What will bread look like in the future? And what is the best thing since sliced bread? These are questions I’ve made it my quest to answer. And where better to start than pre-history?
I recently spent a morning with Jacqui Wood, in her Bronze Age settlement, making bread in a very, very old-school way. She asserts that bread is the lynchpin that rooted us from being nomadic. Wow, that right there is pretty seismic; we’re in the business of making the stuff that got people civilised. Jacqui expounded a theory that several thousand years ago, when all of Europe was forested, a pandemic of Dutch elm disease left glades and clearings that, like a watering hole, were a natural animal magnet. This Flintstone meat market enabled us to get protein without chasing it through the woods, and use our new found ’me’ time to cultivate cereals.
Once a crop has been planted, you can’t just wander off, so we’ve been destined to stay put ever since (until easyJet!). These crops - spelt, barley or emmer - were vacuum-packed through winter in clay-lined, vermin-proof pits. There is evidence that holes were dug in the ground, lined with wet clay, filled with the harvested and threshed crop and sealed with a clay lid. The grains around the edge would start to germinate and, in doing so, would use up all the oxygen, creating a stable environment for storing until the stash was needed. The grain was ground into a coarse flour, using a saddle quern. The loaf would sometimes have been ingeniously leavened with dried elderberries - an astoundingly simple, local and successful method. The various activities required to make bread, from sowing through to baking, were shared around, and communities were established. Jacqui and I baked our loaf in a granite bank oven, and the fibrous end-result was both bitter and sweet, with a regal purple hue and more-ish juiciness that made me seriously question our notion of progress.
To quote the Roman poet Juvenal: "Already long ago, from when we sold our vote to no man, the People have abdicated our duties; for the People who, once upon a time, handed out military command, high civil office, legions ? everything, now restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses."
I chew on a jaw-gym crust, and wonder if things will ever change. Sales of sliced bread are up for the first time in 30 years, but this surely isn’t sustainable. The future isn’t plastic-wrapped, and it isn’t the spin of value-added. I don’t wish to rubber-neck the final surge of a product, comparable to an unwitting politician enjoying his last moat-cleaning, but I feel the overwhelming truth of good, simple bread will inevitably lick the pap. Whoever you are, once you know there’s a choice, a better bread, the pretence is spoiled and there’s no going back. The nation’s current status quo of blissful bread ignorance is transient. Yet, like a yeast, you only need a tiny amount to rise the whole lot!
I believe bread of the future will look more like real bread and the best thing since sliced bread is... real bread. I’m on a crusade to share the staff of life’s joy with as many people as possible. I know that a better future is about responsibility, community, pleasure and sustenance from sustainable food. This requires skill, vision, passion, imagination, all the things largely suppressed by our modern "bread and circuses" - cheap food and soporific entertainment. Yet all the real attributes are as viscerally just under our collective crust as in any Bronze Age hut. Like a sourdough, I’ll wait patiently for the rise - and boy, will it be worth it.
We’re all on a bread journey and I’d like to know where you stand.