Adam Henson reveals the hard work – and hard science – that go into producing the stuff of life, and why the wet summer has meant a rise in bread prices
It’s hard to overstate the cultural and historical importance of bread. There’s evidence that Neolithic man was making bread; it’s a staple food in the Bible and features in everything from folk tales to nursery rhymes.
So it’s no surprise that 99 percent of households buy bread, with the equivalent of 12 million loaves being sold in the UK every day. But whether you buy your bread from a large bakery, a farm shop or a supermarket, its roots lie in the ancient methods known to our ancestors, who collected seeds, which they crushed, ground and made into unleavened bread. Today we’ve become accustomed to adding yeast to dough – and the advance of modern food manufacturing techniques – but the basic principles remain the same.
Know your wheat
Essentially there are two types of wheat grown in the UK: feed wheat, which is used in animal feed, and breadmaking, or biscuit wheat, for human consumption. Wheat for bread has to be of the highest quality, so farmers like me will spend a great deal of time, trouble and money to ensure the grain is plump, clean and disease-free when harvest time comes.
Nothing is left to chance and samples of the grain will be taken to make sure it’s up to specification. The correct levels of moisture, protein and elasticity in the grain are essential. Ideally we’re looking for a maximum of 14 percent moisture and a minimum of 13 percent protein, while dough quality is measured by something called the Hagberg Falling Number Test and a value of 250 or more is the aim.
If it’s given the thumbs up, the harvested grain is sold through a trader to a miller, with the resulting flour bought by a baker, who either markets their own bread or supplies a retailer. The internet and mobile technology now do the job that was once carried out by farmers and merchants, who traded face to face. That’s why so many places in Britain have impressive town centre buildings called corn exchanges or corn markets. Before any money changed hands it was common for a prospective buyer to bite the grain to check for moisture and bitterness; a low-tech but very accurate way of assessing its worth.
British born and bread
If you want to buy British, buy bread. According to the Flour Advisory Bureau, 85 percent of the wheat used by millers in the UK is homegrown. But as with all aspects of farming, the wheat harvest is dependent on the weather.
On my farm in the Cotswolds, we grow plenty of breadmaking wheat and a lot of it has failed this year due to the wet weather, which meant that the wheat berries lacked plumpness and quality. Much of it was only be good enough for animal feed. In fact, the wettest summer for a century has meant a national shortage of breadmaking wheat.
Our dependence on foreign imports to fill the shortfall explains why the price of a loaf in the shops has gone up. The other factor to consider is the international market. Grain is a global trading commodity so what happens in Russia, Kazakhstan and the great plains of North America has an instant effect on British farmers. Droughts or floods in far-flung parts of the world will determine if a UK farmer sells grain forward to secure a fixed price early, or holds back in the hope that the price will rise.
The Chorleywood bread process
How the invention of an industrial breadmaking process transformed the humble loaf
The village of Chorleywood in Hertfordshire is an unlikely birthplace for a global revolution, but that’s what happened in 1961. It was there that scientists at the Flour Milling and Bakery Research Association (above) developed a method of producing bread that was soft, filling, easier and cheaper to make, as well as longer lasting on the shop shelf. The researchers produced their groundbreaking dough by adding hard fats, emulsifiers, enzymes and other chemicals while doubling the yeast content, before mixing it at high speed.
Today, more than 80 percent of the UK’s bread is baked the Chorleywood way and the method has spread to more than 30 countries worldwide, including France, Turkey, Australia, Ecuador and Colombia. But what some people might refer to as ‘shop’ bread isn’t without its critics. It’s accused of being over processed and harder to digest than traditional bread. Meanwhile, some point to it as a way of explaining the increased claims of bread allergies and wheat intolerance. Scientifically, those claims are hard to substantiate, but what’s certain is that after more than 50 years, Chorleywood bread is popular with shoppers and likely to be around for a very long time to come.