From gluten-free chain smokers, to gym fiends happily guzzled protein shakes with packaging more akin to household cleaning products, bread is frowned upon more than ever and blamed for countless health problems and weight issues. Although we’ve been eating wheat and gluten for over ten thousand years, bread has become our culinary whipping boy.
It can (and should) be part of a balanced, wholefood diet. Taking a simple, relatively unprocessed approach to nutrition, a dense and nourishing homemade loaf has a valid place. It elevates other parts to become a whole, turning even the most meagre leftovers into a relatively sustaining meal.
The ritual and routine of maintaining a starter and creating a weekly loaf of bread is a source of both sustenance and pride for me. I relish in frugality and simplicity where possible, so the ability the use little more than flour and water to create something that is the basis of several weekly meals gives me sense of accomplishment. Whilst I love luxurious food when appropriate, I also love the romantically bleak - sometimes there’s nothing more pleasing than the simplicity of homemade bread and some cheese, and that it being ‘enough’. After all, indulging is only and indulgence when it exists out of your ordinary regimen.
Bread itself has been an integral part of our social fabric; when we share with others, what else do we do but “break bread”? The size of a loaf and it’s nature of consumption make it naturally communal, something to bond over and it is intrinsically linked to the rituals, traditions and the basic necessities of life. It’s tied to poverty, wealth and security – and only in our current, self-righteous state of privilege and security do we now feel the right to dismiss its importance and providence. Bread has played a monumental and imperative role in the growth and history of Western culture. In times of famine and feast, regardless of socio-economic status, income or agricultural bounty, bread has been a dietary staple – feeding families both large and small due to its accessibility, adaptable nature and thrift. The harvesting and milling of wheat has sustained countless economies, whilst the humble diet of bread, lard and dairy has fuelled society for centuries with none of the allegedly health effects that we see today.
Not all contemporary breads are not baked as equals; processed white bread has become a cheap mainstay of Western society due to its inoffensive taste, cheap nature and shelf life. Highly refined and commercial, it’s as far from a traditional loaf as you can possibly get. Its forefathers, or indeed any loaf made at home from scratch, are crusty and dense, a far cry from the disconcertingly soft white loafs for sale on supermarket shelves. Traditionally a lengthy process of kneading and fermentation, commercial manufacturers rely on harsh industrial machines whilst artificial additives form the gluten bonds and stretch so integral to bread. Additionally, nearly all commercial bread on the market (even those with a more artisanal approach) contains ‘vital wheat gluten’, an additive derived from natural gluten that adds longevity to a loaf’s shelf life and acts as a strengthening and rising aid. This additional gluten vastly adds to the burden our stomachs face when digesting commercial bread, making it no wonder that they flare up in reaction to it; our bodies haven’t evolved at the same pace as commercial food, and highly processed bread is a key example of this.
We need to reconsider what we’re eating and how; dense, traditional breads made from less refined flours like rye, spelt and wholemeal are far more filling – serving to minimize your intake of bread and sustain you longer than a soulless white loaf. Similarly, the nature of fermentation needs to be looked at; whilst standard yeast loaves have their place, sourdough bread has proved far gentler on the body due to its longer and different fermentation process. Requiring nothing but flour and water to create both the starter and loaf, it’s a labour of love that is truly rewarding – not to mention cost efficient.
Like most approaches to food, bread needs to go back to basics; this seems to be consistently the case with what we’re putting in our bodies - because really, food should be simple, fulfilling and satisfying.
This piece revisits an article originally published by the New Zealand Herald that you can read here.