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William Harris

Presentation - BreadMatters II, Lisboa, Portugal


A Baker's Devotion - a Personal Relationship with Bread

In the early spring of 1993 I opened a French styled bakery and patisserie; it was the most frightening day of my life.

My fear was not of making bread, I had been making bread at home for more than twenty years; my fear was swapping my desk bound fairly isolated former working environment to dealing with hundreds of customers "face to face" on a daily basis. I had confidence that I could persuade customers to swap the traditional English sliced white loaf for croissants and baguettes, I just didn't have the personal confidence to deal with customers.


To my good fortune, customers became an immense support and a positive force in my business. People, by which I mean those interested in their food and where it comes from, have a desire to form a relationship with the producer, a interest that transcends hygiene and embraces diet, health and the relationship that Bread plays in all of our every day diets.

I suspect that for most of us the first food we ate this morning was bread. For those of you visiting Portugal your first "taste" of the country was its bread. Passionate about bread I can rank countries I have visited by the bread served, not just taste, but the crust, smell, texture, shape and presentation. Presenting me with commercially processed sliced white ranks a country very low on my personal scale.


It is not that I am being snobbish about processed bread but is it really bread? Is this (plate of sliced white) really the same as this (large round loaf)?

Maybe not in appearance but almost definitely in composition. Probably 98% of the content is identical, the 2% is made up of production additives that enable bread to be mass-produced.

Bread is a staple food. In many societies, bread, or a derivative form, is an essential part of diet and an accompaniment to many meals. Recent years have marked a substantial increase in dietary complaints related to bread. In part it is an information age issue, as more people become aware of a potential symptom so more people report the symptom, a growing number of people are experiencing symptoms believed to be linked with wheat or gluten intolerance. Some statistical work indicates a 500 fold increase in wheat or gluten intolerance in developed western societies in the last ten years. And this turned out to be exactly what my customers wanted to talk about.

The partaking of bread is so ingrained in the psyche that people medically diagnosed with a wheat or gluten intolerance still want to eat bread. I suspect most traditional bakers know more about dietary bread related illnesses than most doctors, we specialise on a daily basis. Until about five years ago in England, a doctor could issue a medical prescription to supply wheat free bread for affected patients supplied through chemist shops. The so-called bread had no wheat content at all and was composed of flour derived from rice and pulses. If you have ever experienced this product you will know its relationship to 'bread' is tenuous at best.

In the UK, research by a major supermarket group indicates some 2% of the population to be wheat or gluten intolerant, more than 1 million people addicted to bread who can be sold a "Gluten Free" bread or "Wheat Free" bread at 10 times the price of a processed loaf, making a profit from an intolerance.

Wheat is a very special grain. Amongst all of the grains it is the highest in gluten content and it is the gluten that is the building block of bread. Gluten allows the texture of bread to be expansive. Carbon dioxide gas released by the yeast converting the sugars in the grain is held in by little balloons of dough that take up their form with the action of the gluten. Gluten is water-soluble. To dissolve gluten out of the flour takes time; there is no way to speed the process. The minimum amount of time needed to produce acceptable traditional bread is 4.5 hours, significantly better bread is achieved with a 10 to 12 hour production cycle.

In the 1950's bread was produced by tens of thousands of small private bakeries in every city, town and village in the UK. Bakers had their own research organisation - The British Bakers Research Institute. This organisation developed the Chorleywood Process, so called as it was developed at the Research Institutes laboratories in Chorleywood, north of London. The Chorleywood Process produces a finished loaf of bread within two hours of commencing the mixing of the flour. Every commercial bakery uses the Chorleywood Process. If you visit an industry-baking exhibition you can see the process in operation. It is usually the largest stand in the exhibition, raw materials enter at one end, move invisibly through a series of stainless steel compartments and emerge as sliced processed loaves at the other end.

Of course there is nothing to see. The biggest crowds are always around those few foolish individuals who demonstrate making bread by hand! So what was added to the raw materials to enable the Chorleywood Process to do its magic trick? Well one addition is something you will never ever see it written down in any recipe for bread.

Try this, buy the cheapest plastic wrapped processed loaf you can find, open the wrapper and inhale the aroma of… vinegar? Actually it is ascorbic acid but if you really are doing it cheap then commercial vinegar concentrates do the job. Ascorbic acid stimulates the fermentation process. French bakers many years ago devised their own fermentation stimulants. Here you have to understand the business of making traditional bread. A baker's life is governed by his customers desire for bread. If you are to start serving customers from 7.00am then you need to be starting the process at about 7.00pm.

The book The Village Baker: Classic Regional Breads, from Europe and America by Joe Ortiz delves into traditional crafts, techniques and recipes that enable the production of truly great breads. Joe befriended and worked alongside traditional French Bakers just to learn their secrets. His goal was how to make that truly great loaf with an open chewy texture and a deep rich crust.

Joe Ortiz is a Californian American. In California at the time when Joe set out on his quest, two breads dominated the market - San Francisco Sourdough and a single fermentation pan processed loaf. The latter is the forerunner of the Chorleywood Process and is the industrial process by which the majority of bread has been made in the USA since 1926. Sourdough is an entirely different story - it is the king of breads although Isabella Allende's description in "Portrait in Sepia" of the Californian gold miners carrying their sourdough starters in waist pouches to maintain a nice even fermentation temperature could put you off sourdough for life!

I digress; the secret that Joe Ortiz discovered was the addition of flour made from dried broad beans. The French baker faced with a daily 7.00pm start is inevitably going to miss a few beats, trust me I know. Joe asked one baker, "how do you manage, when do you sleep?" He replied "I usually catch a couple of hours with my babies before the first baking, my babies wake me up when the dough is risen." His babies were his loaves each nestling in its own basket like a crib, waiting for the final rise to peak and for the plunge into the hot oven.

When he fell behind program he added a handful of broad bean flour to the next mix, broad bean flour is rich in vitamin C, ascorbic acid, thus speeding the fermentation process.

This does not reduce his 10 hour cycle to a 2 hour cycle nor would he want it to. No matter how much he may occasionally desire a normal working life his customers would not allow anything but the best bread to be produced, it is this obsession, customer and baker, that drives bakers forward.

One man, Lionel Piolane, re-invented the traditional French sourdough loaf. Born into a family with two centuries of baking history, Piolane started work in the family bakery at 14 years of age in 1959. When he was tragically killed in a helicopter accident off the Brittany coast in November last year his empire straddled the world. His artisan master bakers worked in an industrial complex outside of Paris each assigned to one of 24 traditional oak fired ovens; not only do you need to know your dough but you need to know your oven, its hot and cool spots, its temperament.

Each master baker works with two apprentices to maintain the continuity of production. Piolane's bakery produces 7000 loaves like this (large round loaf) every day, many sent by air to customers around the globe. Piolane's bread is not cheap roughly 15 Euros per kilogram but that is what good bread and good bakers cost. It was Piolane's single minded devotion to producing the perfect bread that drove him forward.


In England there are less than 1000 traditional bakers left. In the two decades from 1970 to 1990 30,000 private bakeries closed. Those that remain have an uncertain future, few young people are prepared to commit to the lifestyle required of a traditional baker. I tried to tell applicants that the reward comes from your customers, there are very few jobs that have such a high customer satisfaction rating. People enjoy eating good food and are happy to tell you.

I eventually found a baker, a Hungarian, young, enthusiastic, capable and with a passion. I could not get a work permit for him, there is no need to recruit bakers from outside of the UK was the official explanation.

The other factor effecting survival of independent bakers in the UK is the cost base. In simple economic terms the cost of premises in the UK is roughly three times the cost of equivalent premises in France, once you correct for differences in employment cost the UK cost base is roughly double the French cost base. Put simply Piolane's loaf baked in the UK would cost 30 Euros per kilo, compared with the UK supermarket loaf retailing at 1.60 Euros per kilo.

So here is the problem; we all desire bread. We all desire great bread. Great bread takes time to develop its flavours, textures and characteristics. Sourdough takes even longer, up to 24 hours depending upon atmospheric conditions as well as everything else and can take an apprentice two years to learn the nuances of making and handling the dough. Few of us are prepared to pay the price, not only the customers, but also those that desire to be great bakers.

The other thing that is added during the Chorleywood Process? Liquid gluten, the process does not allow time for the gluten to be drawn from the flour or the yeasts to fully complete the fermentation cycle so the process continues in your stomach. Have you ever had that kind of bloated feeling?

©   William Harris, August 2003


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