Bread has been part of the human diet since the development of agriculture. Initially, it was just a combination of crushed grains and water cooked over a fire to a firm biscuit-like texture, but the ancient Egyptians discovered that if they left the crushed grain and water somewhere moist and warm for a while, the mixture would start to form bubbles as the natural yeasts in the environment fermented the grains. When cooked, the bread would rise, giving a lighter texture and improved flavour. Salt began to be added for taste, preservation and to control the fermentation, and through the centuries it was discovered that a small portion of each fermented crushed grain mix could be kept aside then added to the next bread dough to kick-start the fermentation process of that loaf – something we now recognise as a sourdough culture.
Other continents also developed their own versions – for example using corn in South America and rice in Asia, while wheat, rye and sometimes barley were the favoured grains in Europe and North Africa. Rye and barley grew well in the harsh climate of Northern Europe and Scandinavia, but wheat grew well further south, which explains the traditions that are still part of our gastronomic cultures today.
Bread-making was largely a domestic affair, where wholemeal grains were fermented over a long period of time to produce a nutritious loaf. The Industrial Revolution began to change the centuries-old practice of small-scale bread-making. The advent of stone rollers and other technological developments enabled bread to be produced on a mass-market scale, and for flour to be refined. The refining process removes the nutritious hull and bran, using just the soft, white and easily digestible endosperm to produce a soft, fluffy loaf. This refined product was seen as something for the "refined" classes to enjoy, but at great nutritional cost as the bread was now stripped of its fibre and many of its nutrients. After the Industrial Revolution until well after second world war rationing had ended, wholemeal bread was seen as food for the poor, and white bread was something to aspire to. When the nutritional consequences began to be realised, however, many health-conscious people reverted to wholemeal bread with the higher nutrient content.
Why bread stopped being good for us
The advent of the Chorleywood bread process in 1961 was hailed as a great success for the industry, as it allowed softer wheat that previously wasn't suitable for bread-making to be used. It also enormously reduced the fermentation time, so a loaf of bread could be converted from wheat grain to a cooled, sliced and wrapped loaf in only a few hours – a huge economic benefit to the manufacturers. Unfortunately the resulting loaf lacked flavour and texture, so consequently many additional synthetically produced ingredients needed to be added partly to mask the underdeveloped flavour, and partly to help the bread to rise, now fermentation time had been so dramatically cut short. The reduced fermentation time not only affected the flavour, but fermentation also neutralised some of the natural compounds in the grain (such as phytic acid) which impact on the absorption of some vitamins and minerals. Furthermore, the grain was pulverised rather than stone-ground, which makes the bread much quicker to digest, causing sharp spikes and falls in blood sugar – something we now recognise as hugely detrimental to our health.
The return of "Artisan"
While there had always been a small number of people who favoured the traditional bread-making methods, the turn of the twenty first century saw a resurgence of popularity of the older methods for reasons of both nutrition and taste. "Artisan" bread-makers began to spring up, as increasing numbers of people showed a willingness to pay a little bit more for a higher quality product which tasted good and wasn't full of artificial additives.
Aston's Bakehouse and True Food
One of these is Syd Aston who founded his bakery in London but now runs it from Sheepdrove Farm, Lambourn, Berkshire. He is True Food's bread supplier, providing us with a huge variety of baked products, including sourdough, a whole range of yeasted breads, tea cakes, croissants and quiches. This is delivered to True Food early each morning, ensuring that customers can have a truly fresh loaf whenever they come into the shop. These are made from organic and only natural ingredients that you would find in your kitchen cupboard, and fermented properly to give a developed flavour and better nutrition.
If you've not tried one of Aston's Bakehouse products yet, do pick whatever takes your fancy when you next come into the shop. Once you've tried proper bread, you won't want to go back to standard supermarket fare! For customers who want to make their own bread, True Food also sells a wide range of traditional and more unusual flours, many of them locally grown. Whichever you choose, you will be eating bread as it was meant to be.