Our daily bread

Earlier this year I met John Letts of the Oxford Bread Group, a campaigner for real bread and a grower of old, endangered varieties of wheat. He drew my attention to the evils of the Chorley Wood Process, the industrial method by which 80% of our bread is constructed. I use that word advisedly - the CWP is so alien to traditional bread making I wonder if its products ought to be called bread at all. Cheap flour, fat, yeast and a cocktail of enzymes are whipped into a blamanche in an industrial vat with little or no time to prove, before being bunged in an oven. No wonder it's so indigestable.

Instead, he persuaded me of the wonders of sourdough. Why not make your own, he said? Well, I did. I am a complete convert.

I followed the River Cottage Method - there's a helpful video too.

Sourdough uses naturally occurring yeast. You create a starter culture by mixing flour and water and waiting for the yeast to do its thing. I helped mine along by adding two scrumped plums to the mix - apparently a stick of rhubarb works just as well. Don't be tempted to use brewers yeast - it's a different species I'm told. You keep the starter in a jar and as long as you keep feeding it more flour it will last forever.

It smells yeasty, tart, a little scary.

The beauty of natural yeast is that it works slowly. I leave my bread to prove all day, and that's when the yeast does its magic, killing off microbes and digesting the gluten. It's wonderful watching this

become this

become this

become this

It tastes delicious.

People often wonder how it is that Amazonian Indians discovered ayahuasca, the strange hallucinogenic brew and mainstay of Amazonian shamanism that requires two very different plants to be mixed together for it to work. How, given all the plants that grow in the rainforest, did they hit on the magic combination?

I find bread just as baffling. Who was it who discovered that adding a fizzy mix of yeast to flour, kneeding it until it works, letting it rise and baking it, produced the wondrous loaf? Was it trial and error? A moment of inspiration? It is a breathtaking piece of human ingenuity, up there with the bicycle and the laptop.

Making my own has connected me to the process, made me more aware of where my food comes from and awakened me to the magic of this humble, taken for granted, staple of Western diet. My digestion has improved too. I shan't be going back to shop-bought.

Why not give it a go?


  1. Why not have a go at a good Swedish Limpa, or a Finnish Black Bread. You need dark rye (which can be quite hard to get hold of)
    You make a sponge, use your starter, 4 cups of warm water and 2 cups of rye, beat it this together and then sprinkle on 1 cup of rye flour. Leave this for 24 hours, then add 2 cups of rye, stir and leave for a further 24 hours. add up to 6 more cups of flour and 2 teaspoons of salt, knead the dough for 30 minutes (it will be very sticky) Let it rise for about 2 hours.

    Grease and flour two baking trays, shape into two rounds and poke a hole in the middle. Brush with water and dust with flour, let them spread and flatten. Bake til firm at high heat. To stop burning a pan of water in the bottom of the oven stops the overdrying of the loaf.

    It is a classic sour dough from Scandinavia, I miss it terribly when we get back to the UK every summer (it makes toast heaven with marmite on it and the best sandwiches ever).

  2. Try to get hold of a copy of Elizabeth David's 'English Bread and Yeast Cookery'. She tells you everything you ever wanted to know about bread and its history. And possibly more.

  3. Or "Bread Matters" - some more fine recipes there too!!
    I'm now a devotee of a recipe that involves letting a portion of dough ferment overnight (up to 18 hours actually) and produces wonderful bread.

    You might mention that the Chorley Wood product's enzyme is derived from pig's pancreases... Thus most "bread" sold in Britain is neither vegan, vegetarian, kosher, hallal... nor, as you say, health bread.

  4. I'm happy to say I live in a community in the hills with many "artisan" bread makers. And, cheese, pickles, etc. Its baffling to me in some ways, that REAL bread making is called "artisan". I see bread-making is an art, but that wholesome, well-crafted bread is somehow special these days, well, just depressing. I love sourdough. Yours looks yummy!

  5. I have to agree with Olwen, Elizabeth David's book is excellent and teaches the science and art of baking.

    the Bakery at Melmerby also endorse Andrew Whitely's book on bread baking, though I have not read it so that is only on their recommendation

  6. As a fellow sourdough devotee, I can only applaud your conversion. The loaf looks marvellous! The benefits of cultivating a sourdough leaven and hand-making your own loaves extend across the spectrum from the physical to the spiritual - as should all cooking and eating!

    Current favourite additions include coriander seeds and walnuts...

    When shall we see you two again? Time to talk at length about bread!

    (I learned *my* way from Dan Lepard's book, 'The Handmade Loaf.')

  7. I am convinced that the Chorley Wood Process is responsible for the high incidence of candidiasis (yeast overgrowth in the gut).



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