The rise of real bread
Five years ago Hambleton Bakery set out to replicate the slow, traditional processes that made the bread that fed our ancestors. Now awarded the title Britain's Best Bakery, Sarah Scott finds out what makes 'real bread' a better loaf.
Good bread once fuelled the workforce of Britain – so just how did we end up with a reputation for having the worst bread in Europe? The mass-manufacturing of cheap bread may have earned us that dubious accolade, but award-winning bakers and the Campaign for Real Bread aim to redress the balance.
One such establishment is Hambleton Bakery, just outside the Rutland village of Exton. What strikes you first upon entering their tiny shop is the divine smell. While it may be small, the bakery is making a real impact and was named Britain's Best Bakery last year in the ITV televised competition. Though clearly proud of the accolade, Julian Carter, head baker and co-owner, is modest about the whole event. 'I don't believe we are the best bakery in the UK, just the best in the competition.'
The judges would clearly disagree, and having tasted the bread and cakes, so would I. But that's what makes this bakery so special. It's not about trophies, it's about bringing real bread, made in the traditional way using good quality ingredients, to the mainstream. It's about reawakening the love for real bread made with little more than organic flour, yeast, water and salt and challenging the barely edible bread that over the years has seeped into our food culture and breadbins.
Ingredients you'd find at home
Hambleton Bakery began life in the kitchen of local country house hotel, Hambleton Hall, and was established as a bakery in its own right in 2008 by Julian Carter together with Tim Hart, owner of Hambleton Hall. When it became apparent that the bread being produced for guests at the hall was something special, nearby premises were found and the bakery quickly began to supply an ever-growing list of wholesale customers from pubs and restaurants to tea rooms and farm shops. Expansion continued, leading to the opening of retail outlets in the nearby towns of Oakham, Stamford and Oundle.
The bread's popularity is not hard to understand, as all Hambleton Bakery's loaves are made as close to the traditional methods as possible. There are no additives, preservatives, enhancers or enzymes added so all the bread is suitable for vegetarians and most – 80 per cent – is vegan-friendly too, the bread that isn't vegan is enriched with butter.
Flour is sourced from traditional mills, such as the nearby 19th-century Whissendine Windmill. 'Everything that we bake is made with ingredients you would find at home,' explains Julian. 'There's absolutely no rubbish added; it's as it should be.' The measure is, of course, the taste: 'This comes first and foremost, but if you use good ingredients with care then you'll get a good product. It really is as simple as that.'
There is a modern electric deck oven at the bakery for baking British-style tin loaves, but breads like the continental-style batons, sourdough and divine beer barm bread are baked in an impressive wood-fired oven, a style popular in southern Europe in the 1890s. Tim is keen to recount the story of the oven being shipped over from the manufacturer in Barcelona where it was carted up the hill to the bakery and painstakingly installed. The brick structure had to be heated slowly and carefully to season the bricks and protect them from cracking. The oven remains lit almost constantly, but thanks to its traditional dome shape it is fuelled economically each day on just half a small basket of logs.
Good bread, that's good for you too
These methods are working and the bakers are seeing a noticeable rise in the number of people who want an alternative to insipid 'factory' bread. In a slice-for-slice test that Julian is preparing for a talk with a local branch of the Women's Institute, he shows the marked difference in the two products. The factory white slice, he explains, poking it and rolling it into a glutinous grey ball, is full of water, and yes, while it's cheaper than a Hambleton loaf it is processed with cheap flour and a mind-boggling list of additives, often including L-cysteine which is derived from poultry feathers.
Tim believes that education about real bread is crucial. He believes in the 'eat less, but eat better' philosophy, but is keen to point out that real bread is more filling so you don't naturally eat as much of it anyway.
'We aim to dispel the idea that real bread is a luxury product. It's a product that we all eat and everyone deserves to eat well. By educating and tackling the food culture of cheap substandard bread we hope to give people an alternative, or at least persuade them to get in the kitchen and bake their own.'
Baking bread was something we were, as a nation, always good at, so why did we stop? The simple answer is, of course, money. In around 1961 bread started to be made with cheap mass-produced flour and yeast that took very little time to prove. The production of bread from start to finish took little over an hour.
This revolutionised bread-making and a trend for manufacturing on factory lines began. The fast fermentation of this bread is what both Julian and Tim believe is making a nation of bread-eaters ill. 'There are so many people who don't think they can eat bread, yet they can eat ours with no problems.' The slow fermentation of the bread at Hambleton Bakery is the key here. Some of the old-fashioned breads are left to prove for up to 48 hours which encourages the development of lactobacilli, making the ingredients easier for our bodies to digest.
There are other health benefits to real bread too. By using flour that has not been stripped of all its nutrients – although some mass-produced wholegrain flour retaining the germ and bran is not stripped of nutrients – wholegrain bread is nutritious. Wholegrain flour contains folate, a range of B vitamins, vitamin E, potassium, phosphorus, zinc, iron, copper and magnesium. These are not naturally found in large amounts in mass-manufactured white bread, but following government guidelines they are artificially added back in. Sourdough, seeded and wholemeal bread have the lowest GI (glycaemic index) keeping us fuller and sustained for longer, while mass-manufactured (and home-made) white bread has the highest.
Baked with love
It's not just bread, either, that's bringing customers to Hambleton Bakery's door. Their cakes are produced with the same ethos as the bread. There are no artificial additives or preservatives and all eggs are from local free-range chickens that are fed on leftover bread from the bakery. 'Again, we only use ingredients you'd find in a domestic kitchen for our cakes and tarts,' Julian explains.
When asked what the future holds for the bakery, Julian is keen to say
that they have a commitment to making high quality products.
'Taste and quality comes first and foremost. What we can't afford to do is to take too much on, which almost always impacts on the quality of the product. Mistakes are made and we're not selling diamond rings here, we're selling bread. If that bread's not good then our customers will go elsewhere.'
As I take my leave, Tim prepares for a visit from a class of local schoolchildren and Julian gets on with sweeping the bakery floor, and I know for sure that they'd have to make some pretty awful bread to undo the good work that's being done here.
The campaign for real bread
The Real Bread Campaign is part of the wider charity Sustain, the alliance for better food and farming, and it's fighting for better bread for Britain.
Started by Andrew Whitley following publication of his book, Bread Matters, in 2006, the campaign gathered momentum, with supporters being genuinely shocked, having 'no idea that all of those things could be lurking behind industrial loaves'.
'Real bread' is defined as a loaf that does not include artificial additives and is made without the use of processing aids. Chris Young, campaign coordinator for the Real Bread Campaign, explains that 'from that simple and universally accessible starting point, we seek, find and share ways to make bread better for us, better for our communities and better for the planet'.
The work of the campaign includes sending real bread bakers into schools to educate children and their website has a very handy real bread finder that charts all the places in Britain that sell real bread and support the campaign. The campaign urges the public to buy from independently owned bakeries that display the Real Bread loaf mark – the real bread finder can help you track down the genuine article.
Alternatively, there's encouragement to bake it yourself to know exactly what you are eating. You can join the Real Bread Campaign too, to become part of a wider community with a busy forum that's awash with tips from professionals and home bakers, recipes, essential bread-making tips, competitions and offers.