The first bite is with the eye

In the globalised, consumerist world, the visual image dominates, says food anthropologist and illustrator Bee Farrell.

Illustrations © Bee Farrell

Illustrations © Bee Farrell

When it comes to buying bread, many of us initially use sight and then incorporate other senses, memory and emotion to decide what sort of loaf to buy. Cost and accessibility may determine many of our choices, but other more subtle cues are used to guide us.

The artisanal look

Real Bread should not be a mere commodity. It challenges the speed, scale and uniformity of industrial loaves because one of its main ingredients is time. The genuine artisan baker’s skills and knowledge are also visible in their individualised loaves.

Suffolk restaurateur and baker Nancy Main describes the crafting of bread as having an “individual in the loaf.” Bakers who craft loaves that harness and manage the ethereal ingredients of the bakery environment know that baking Real Bread has “very few ingredients, but infinite variables.” Each loaf looks crafted because it genuinely is crafted. The crafting of a loaf includes requiring skilful knowledge of variables such as hydration, temperatures and - in the case of sourdough - the life in the leaven.

Harmony and intuition

Historian Steven Laurence Kaplan believes that there is harmony when the taste, aroma and texture synthesise to make eating a slice of bread a pleasure. Other factors can include the atmosphere of the bakery. Even our mood can confirm, or not, whether everything feels just right. Lastly there is intuition, which in many ways is the vital ingredient. It is the trust we put in our baker and the relationship we have with them.

Skilful shaping

I have watched bakers at work and witnessed their skills in crafting a loaf. There is a young talented baker I know who told me that he “has the taste, but not the look” of Real Bread. His comment reiterates the power of the visual cues we use to judge our bread.  The skilful shaping by hand, the scoring or slashing of a loaf that forms the hanging lip known as the ear, or the crackles and bubbles on the surface are some of the cues that confirm or conflict with our notion of what Real Bread looks like.

Large scale British bakeries and supermarkets are aware that many customers are looking for a more natural and honest loaf. They are appropriating the visual cues of loaves crafted by Real Bread bakers to exploit the market created by these genuine artisans. 

Aware of the challenges and conflicts for Real Bread, I recently launched Breadear, which aims to document, celebrate and promote as many authentically crafted breads as possible visually as series of illustrated postcards. What better way to spread the word? It would be great to get as many people as possible thinking about what good, Real Bread looks like.

I’m keen to find more beautifully-crafted Real Bread to draw. So if you are an artisan baker, please get in touch!

November 2019 update: Bee is happy to take commissions from bakers (home or commercial) for original bread drawings of their loaves and will give 25% of the profit of this work to the Real Bread Campaign.

Originally published in True Loaf magazine issue 28, July 2016.

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