Monday, 27 May 2013

Our weekly bread

By coincidence, my copy of Knead To Know ('The introductory guide to success in baking Real Bread for your local community') arrived the day before I discovered that the town where I live, Prestwich, now has its very own Community Supported Bakery - or at least, the beginnings of one. I found them at a Sunday market which was labelled as 'artisan', just moments after having walked past the cheese shop and, as usual, bemoaned the fact that they are selling bread made at a bakery in Chorlton, which is the other side of the city centre, in the salubrious south. Why oh why, I moaned, are we relying on the Chorlton artisans? Surely there is a decent bakery closer to here? (For the record, I moved to Prestwich about twelve years ago having been assured that it was the new Chorlton. I think they saw me coming.)

Anyway, hurrah for PrestBake - I will do what I can to help. I realise that my vision of myself wrapped in a floury apron, feeding the masses with warm chewy loaves, is a mirage, because baking bread on a marketable scale involves a lot of commitment, time and elbow grease that I probably haven't got. Somebody out there knows what they're doing, anyway - the brown sourdough loaf I bought is dense, soft and malty. I believe I can taste the quality of the ingredients (although I might be getting above myself after the Great Taste judging days!). It made me feel happy, anyway, which is not a bad result from a mouthful of bread. Apparently you can subscribe, and get a loaf every week. I'll follow them on Twitter and see if I can be in the right place at the right time to get some more. 

The book I've been sent has come from Sustain 's Real Bread campaign, a moniker that provoked derision from G who contends that all bread is 'real'. He's missing the point, of course. Real bread is bread made with 'real' ingredients, by real people, and delivers real taste and real nourishment.

'Real' bread has become something of a benchmark for those seeking to get decent food into their localities. It's the most basic of foods, and paradoxically, it is one that most people never attempt to make for themselves. Perhaps this has its roots in history - in times gone by, most people didn't have ovens and they would routinely take their dough to be baked in a communal oven at the local bakery. I guess it made sense for the owners of the oven to go the extra mile, and make the dough as well as baking it... but at what point did we lose the ability to make it for ourselves? 

There's a lot of mystique around bread making and I think it's partly because our idea of what constitutes a decent loaf has  changed - somehow we have come to revere the sort of 'bread' which can only be made through an industrial process, using mechanical mixers and chemical processing aids. The upshot is that when we made our own bread, it's nothing like the bread in the shops, and we find that worrying. For every person in the UK who makes bread regularly, there must be a hundred who have tried it once, achieved a result that they didn't think hit the mark, and given it up as a bad job. We've ended up with a population that has never tasted 'real' bread and thinks there is something wrong with a loaf that doesn't look exactly the same as all the others in the batch, and doesn't have the texture of damp cotton wool. 

The way we have lost our confidence in making bread, and the way we now buy the industrially manufactured version without a murmur, mirrors the broader  way in which we view food of all kinds in this country. We have been so conned. A huge proportion of the population now believes that it can't cook, and that the insipid blandness and pulpy texture of food that comes in microwaveable plastic boxes is actually how proper food ought to be. No wonder people don't think they can cook - no amount of fresh ingredients, herbs and spices can easily mimic the taste of food that is untouched by human hand and comes out of sanitised factories on conveyor belts. You'd need some serious kit and some industrial food additives to achieve that calculatedly inoffensive taste and consistency, not to mention the shelf-life. I routinely meet youngish people who are actually afraid of eating real food, and whose palates have been numbed with fake 'natural' flavours, sugar and salt.

Last week, I saw a sign at a motorway service station about the doughnuts on sale there. The sign said that the doughnuts were 'made fresh daily'. Surely people must realise that anything that comes out of a factory 24/7 is by definition made daily, and that 'fresh' in this context just means 'new', and has no association with the length of time that has elapsed since the ingredients were in the ground, or hanging off a plant. By thatdefinition it is hard to mAke a ything that isn't 'fresh'. The sign went on to say that the doughnuts on sale in the service station had been delivered that day. Well, hurrah, just a matter of hours ago, they were wrapped in plastic and trundling along the motorway in a lorry. That's not a marketing message that works for me, but I guess if they've signed up for a daily delivery, it means they're selling a lot of doughnuts. 

Are people really conned by this sort of marketing? Do they genuinely think they're buying food that is either wholesome or nutritious? I think the sad fact is that most people know full well what they're buying, and they don't care. They are happy to hand over the responsibility for their health to food manufacturers who claim to care. Then, when they're too fat to walk straight, they can say that it's not their fault - those naughty manufacturers are to blame, for tricking them into buying food that makes them ill. 

I think there's a worrying tendency for people to opt out of real life, which admittedly can be hard work and sometimes scary, and to buy into a sugary fake version, knowing full well that if it doesn't work out well, they can complain and demand their rights, and a refund. Real life isn't like that - it can be unpleasant in many many ways, and most of the time, when things go wrong you've only yourself to blame, or else nobody is really responsible. That's life. Perhaps I'm a fool, I should be slumped in a comfy American style 'lounger' staring at a screen showing comfy, mind-numbing pap and eating soft, sweet rubbish without ever taking my eyes off the screen. I remember whenever my family was involved in any physically uncomfortable activity, like having to abandon a broken-down car and walk along a country lane in the dark, or getting drenched by a rogue wave on the seafront, my Dad would flash a thin grin and say, 'This is living!' 

One of the first things I learned from the Knead to Know book was that there are additives you can use in bread that you don't have to put on the label. That was a revelation, but I guess it shouldn't have been, because it backs up my own personal experience. There are some foods, generally baked goods and things containing wheat (what doesn't?) that provoke a very noticeable and rapid physical reaction in me - my face goes bright red. The flushing starts around my mouth and spreads fast. As you might expect, I find this disturbing and I've been trying to work out what's behind it. It worries me - whatever is going on inside me if the results are so noticeable on the outside? It's also becoming a nuisance in social situations, as I can't eat in company without running the risk of suddenly looking as if I'm having a hot flush. It happened during one session at the Great Taste Awards judging - everybody assumed I was reacting in a weak girly way to a viscious chilli sauce but in fact I think it was the biscuit I sampled next that was to blame. Annoying, because I don't want people to think I can't handle my hot sauces. Anyway, every time it happens, I look at the ingredients of the thing I'm eating (if it came out of a packet to which I have access) and I've been continually stumped - as a rule, I don't go in for additive-laden rubbish anyway, and I can never find anything that appears consistently on the label of the things that make me go red. So it makes absolute sense to me that there are things I'm putting into my mouth that I'm not being told about. According to the book, these additives are marketed as 'label friendly'. I think we should be told. 

I don't think I am allergic or intolerant to wheat per se, because sometimes foods that contain wheat upset me and sometimes they don't. I do think it might be worth exploring gluten-free eating, partly because so many people seem to be moving in that direction and I'm curious. I also take on board Andrew Whitley's comments that wheat and flour have come a long way from their natural state, through centuries ofselective breeding to maximise yield. Wheat ain't what it used to be.

Knead To Know is a book unlike any other I have seen, because it's about setting out to make bread for a community and not just for your family. It draws on the experience of all kinds of bakers, from big names to the smallest and newest arrivals on the scene. They are having to reinvent the wheel, rediscovering ways to make bread without recourse to additives or industrial scale machinery, rediscovering the satisfaction that comes from a certain amount of physical labour but finding new ways to balance this against our demands for instant gratification and our over-riding inclination to sacrifice quality in favour of speed. They are having to find ways to explain why their bread is better than the spongey white sliced variety in order to reach past the people who buy into the delightful artisan nature of it all and get some support from people who want to fill a supermarket trolley for a tenner.

So, more power to the community breadmakers' elbows. I'm willing to believe that re-introducing 'real' bread and 'real' bakeries to our communities is a genuine and well-intentioned attempt to do a good thing, to make people well and happy, and to regain control of the food we eat, which in turn is essential to our wellbeing. I know there are more than a few people out there who would dismiss the whole movement as a middle-class do-gooder diletante activity pursued by people with plenty of spare time and money who think they know best. I choose to believe that it's the stirring of something bigger and something more important - a nationwide revolt against food that is made more for profit than to nourish people. When enough people have enough self-esteem to demand better, and enough self-belief to dare to question the motives of food manufacturers, then surely we will see improvements in the food we are offered, if not changes to the motivation behind it. 

Knead to Know is published by Grub Street ISBN 978-1-909166-17-2
Prestbake don't appear to have a website but are on Twitter as @prestbake
The Sustain Real Bread Campaign's website is and they tweet as @RealBread.

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

The Great Taste Awards

The butcher at my table:
Judging the Great Taste Awards

I can't lie: it's great being a judge. It makes you feel big and clever. I judged at the Cordon Vert Vegetarian Chef of the Future competition last week and it was actually a bit weird. Everybody there had been watching the finals of Masterchef and as a judge I felt under pressure to behave like a scary person. I thought about it and came to the conclusion that that is actually what contestants want from judges - the prize is worthless unless the judges appear to be really hard to impress. It's all a game, of course. 

This week I'm judging for the Guild of Fine Foods Great Taste awards. Actually, I've trained as a 'judge co-ordinator' which means I am in charge of typing all the comments from a table of judges into a computer. It's my job to try to make all their comments into a reasonably coherent paragraph of useful feedback for the producers who expose their foods to our scrutiny. It's also my job to try to make sure that we don't get bogged down with bickering,  or bulldozed by bullies. Some people are pretty opinionated. 

Actually, I quite like having opinionated people on my team. It's a chance to learn something interesting, if for example one of the judges on your table is an expert in fruit liqueurs, or pie crusts or even, would you believe, the niceties of butchery. I'm perfectly happy to bow to somebody else's expertise, as long as they are genuinely knowledgeable and not just imposing their random views on the rest of us. 

I'm here all week (as the stand-up comedians say) and I guess it's inevitable that my fellow judge co-ordinators tend to share their views on the people they have worked with during the day. The organisers mix teams up for each new judging session so you never know who you'll be working with. I'm already hearing dire warnings about certain people who are overpoweringly assertive and rather rude, without actually having any outstanding expertise. At the other end of the scale, there are judges who have trouble expressing their opinions and seem to think that grimaces and shrugs can somehow be translated into sensible comments by the person tasked with the typing. Bit of a dead loss, really, it's no good saying things are 'nice' or 'disgusting'. 

This is especially the case when we are given bits of meat or fish to judge. Obviously, I duck out of these and that is considered to be OK, thankfully. To be frank, the first time I walked into the judging room, the smell of freshly cooked meat and fish almost made me gag. But I got over it. I can type up other people's opinions about meat but if they say that it looks 'nice' I have to ask them why. What is it that looks nice to them? It makes you feel like an alien. 

Occasionally, we get special 'vegetarian' foods - a pie, a quiche, some stuffed veg and a ratatouille. As the results of the judging are still under wraps, I've got to be a bit careful about what I say. Every time a vegetarian dish arrives at the table, I feel as if it's my duty to stand up for it. I'd like vegetarian dishes to get lots of stars, to show they're just as good as meat dishes - or better. Sadly, so far the veggie fare has been pretty embarassing. Today, we did have one quiche which was exceptionally good. The butcher on my table said he really liked it - and that I could quote him.  Not sure I'll make a convert of him though. 

Sitting by a blazing fire in the pub this evening (can't believe the weather is this grim in Dorset in mid-May),  with two fellow judges, we fell into conversation with a couple who were interested in what we were doing. They said that it must be great fun. Hmm. Well all right, it is quite good fun, but there are downsides. The sore throat from shouting ('I've written Attractive presentation, no detectible ginger, one judge felt the nuts were too soft, do you agree?'). Exhaustion from the general full-on-ness of it all, and having to be scintillating during lunch breaks whilst holding a paper plate. And, whilst happily (and unlike some of my colleagues) I have not experienced out and out nausea, I can report slight heartburn, acid stomach, serious loss of appetite, motion sickness in an overcrowded taxi and rather demanding bowels. Not surprising when you realise that today I have tasted in the region of eighty utterly random foods - cakes, pies, icecreams, pasta sauces, salad dressings, mustards, granolas, cheeses, chocolates... actually it's making my stomach churn to think about what I've prized between my lips today. Not a lot of award winners, and that's a good thing, because there are 9,800ish entries this year and it would devalue the awards if everybody got a star. You have to earn these babies. They've given me a very nice badge.