Breaking Bread

The following article is part of a selection of work that has been shortlisted for Food Journalist of the Year by the Guild of Food Writers 2015 Awards.

It was published in the Preferred Hotels & resorts Magazine, Autumn 2014.  

Wander through the bustling streets of Marrakech’s medina in the late morning and you will catch a glimpse of small wooden boards bobbing through the crowds as they’re held aloft.  Carefully balanced on each board are soft rounds of freshly risen dough, wrapped in cloth.  They’re being taken to the local baker who not only bakes his own bread, but also that of neighbouring families. The heat of his wood-fired oven is intense. As lunch beckons, the smell of baked loaves wafts deliciously through the narrow alleyways as they are carried home.

You’re witnessing a tradition that was once seen across the whole of Europe and the Middle East. It dates back centuries, to a time when homes had small hearths and no ovens, and villagers and town-dwellers alike would take their loaves to the local bread oven, where they could have them baked for a small fee.  In Marrakech, many families continue this custom to this day. Every morning, a small rug is pulled out and spread on to the cool, tiled kitchen floor.  The cook will then kneel down before a large, circular, glazed terracotta gas’a onto which she will sift a good three or four kilos of flour with salt.  It might be semolina, wholegrain flour, or a barley and plain flour mix. A handful of live yeast is then crumbled into the mixture before she rhythmically begins to mix in the water, kneading and adding more water as she goes.  She energetically pummels the dough before dividing it into rounds, wrapping it in cloth and leaving it to prove (rest) just once on a wooden board.  She will make enough bread to feed the family until the same time tomorrow.  Broken and shared for breakfast, lunch and supper, bread still forms an integral part of many meals.  At lunchtime, each person will sop up the juices of a tagine with small pieces of ripped bread, or use it to scoop the food into their mouths from a communal platter.

“The staff of life”

Breaking bread, in all its myriad forms, still forms an integral part of life in much of the world. No meal in North India is complete without homemade chapatis to scoop up the dal, yoghurt and vegetable curries. Strangely, eating such food with your hands intensifies the pleasure of dining, especially when the chapatti, an unleavened flatbread, is dipped into a little homemade lime pickle.

Throughout the Middle East you will be offered an incredible array of delicious flatbreads. In Iran, for example, there are crispy milk breads for tea, soft, stone-baked pittas for kebabs, crusty golden nân-e barbari for breakfast, and soft, thin nân-e tâftoon for everything else.  But be warned - breakfast will never be the same once you’ve tasted nân-e barbari with fried eggs, or cream cheese and orange blossom or quince jam; and it’s hard not to get addicted to eating feta with chives, mint and dill wrapped in some flaky nân-e tâftoon.

Travel across the Himalayas and you will find similar traditions across parts of Northern China.  In cities such as Urumqi and Kashgar in Xinjiang province, for example, customers will queue up to buy great discs of naan-like bread from roadside clay ovens.  This is duly torn and shared at humble and grand meals alike, dipped into yoghurt as a workman’s snack or accompanying a family feast with aromatic simmered lamb and fragrant rice pilaf, coloured yellow by the local sweet carrots.

There was a time, when every peasant in Europe regarded bread as the staff of life, and every country specialised in its own varieties, depending on its climate, crops and lifestyle. Across Scandinavia, for example, you will still find an extraordinary variety of breads, from dense, dark malted loaves to wonderful rye crisp breads. The taste of malted rye bread is so integral to the Danish psyche, that chef Rene Redzepi uses its characteristic Danish flavouring in his exquisite, abstract food at Noma in Copenhagen – regularly voted the world’s best restaurant.

New breed of bakers

The rise of industrial-scale bread production in the West, coupled by a sense that life is too busy to linger over a meal, had until recently led to a decline in bread consumption in many countries.  However, a new breed of artisan baker is emerging across the bread-eating world.  Their handmade, freshly baked loaves are not only making all manner of different breads fashionable, they’re changing how we live and eat.  Foodies are seeking out their bakeries, incorporating bread into their meals, attending bread-making courses, and rediscovering the pleasure of baking at home.  Many farmers are once again growing heritage grains and the ancient art of milling is being rediscovered. 

The Slow Food Movement was among the first to recognise the value of promoting traditionally made bread.  Founded in Italy in 1989 by Carlo Petrini, the movement has become a global grass-roots organisation that aims to protect and promote endangered local foods within 140 countries.  Its “Ark of Taste” list of rare regional specialities includes doughy delicacies ranging from Switzerland’s mountain rye breads to New Orleans’ distinctive, thin-crusted take on the baguette, and Italy’s weighty half-moon shaped Cerchiara bread. 

The latter originates in Cerchiara di Callabria, for example, a small town clinging to the beautiful mountainside within the Pollino National Park, which is now part of the Italian gourmet tourist trail.  A handful of family-run bakeries mix the local flour with mountain water and a sourdough starter (the key ingredient that helps it rise), before leaving it to rise in cloth-lined boxes.  The dough is then knocked back into the demi-round loaves and baked at 300°C in a beech- and chestnut-fired oven for two and a half hours. Who would not want to enjoy it for breakfast with mountain cheese, or drizzle it with olive oil, and dine on ham, olives and fennel-spiked salami for a picnic lunch?

The best baguettes

The French, whose love of baguettes has passed into legend, have been keen to promote their artisan bakers.  In the 1970s, Boulanger Lionel Poilâne took his father’s country recipe for a dense-textured, stone-ground wheat dough that was slowly leavened by wild yeasts and baked in wood-fired ovens, and began to make it chic – blazing a trail for today’s baking aficionados.  Today, great chefs, such as Alaine Ducasse, will seek out artisan bakers such as Christophe Vasseur, who set up Du Pain et Des Idées in Paris. The boulangerie shot to fame when French foodie bible Gault et Millau listed him as the city’s best baker in Paris in 2008, with Parisians flocking to eat his Pain des Amis, a crusty sourdough flatbread with a golden chewy interior. 

Competition remains fierce within Paris for the perfect baguette, which should be fragrant, well-flavoured, with an elastic crumb, irregular-sized holes and a crunchy crust.  Each year, the city holds the prestigious Best Baguette competition.  This year, baker Antonio Teixeira of boulangerie Aux Délices du Palais triumphed over 200 rivals to take the title, and will deliver his wares to the lucky French President for the next 12 months. 

Sought-after sourdoughs

Canada and America have their own fair share of like-minded artisan bakers, for many of whom bread has become an all-consuming passion. Cliff Leir, for example, the brains behind Fol Epi Organic Bakery in Victoria in British Columbia, sources Saskatchewan-grown rye and heritage Red Fife wheat, stone grinding the organic grains a few hours before baking to maximise the flavour from the flour. His bakery is famous for its large, naturally leavened breads, including round boules, soft ciabattas, and full-flavoured wholewheat loaves.

Perhaps America’s most famous artisan baker of the moment is Chad Robertson, whose oat-porridge loaves have the food critics raving and fans ringing days ahead to place their orders at his Tartine Bakery & Café in San Francisco. Chad’s latest cookery book, Tartine Book No 3, guides home bakers through the world of sourdough baking using older varieties of wheat and sprouted grains, revealing how to make such rustic delights as sprouted-buckwheat einkorn loaves. 

A self-confessed fan of both Chad and Lionel Poilâne in Paris is Ken Forkish, award-winning baker and author of Flour Water Salt Yeast, in Portland, Oregon. “When I opened Ken’s Artisan Bakery in 2001, it was the first new bakery to open in Portland in several years,” he says.  “What I wanted to do was to recreate the best breads and croissants that I’d eaten in boulangeries all over France.”

Keen to re-establish the tradition of sharing bread with food and friends, Ken then opened Trifecta Tavern & Bakery in Portland in 2013.  He now serves freshly baked bread, still warm from the oven, with his own homemade butter, from 4.00pm onwards.  “It’s a luxury that many restaurants can’t afford, but I really wanted to further my craft” he says. 

The new space has also enabled him to experiment with new breads.  “I’m using old wheat varieties such as emmer and spelt.  They need a very long fermentation to let the dough to rise – up to 32 hours from start to finish - but they’re really nice” Ken says.  As a result of the artisan baker movement in the U.S., demand for locally grown corn is increasing, and small community-supported farms and mills are starting to appear in areas from California to New York.

The baking boom

On the other side of the Atlantic, others are equally interested in creating slow-proved bread from locally grown corn.  In the U.K., baker and real bread campaigner Andrew Whitley was one of the first people to alter British expectations of their daily loaf. Fascinated by Russian rye bread, in 1990 he travelled to Kostroma on the Volga.  He brought back a rye-bread starter (the basic dough needed as a base for the bread), and started experimenting with his wood-burning brick bread oven at The Village Bakery in The Lake District.  When his rye loaf was subsequently picked up by a nationwide retailer, suddenly the British could buy bread that had developed a rich and complex flavour, rising slowly through natural fermentation and good flour.  It was a revelation.

Like many other artisan bakers across the world, Whitley sees bread not just as a simple foodstuff, but as a way to change society for the better: “I want to promote the social, economic, cultural and health benefits for making bread with grain that is grown and milled locally, and that is produced by slow fermentation, so that it’s on a human scale” he says. 

Over the last 20 years, many other new bakeries have opened across the country. Alongside the traditional, yeast-risen British cobs and bloomers have come a wide variety of sourdough-risen breads, such as from the E5Bakehouse in Hackney, London, which sells wonderful, moist loaves ranging from raisin and walnut to spelt and focaccia. Like many of the new school of bakeries, they have a café as well as baking courses.

Meanwhile, community-run bakeries have started appearing, such as South London’s Brockwell Bake Association, which wants to reintroduce people to the pleasures of bread-making, from harvesting the wheat to kneading the dough. The Brockwell group grows local heritage-wheat varieties, with evocative names such as Red Lammas and Old Hoary, on allotments, school and community gardens, and Kentish and Sussex farms.  They mill the wheat themselves or at local schools, before turning it into sourdough bread and selling it at local markets. 

The group is just one of many around the world that are rediscovering and reinventing our baking heritage, bringing foodies more choice than ever.  Bread is changing, and changing fast.  Many see it as a tool to shape the world for the better – and it can be hard to argue with thant once you’ve sunk your teeth into a flavoursome slice.

 

 

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