This article was commissioned by and published on MUNCHIES. The published version was (understandably) edited to a far lower word-count, and in the interests of getting all the information across, the unabridged version is below.
The history of bread goes back far. Really far. It’s older than almost everything you can possibly imagine – continents, languages, religions, traditions, the concept of farming – and has played as vital a part of the development of our species as it continues to do in modern diets around the world.
Hyperbolic? Nope; the grains that made earliest breads were the first foodstuff which could be stored through winter, which significantly aided the survival of our ancestors. The first primitive breads are thought to have been stumbled upon in the Stone Age (around 7,000 years ago) through the crushing and mixing with water of wild grains to make a gruel, and eventual “baking” on hot stones – the ancient equivalent of what we know today as pittas, tortillas, and naan.
For a couple of thousand years, all bread was flat. It served a purpose; it was nutritious and plentiful and easy to store, and over centuries grain became a staple food. It was soon produced on bigger and bigger scales in Ancient Egypt, and the skill of baking began to develop.
As it turns out, we owe a hell of a lot to Egypt and what they did with grain. With the same stuff that they were producing on the hyper-fertile banks of the Nile they began brewing beer and, almost hand-in-hand, discovered leaven – a substance added to dough to make it ferment and consequently rise.
It will likely have been a glorious accident; a mixture of water and grain will have been left out in the open air and, exactly as it still works today, wild yeasts present in the air climbed in and began fermenting. This will have produced alcohol and carbon dioxide, the bubbles from which will have been a curiosity and eventually wound up incorporated into dough. The bakers will have noticed it affecting the size, structure, and taste of their breads, and reliably reproducing this delightful effect will have been pursued. Quickly it will have been realised that holding back a little dough, leaving it to its own devices overnight, and adding it to the dough for the next day’s bake, produced increasingly desirable loaves.
Because both beer and bread were made from grain, ancient bakeries and breweries would usually be one and the same. The significance of this symbiotic relationship between booze and bread is that the air in these grain-havens would have been teeming with thick, fiercely active wild yeasts from the brewing, and bakers would have noticed that the rise they could achieve in a brewery far outstripped that of anywhere else. For this reason, it’s totally unsurprising that bakers eventually began experimenting with simply using beer in their dough in place of water, which, due to the superior fermentation, produced a more reliable rise and interesting taste.
What they had discovered, and were slowly developing into a product of skill, is what we now know as sourdough. These breads had a tangy, “sour” flavour, which was being produced by the conversion by the wild yeasts of sugars in the grain to acids, and crumb structures that were full of air pockets.
On top of all of this, leavened breads would stay good for far longer than their unleavened counterparts, due to the high levels of acidic bacteria in the leaven. This meant that as well as being nutritious, filling, and season-proof, bread was now incredibly economical. In terms of the history of food, the discovery of leaven was a huge milestone.
Not content with simply revolutionising one of the first staple foods the human race had ever known, Egyptians also invented the closed oven, and over time developed baking into a speciality. Soon, bread baking became a true skill – an art, arguably – and it remained the primary form of leavened bread until the 20th century, when readymade yeast led to factories that could produce soft, simple loaves in a matter of an hour or two, as opposed to days. Quickly, the global taste for bread with flavour, texture, and character, deteriorated in favour of the mass-produced breads we buy in supermarkets.
Dan Lepard, one of the world’s most well-known bread bakers and writers, has been a major part of bringing sourdough back into the modern food landscape, so I asked him what it means to bakers, why it’s still thought of as superior to modern methods, and where it fits into the current landscape of food.
“For me, a perfectly crafted sourdough is loaf is one of the world’s finest foods,” he tells me. “Certainly the Poilane bakery in Paris can be credited for much for the modern sourdough renaissance through the 1980s onward. Beyond that, new world bakers from the USA, Canada and Australia have arguably led the way.
“For serious bread bakers, a sourdough loaf is as important a status symbol as the tattooed forearm is to the modern chef,” he says. “It’s a rite of passage for a baker, and achieving perfection is challenging to do. They strive for a super-aerated crumb, a bright sour flavour, a blistered and charred razor-slashed crust, and a vigorous outer shape. If you can master all those elements, you’re considered a serious sourdough baker.”
Nowadays, the base method for making sourdough is to maintain what has become known as a “starter”, which is not unlike keeping a pet. Starters require daily feeding if they are to be used regularly, and when looked after correctly can ostensibly “stay alive” for decades, often handed from friend to friend or relative to relative – although this is a somewhat misunderstood concept. Lepard says that a starter “takes on the characteristics of the micro-flora and flavour of the flour used to refresh it, so it’s a bit risky to talk about its age. But if you want the romance, mine is more than 70 years old, given to me by a family in Denmark in 2003 when I travelled there for my book The Handmade Loaf (4th Estate, 2004). I feed it with a mixture of organic wholegrain (rye or spelt) and white flour.”
Some parts of the world have retained or developed a deeper relationship with sourdough than others. “Historically in countries like Germany, Russia, or regions like Scandinavia, “sourdough bread” was for the most part simply good bread rather than a special thing,” says Lepard, and he’s not wrong. In Sweden, sourdough has again become a very well-loved part of modern food culture, birthing the almost legendary “sourdough hotel” at the Urban Deli in Stockholm, where people can take their starters to be looked after, like a dog in a kennel, while they’re away from home.
However, as Lepard says, “Sourdough is still perhaps more stylish than overtly popular – soft white bread still rules. Even in a hip burger joint you’re more likely to find a soft brioche bun than anything challenging.”
With the arrival of fast-action yeast, which behaves very differently to sourdough, production of bread could be truly industrialised. The public’s taste for soft, unchallenging white bread overtook that of traditional flavour and texture, but in recent years, sourdough has enjoyed a renaissance, which has seen many artisanal bakeries opening across the world. One of the foremost in London is the E5 Bakehouse in Hackney, who bake exclusively sourdough because the young owner, Ben MacKinnon, so firmly believes in its superiority. In a visit to see them in action on a sunny and very busy Saturday, he talks me through why sourdough is being rediscovered now.
“Sourdough is never an industrial process,” he tells me as we perch on gargantuan bags of flour at the back of the bakery. “It requires a consciousness by the baker to work with this leaven, this starter, to perfect the flavour of the bread.”
He talks me through the science of why some of their starters are fed every two days; why some are fed rye instead of white flour; why some are kept in a cold room and some out on the bakery floor: it’s all about controlling the levels and types of bacteria in the starter, and it all affects the end product. “As a baker you don’t even have to understand all that science, though,” he explains. “You just get a feel, and you become aware of how what you’re doing changes things. You’re never going to know it all and understand all the science, but that kind of interaction with the dough is much more interesting than just being in a factory and thinking ‘one bit of this, one bit of that, leave it’ – there is a real connection.”
For this reason, he says, a sourdough bakery can only grow so much. “It’s almost all manual, there are very few machines. You need that relationship with the leaven, and if you get too big and you lose that… it’s impossible.”
“I think a lot of people want their food to be made by people who want to be making food. It’s really depressing to buy a sandwich from an industrial unit in a factory in Colchester or somewhere, and to think that the person who made it probably hated putting the butter on that bread. To feel like food is made in a positive environment… I think it’s really important.”
It’s not just about the pleasantries of the artisanal nature of sourdough, however – it’s about bread truly reclaiming a place in a healthy diet. MacKinnon tells me that modern milling methods remove the bran and the germ from grain, which are full of vitamins, minerals, and fibre, and produce flour that has little to no nutritional value. This means that, legally, all flour must be enhanced with the likes of calcium carbonate, thiamin, and niacin. “What the plants draw up from the ground and put in their germ, their baby plant, is much better for us,” says MacKinnon. “For this reason, stone milling, which keeps the bran and germ, is very exciting.
“And then there’s the different varieties of wheat! There were once huge variety of wheats, and they were more nutritious, without a doubt. Farmers would grow spelts and ryes and all varieties of wheat and barleys, and all of these different types of grains, and they’d usually all be milled and chucked in the same bread, so we were eating all this wonderful stuff. Now it just gets more and more homogenised – white flour and one variety of popular wheat, that’s all the farms grow.
MacKinnon gets most animated when talking about sourdough’s place in a modern diet, and why it’s so categorically superior to factory-produced loaves. “From a factory point of view, having a white flour means, in a way, that you get a better rise. People like soft, easy-to-eat bread. There’s no effort involved in eating a slice of really shitty white bread – it’s like eating baby food,” he remarks.
“Slow-fermentation bread is full of health benefits in its own right, though. It’s a lot more digestible – if you’re baking something very quickly and throw in loads of yeast to make it rise quickly, your body doesn’t absorb minerals.” He tells me that this is due to certain enzymes present in sourdough. “So there’s that,” he continues, “and there’s also the fact that in a commercially-made one-hour bread you haven’t allowed the gluten to fully form, so it’s very difficult to digest, and the fact that loads of yeast is thrown in means people get bloating from it. Then there’s all the sugars, all the e-numbers to preserve it, to make it handle better as a dough in factory environments… basically, health-wise, it’s shit for you.”
“Honestly though,” he says earnestly, “it’s a lot to do with how it’s made, and the energy that goes into it. If you’re churning tens of thousands of loaves out in a factory – probably half of which go in the bin, you know, they make them so cheap – it’s just a miserable state of affairs really. It’s so much nicer making the bread with conscience and doing it as well as possible – and you know, sixty-seventy years ago the proportion of people’s income that would go on bread would be much greater, but that loaf of bread would feed a family of four for two days.
“It’s staff-of-life stuff,” he says with a grin. “We wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the fact that our ancestors managed to grow and store wheat for several years – it got us through famines, it provided a lot of good nutrition… good wholemeal bread is incredibly healthy. It’s fed to prisoners because you can survive on it; it’s got minerals, it’s got proteins, it’s got fibre, it’s got pretty much everything you need. If you tried to live on sliced white bread you’d probably die in a week.”