A Proper Bread Manifesto

A Manifesto?

There can be few things easier to sell than properly made bread.

A freshly-laden market stall, the steadily-filling bright and steamy bakery window, these are sights to behold on an otherwise ordinary morning: each loaf, stick, roll and sweetbread an individual masterpiece, their natural beauty none other than the inevitable consequence of quality raw materials transformed with skill and Love.

The marketing men can take the day off.

Each prospective customer instantly inuits that such beauty is more than crust deep.  Sight, sound, smell… the senses guide her to what she and her family really needs. In the sublime texture, taste and ultimate wholesomeness - in the eating - of bread properly made, there is to be found not only nourishment for the body but, on a deeper and perhaps unarticulated level, sustenance for the soul, too.  

The local bakery thus effects its own gravitational pull on the neighbourhood, individually helping to centre communities, collectively grounding cultures and ensuring, via farmer and miller, that populations remain in some way connected to the soil that sustains them - that they might always be reminded, however unconsciously, of their true place on Earth. Throughout breadmaking cultures it has been so for millennia. 

The modern factory loaf offers no such direction home, except that it is the wrong way.  Wholesomeness has been factored out in the very fields, with hybridised wheat varieties grown - in chemically fertilised but otherwise barren soil - for yield and reliability and surely something has to give here - and I’m feeling it must be nutrition and flavour that gets lost in the process; later in the process, purity and freshness become casualties to a whole host of erroneous E-numbers and undisclosed enzymes that blaze a trail towards profit maximisation as production is hastened and shelf-life extended.  In evermore bizarre adaptations of an otherwise unmalleable dough and its accompanying marketing, the bread factories tell us they’re giving us what we want.  Truth is, we get the product of their fiendish yet fragile formulas and what our apathy and ignorance has come to deserve. 

If the sheer variety of handcrafted breads the world over is testament to the skilful, heartfelt conceptions of bakers working in their locales then the one-dough-fits-all approach by the faceless factories is the very epitome of science manipulating Nature simply for financial gain and “is the very embodiment of modernity”.

Andrew Whitley’s concise summation of industrial bread (extrapolate the theory across all industrial food) is a stark reflection of what has happened to us as a society: manipulated and lead astray with regards to a fundamentally important matter - the food we eat.  Massive and constantly-expanding choice motivated solely by the year-on-year maximisation of shareholder profits is no choice at all.  Yet in the midst of our often stupidly busy lives there feels to be no other option, so we refuel in solitude from chilled plastic triangles whilst on the hoof.  If we were to stop and still ourselves for just a moment we might just discern a bad feeling in our guts… that this isn’t the way to carry on.  

Such epiphanic moments - the rediscovery of one’s intuition beneath the mindless clutter of a life we’ve been led into - are increasingly guiding individuals out of the melee to begin realigning themselves not only with an ailing environment that grows evermore intolerant of extreme capitalism’s fast-buck-but-can’t-be-arsed waywardness but to begin realigning themselves with themselves - with deep-seated needs of meaning, purpose and connection that will go repressed for only so long till they again make their presence felt.

Breadmaking is, as is any craft, the perfect expression of that intuition.  Locally-sourcing sympathetically-produced raw materials on a small scale is empathic with Nature - it just feels like the right thing to do - and in empathy we make the most meaningful of connections.  Quite incidentally, we begin to feel more human.  And if we’re not yet Home, we have certainly found direction.  Enthusiastic homebakers, whilst they may never truly identify their deep-seated motivations, have always at some level felt this.

It is these passionate amateurs that, in the search for a better connection both with themselves and the world about them, are taking the natural step from hobby to business.  As a resurgence of real bread baking continues globally, it is more a product of collective disillusionment with the state of society than any entrepreneurial, fly-by-night brainchild that there can be few things easier to sell than properly-made bread.  To boot, their enthusiasm is impelled nicely along a route largely unfettered by regulation, thanks largely to the state’s preoccupation with furthering the causes of big business.

Coming to see our expanded repertoire fly off the shelves each day can seem like a world away from those days of domestic dalliance when we treated our family and friends to a batch of beautiful bread.  It can belie the incremental steps we have made.  

Mustering confidence to venture into commercial production, the learning curve steepens remorselessly.  Our bread, as we apply the lessons learned each day with our ever-burgeoning skills, improves way beyond the parameters founded on the expectations of our once passionate amateur status.  Above ground, confidence is consolidated; below, roots begin to grow into community.   And if fatigue is a fact of life for the baker, and it is hard to assuage, let alone justify, the guilt we might feel for indulging the antisocial shift patterns that our craft demands, then daily there’s the same warm fulfilment of a job well done.  Tomorrow beckons with the magical promise of reinvesting today’s learning and experience.  The baker’s eternal lament, that there’s no money in bread, might even fall away into the annals of yesterday. 

Inevitably, there’s the rise of individuality - it’s not simply our bread that is popular but a certain style it has, a method in its making particular to the bakery.  Our craft is perhaps, just perhaps, on the cusp of art…. As demand continues to outstrip production, we might just feel like the world is our oyster.

It’s a wonderfully tempting prospect for the ego to have its certain style available to a wider world than the one it might just come to feel cocooned in.  Growth… take overs… market domination - how good would that feel!  Perhaps it’s natural to find ourselves considering this path: it is the predominant contemporary business model and is part of our social make-up.  And yet, surely such a model is nothing other than a flimsy contrivance of the ego… upon which it can gleefully display itself.  Soulful, skilled individuality spread far and wide is eventually diluted out of existence (to test the theory, simply patronise any chain store or restaurant); remaining cocooned in its locality our heartfelt enterprise sinks its roots further still to intertwine with those about us (to test the theory…). 

Small is indeed beautiful, and the realistic size of our enterprise is the best inspiration for others to follow.  And is there a real bread baker in the land who, even having worked tirelessly to establish herself, wouldn’t relish being the catalyst and guide for others who feel the very same stirrings of inspiration, substituting harmony and common vision for that worn out old contradiction in terms, healthy competition?  If we’re serious about supplying a wider world with the bread that we so enjoy making then we have to lose our preciousness and revel in the challenge and subsequent benefits of sharing ourselves.

Alarmingly, as a more coherent whole, under, say, the umbrella of The Real Bread Campaign and as more localised cooperatives, we might find the truly hard work begins.  Supplying the mass market.

Harnessing the loyalties of discerning and enlightened customers is undoubtedly the fastest and most assured route to success for any niche enterprise.  To continue to pin long-term aspirations for properly-made bread on that same demographic though will be to witness those hopes and dreams stagnate right there in that pigeon hole.  Real bread should be the birthright of all who populate the land upon which wheat and rye are grown, not some inglorious manifestation of elitist economics. 

Appealing to a price-conscious mass market throws up the greatest of challenges to the real bread baker, and nobody would blame her for not giving up her hard-won profit margins.  

And yet… having come this far who would’t want to move into the ultimate dimension?  It’s quite within the scope of the craft baker to be a fundamental part of the rejigging of the collective attitude towards he planet, reconnecting populations to the soil that supports them through a renewed, enlightened relationship with the dining table and those they share it with.  If the capitalist system has handed us individual opportunities to get this far then there is in the offing now the opportunity to consider our outright, collective responsibility for an ailing world.

A long road ahead (should you choose it), any reward (should you require it) for our endeavours will be incrementally tiny, if at all, with any tangible societal transformation only evident through the retrospective gazing across several decades hence - and perhaps well beyond the lifetimes of those presently embroiled in this feisty resurgence of real bread.  But, in the end, what are we to do with our bakeries - these perfect models of commercial perpetuity - the intuitive truths that shaped them and the skills gleaned from half a lifetime of lovingly learning and perfecting our craft?

Future historians will ponder this curious epoch in which humans wandered myopically into oblivion.  In the classroom, perhaps, they’ll use industrial bread as a specific example to demonstrate the general attitude by which we lived: unsustainably at odds with the environment, with just a handful of humans producing food not for the wellbeing of all those they were responsible to but that they might control an increasing portion of the world, accrue vast profits and, ultimately, buy more stuff than anybody else.  Weird.

As the bell goes and pupils and teachers alike file noisily from desk to canteen tables centred with freshly-baked naturally-leavened loaves, there’s a real hope that they might just register a deeper sense of what it is to be human, even if they can’t quite grasp the responsibilities that once beset their floury-finger forebears.

So, who would be a baker?