Monday, August 29, 2011

the best loaf of bread in the world

Mmmm, the smell of a freshly baked sourdough loaf - is there anything more delicious? Perhaps, but when the dough has been mixed and kneaded with my own two hands, proven on my bench over the course of twenty four hours, and baked in our capricious oven. When it tumbles out of the tins, crusty and golden... surely there isn't much that can beat it!

I love the mystery of making my own sourdough. How can flour and water, flour and water, a little bacteria from the grain and air, flour and water and eventually salt - how can it transform itself into bread? Stretching, elastic, pulling, swelling. The most basic of ingredients become something else altogether, and while mass-produced bread, with its yeast and emulsifiers and myriad of chemicals, can fill a gap, it cannot compare to a slice of homely, rustic sourdough.

It seems I'm not the only one enamoured with a simple loaf. According to Bee Wilson, in 'Swindled. From poison sweets to counterfeit coffee - the dark history of the food cheats' (2008, John Murray), England in the Middle Ages was rather taken with wholesome bread. So taken that King Henry III decreed the weight, price and composition of bread with quite some attention to detail. Bread must be of a particular size and weight, and should follow a particular recipe in order to ensure there was no deception of the public. So stringent was the control over bread making that anyone found failing to meet the Assize of bread (as it was known) was drawn on a hurdle through the dirtiest streets of London with the bad loaf hanging from their neck. If caught again (inspections were made at least four times a year), head and hands were locked in pillory for all to ridicule. Should the baker be so unlucky as to be caught a third time (much of it came down to luck, or more accurately the baker's skill at guessing how much a loaf might dehydrate during baking depending on variables such as humidity and oven heat, factors the authorities did not take into account), his oven was dismantled and he was barred from ever again trading as a baker in the City of London.

By all accounts a loaf of bread was about as unadulterated a food as you could buy at the time, but it didn't stay that way. German chemist Frederick Accum (1769-1838) went a long way to exposing just how adulterated many foods had become. By the time of Accum's experiments in the 1820s, bread was baked with alum, an aluminium sulphate used to whiten bread made from poor quality flour. This because white bread was the rich man's food and everyone wanted to think they could eat like the rich. That alum is toxic and people were believed to have been made ill by it doesn't seem to have quenched the desire of the poorer classes. Gradually the Assize of bread lost its power until it was abolished in 1822.

Not that that was the end (or the beginning) of adulterated food. From the wine of Roman times, sweetened with lead, to the food of today, laced with dubious chemicals, food has been tampered with and adulterated, and greed seems to be the most common cause.

In 'Swindled', Bee Wilson traces the history of adulterated food, describing fake tea leaves made from scorched and copper dyed sloe leaves; coffee mixed with chicory; cinnamon extended with cassia, sago or arrowroot; toxic sweets coloured with derivatives of mercury, cooper, lead or aluminium; watered down milk; pink margarine; and vile sausages. Behind each adulteration was a person or company who wished to make as much money as possible, and (King Henry III's Assize aside), a government willing to turn a blind eye for the tax revenue they made.

These days sweets aren't quite so poisonous and milk isn't watered down, but adulteration of food still goes on. The difference is, that now a lot of what we commonly view as food just... well... isn't. Instead it's a lot of chemicals mixed together to create flavours and textures we will accept as food, especially if they save us time and effort. And while children don't immediately die from copper or lead poisoning, much of what we eat is detrimental to our health. A case in point, the following list of flavour ingredients in a typical artificial strawberry flavour:
Amyl acetate, amyl butyrate, amyl valerate, anethol, anisyl formate, benzyl acetate, benzyl isobutyrate, butyric acid, cinnamyl isobutyrate, cinnamyl valerate, cognac essential oil, diacetyl, dipropyl ketone, ethyl acetate, ethyl amyl ketone, ethyl butyrate, ethyl cinnamate, ethyl heptanoate, ethyl heptylate, ethyl lactate, ethyl methylphenylglycidate, ethyl nitrate, ethyl propionate, ethyl valerate, heliotropin, hydroxyphrenyl-2-butanone (10 per cent solution in alcohol), alpha-ionone, isobutyl anthranilate, isobutyl butyrate, lemon essential oil, maltol, 4-methylacetophenone, methly anthranilate, methyl benzoate, methyl cinnamate, methyl heptine carbonate, methyl naphthyl ketone, methyl salicylate, mint essential oil, neroli essential oil, nerolin, neryl isobutyrate, orris butter, phenylthyl alcohol, rose, rum ether, gamma-undecalactone, vanillin and sovent.
(Eric Schlosser 2001 in Bee Wilson, Swindled, p251)

And still the common thread is corporations eager to make a buck off the unsuspecting public, while governments remain reluctant to regulate.

Even if our food isn't deliberately adulterated, it is likely treated in such a way that we are exposed to pesticide residues that pose a risk to health. Most of us eat a pound or two of insects every year without our knowledge - and it's probably quite good for us (think high protein, low fat)... a lot better than vegies laced with chemicals!

It would seem that the only to avoid the modern day adulteration of food is eating whole, fresh food. As Bee Wilson writes, the best way to recognise adulterated food is to know what good food looks, feels and taste like. Know there your food comes from and cook it yourself.

Which sounds to me like a good case for home made sourdough! With adulteration of food still common place, maybe nothing beats my sourdough loaf after all!

(Seriously, if you're looking for a fascinating and informative book to read, you can't go past 'Swindled. From poison sweets to counterfeit coffee - the dark history of the food cheats' by Bee Wilson. I found it absorbing from beginning to end.)