Ever since man started living in settled communities, bread has been a cornerstone of the diet in many parts of the world. The historic importance of bread is signalled by the Jewish custom of blessing and breaking bread at mealtimes, by the Arab ritual of sealing an oath with bread and salt, and by the Christian prayer "give us this day our daily bread". It is evident, too, in language. In colloquial English, for example, the head of a household is called the breadwinner, and aristocrats are described as upper crust - a reminder that the top part of a loaf was once the prized portion, placed before the most honoured guests.
Good bread, parsley, salt and a roast onion may no longer "make a contented meal for an honest labouring countryman", as John Evelyn averred in the 17th century. But (Atkins dieters aside) bread remains a uniquely important staple food, and nutritionists agree that if a nation's bread is satisfying, wholesome, reasonably priced and readily available, the dietary wellbeing of its people is more or less assured.
Ironically, it is affluent countries, notably the US and Britain, that have let bread standards slide badly, abandoning age-old craft principles in favour of speedy solutions and soft options. The virtual loss of our characterful, chewy, distinctly flavoured and nutritionally desirable local breads may have been hastened by the fact that we live in the Age of the Sandwich. For sandwiches are, of course, convenience foods in which bread is employed merely as the vehicle for carrying a filling. (It's the filling that counts, the wackier the better, never mind the bread.) But the root of the problem surely lies in the rise and rise of the Chorleywood bread-making process - a high speed, corner-cutting method that employs a great deal of yeast to raise dough quickly, puffs it up with lots of water and air, plus hard fat to hold it up, and includes extra salt to compensate for the lack of flavour.
The Chorleywood method is fast, cheap and therefore mighty profitable. It offers long shelf-life but fails to deliver any texture, taste or eating quality worth talking about. Britons are not generally big spenders on food, so the fact that they now eat much less bread per capita than mainland Europeans, despite the incredibly low price of the average British loaf, suggests that they can recognise a really bad buy when they see one.
Concerned bread-lovers in Britain rang alarm bells at the start of the 1980s, and launched a national Real Bread Campaign to wage war against the dire predominance of Chorleywood inflated cottonwool loaves. Nearly 25 years on, the notoriously claggy sliced white loaf still exists, but there is more choice now and quality has somewhat improved. The trouble is that the choice is often more illusory than real, and the quality is rarely good enough. Finding bread that is worth getting your teeth into takes considerable searching out.
Supermarkets and industrial bakers (whose factory offerings account for the vast bulk of bread sold in Britain today) boast impressively long product lists, but what they sell are essentially debased Chorleywood interpretations, not the authentically crafted breads of our own and other nations' traditions. In-store bake-offs and domestic bread-making machines seduce with baking smells, but integrity and genuine goods are lacking. Shoppers and would-be home bakers are conned into believing that novelty breads laced with a cocktail of added ingredients equal quality and style.
In truth, of course, satisfying bread depends not on fancy extras but on fundamentals. Good flour, yeast, water, salt and proper care taken in the making, are all that are needed. And time. Plenty of time.
To understand more about what constitutes good bread, and to brush up on the skills needed to bake a delicious loaf, I enrolled for a hands-on bread-making course and the chance to witness a traditional miller stone-grind his flour. I went to Shaftesbury, in Dorset, home of the hilly cobblestone street up which a delivery boy pushed his bicycle in a famous advertisement for Hovis bread. There I committed myself into the hands of baker Paul Merry of Panary, and miller Michael Stoate of Cann Mills, great professionals and bread enthusiasts.
The courses Merry runs cover everything from basics to going professional. I chose to try my hand at some of the best traditional British breads, and came home with baskets of such native specialities as split tins, baps, plaits and Scottish morning rolls, loaves made from spelt (the ancient variety of wheat tolerated by many who seem allergic to modern strains of wheat), granary-style cobs, bridge rolls, maslin bread (a traditional mix of wheat and rye), London bloomers, cottage loaves, and Cornish saffron bread. My cottage loaves were seriously wonky, others were far from perfect, but the textures, flavours, colours and smells created by the different flours, and the rich diversity of crusts and crumbs, were revelatory manna from heaven compared to the bland mediocrity of mass produced bread.
Merry is a laid-back artisan baker with 10 years' experience of setting up and running an Australian neighbourhood bakery. He is a designer-constructor of wood-fired masonry ovens, and a consultant in traditional baking. He is a calm and patient teacher, good at confidence building, and offers an endless stream of vivid insights into the mysteries of yeast, gluten and kneading, on the principle that the more you understand, the better the chances of you doing things right.
Gluten, I learned, is an invisible ingredient, the un-measurable non-soluble protein in flour that is generated by kneading. Kneading, Merry pointed out, means working the dough, not simply mixing the ingredients. He discussed the best ratio of ingredients to use. He talked about sponging versus sourdough, what yeast needs to feed on and what retards or kills it, and the crucial differences between bread and pastry-making. For shortcrust, butter and flour are rubbed together to coat each flour particle with fat so that the liquid, when added, will not penetrate the flour but bind the mixture. For bread, the water must be added first and kneaded into the flour to release the gluten that gives the dough its elasticity, progressing gradually from chewing gum stage to silkiness. Fat, which would inhibit the process, is added later, if required. Obvious logic now that it has been explained to me.
Touring Stoate's working watermill, I was struck by the timeless peace of the place, despite the thrash and roar of water. I sniffed, tasted and relished the beauty of sample scoops of grains, ground and sifted to varying degrees. Colours were soft and warm, textures flecked and creamy, tastes nutty, sweet and earthy. I realised fully for the first time that to insist on stone-ground flour is not sentimental adherence to tradition for tradition's sake. It is common sense. Stone-grinding is a natural, relatively gentle process. Modern steel rollers crush the life right out of the grain, fracturing and partially damaging the starch and some nutrients in the process. Reassembling the component parts of bran, germ and endosperm may permit a bag of flour to be labelled wholemeal but it is not the same thing.
Spending two whole days making bread and talking with a miller and baker, has inspired me to bake my own bread in future, and it has made me reappraise the way I shop for bread. I accept that some things in life have to be second rate sometimes, but it seems silly to settle for bad bread when good can be had. Bread is truly the staff of life, a daily requirement, too important - like milk, fresh vegetables and eggs - not to choose with special care.
Recent statistics suggest there are no more than 3,000 individual craft bakers left in the UK, shining like good deeds in a naughty world. But at last the numbers of closures and retirements are beginning to be matched by aspiring young enthusiasts ready to raise their bakers' peels (wooden bread shovels) and fire up their ovens to bake our daily bread (a few of the best, and good flour mills for home bakers to note, are listed below). The way forward is going back, slowing down, allowing time for fermentation, and making real bread part of British food culture again.
Whether you make your own delicious and wholesome loaves using choice flours, or have to travel some distance to buy good bread from an artisan baker, it is worth stocking up in quantity. Bread may be especially enticing when so freshly baked that it is barely cold, but it freezes well. It is true that some crusts lift off after a while, but that is a small price to pay for the pleasure of being able to enjoy high quality bread on a daily basis. And I am sure I am not the only one nowadays content to make a meal of good bread, salt, parsley and a roast onion. Add a piece of farm-made cheese and you have a Ploughman's Lunch worthy of the name.