But the flavour of CBP loaves just doesn't measure up. As the veteran food campaigner Felicity Lawrence so devastatingly puts it, they taste "like boiled flannel".

Thankfully we now have a choice. Both M&S and Waitrose stock loaves that meet the approval of the Real Bread Campaign (if in doubt, check the label: flour treatment agent and anything listed as an improver are bad signs), and no food market is complete without at least one stall selling spelt sourdough and multigrain muffins. They may be more expensive, but in this case, though I'm not much given to quoting Old Testament prophets, Isaiah might have been on to something: "Wherefore do ye spend money for that which is not bread?"

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 14 November 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The NHS 1948-2011, so what comes next?