Pauline Beaumont ponders how best to go about reclaiming the noble name bread from industrial loaf fabricators.
For most of history, bread was just bread. We now find ourselves forced to qualify it with words like 'real' or 'artisan' to distinguish it from the industrial loaves that fill supermarket shelves, which some people call 'plastic' or 'cotton wool' bread.*
In thinking about how good it would be if the tables were turned and we were able to simply call bread bread again, I remembered the way coffee used to be called ‘real coffee’ and realised that it no longer needs that description. I wondered if what some people refer to as the three waves in coffee’s history might offer some lessons to Real Bread campaigners.
As a child growing up in the ‘sixties and ‘seventies, to me coffee was a powder that came in jars and ‘real coffee’ was a rarity. This was the tail end of that first wave, which began sometime in the late 1800s, when the drink emerged from elite coffee houses, instant was invented and big brands started to make it a mass market commodity.
The second wave that then began in the 1970s saw the birth of the coffee shop chains. The coffee was important, but the experience was also key. Food culture is about habit and the chains fostered the habit of drinking coffee outside of the home and at any time of day, knowing your Arabica from your robusta. As the habit of frequenting coffee shops had this renaissance, the third wave emerged. This was the growth of independent coffee companies, focused on the coffee itself – its origin, how it is roasted and brewed.
In those 40-50 years, there has been a remarkable shift. No one talks about 'real coffee' anymore because it has become ubiquitous - it’s just coffee. In contrast, the jar of powder is now something that some people even feel they should apologise for: ‘I’m sorry, we’ve only got instant.’
So, is there anything that those of us who are devoted to the promotion of Real Bread can learn from these coffee tides?
Until the advent of sliced, wrapped, over-processed loaves, there was no need to describe any sort of bread as real, it was all real. Back in the mid-noughties, the writer and activist Michael Pollan started advising us not to eat anything our great-great-great-grandmothers would not recognise as food. For most of history, our ancestors, would have been able to recognise any loaf of bread and what went into making it. Now they might struggle to recognise a plastic-wrapped, crustless, sliced mass as bread, and many of us may be baffled by things on its list of ingredients.
It is expected that the UK population will pass seventy million in the next few years. So is there some happier accommodation possible between this colossal demand for sustenance (around 12 million industrial loaves sold in the UK per day currently) and a supply of bread that is nourishing and authentic in a way that would take us away from the current reliance on a lowest common denominator?
I think there are three obvious ways that we could take inspiration from the coffee sector in order to move closer to this ideal:
Loaf manufacturers producing premium (as in genuinely high quality) bread is not as far-fetched as it may sound. Influenced by the independents, mass market coffee is becoming more like wine with talk of terroir and bean variety. These trends that started with the artisan businesses have started to influence the big chains. Factory bakers’ attempts at so-called sourdough, wholegrain or artisanal breads seems to display a similar desire to follow the lead of Real Bread bakeries in the same way, but perversely they do it very badly. What would it take for the big bakeries to give part of their production over to Real Bread?
When it comes to the expansion of the small bakery sector there may also be some lessons and opportunities presented by independent coffee shops. While the quality of the coffee is paramount, the ambiance in which it is sold is also very important to the success of these independent traders. This will be teaching many grannies (and bakery owners) to suck eggs but, in these times of increasing online shopping, when people venture out to make purchases they often seek ‘experiences’. Diversification into cafés, classes and partnerships with other small businesses is already the order of the day for many successful bakers and building on this will help to build a customer base. Wine and coffee shops have tastings and talks from suppliers - bakers could do the same with the farmers and millers that supply them and have the advantage of being mostly in the same country. Give people something that online shopping can’t.
The rise of popularity of fresh coffee, stimulated by the proliferation of coffee outlets in the UK, has led to a significant increase in sales of expresso machines for home use. Independent coffee shops and increasingly chains are stocking equipment and ingredients for making good coffee at home. Many bakeries already sell flour and baking tools, and this is an excellent way of encouraging home baking. There is a massive opportunity to improve the supermarket offer too; if there was just one local, traditionally ground flour available in every supermarket it would be a good start.
So, looking sideways at another sector like this gives us some ideas about the incremental changes that may result from learning from their experiences. Every little helps, but, the truth remains that it is a sea change that is required. Examples of tipping points from beyond the food industry remind us that media influence and government policy remain the key drivers of change. Bread needs a 'David Attenborough Blue Planet II' moment.
A sugary drinks tax has been won in the UK** and smoking in public places has been banned, so surely the overwhelming proof of the health benefits of wholegrains (and growing evidence for those of sourdough) provides a compelling argument for subsidy, wholemeal/sourdough on prescription, or health warnings on over-refined, ultra-processed foods?
Something to ponder on as we sip our coffee and savour our bread.
**The Real Bread Campaign encourages people to avoid using the b word at all when referring to baked goods made using additives and say 'industrial loaf products' instead.
**Thanks to a campaign and coalition led by Sustain with Jamie Oliver as its figurehead. [ed.]