FOOD & DRINK / Still the staff of life: Once spurned for being fattening, bread is back in favour. In the second extract from his book, Michael Bateman toasts the world's loaves and the flours that make them

BREAD is bouncing back. Tasty continental breads, that is, not white sliced bread whose sales have been steadily declining. In one supermarket chain, speciality breads are next in profitability to cigarettes and alcohol.

This is good news, because bread is the health food of the Nineties. After years in the doldrums, when slimmers were warned off bread (and potatoes) as fattening, the reverse is now perceived to be true. The government, setting a target of improving the nation's health by the year 2000, urges us to increase our consumption of bread and potatoes, the starchy foods known as 'complex carbohydrates'.

According to the Dunn Nutritional Unit which has produced an illustrative guide, The Pyramid of Healthy Eating (available to teachers and health professionals from the Flour Advisory Bureau, 21 Arlington Street, London SW1), starchy foods at the base of the pyramid are the ones to eat plentifully, while those at the top should be eaten sparingly.

Bread is also gastronomically correct, and the best restaurants now pride themselves on offering an elegant selection before the meal, with white and brown, sweet walnut breads, or savoury olive oil and sun-dried tomato breads.

Marks & Spencer was first to exploit the quality bread market, introducing a carefully modified interpretation of ciabatta, a peasant bread from Lake Como in northern Italy. Sainsbury's followed with a range of continental breads, Italian, German and Spanish. Tesco and Safeway soon jumped on the bandwagon and Waitrose went a step further, adding an authentic, moist Russian rye loaf to its impressive range. Some of these speciality breads are very tasty, though the texture is usually spongier than the real thing, the foam cushion effect that afflicts white sliced bread. If you really care, you must bake your own.

In fact, several excellent books on breadmaking are published this month, which suggests a reviving interest in home baking. Linda Collister, author of The Bread Book (Conran Octopus pounds 19.99), says the home baker has several advantages over the commercial baker. 'You are likely to use better quality ingredients. Some of the ciabattas I've bought tasted of stale olive oil.'

Time is another ingredient the home baker can afford to be generous with. The longer you leave bread dough to mature, the better the flavour. 'I use as little yeast as possible, and allow very long rising times,' says Linda Collister. 'The breads with the most flavour are sourdough breads. You can leave the dough for hours and it won't spoil.'

By contrast, factory white bread is made at breakneck speed. The dough is made with a huge dollop of yeast, and after a frenetic 20-minute whirl in a mixer, is shaped and popped straight into a steam oven. It tastes like it. Flour and yeast cookery used to be the domain of the home cook, embracing pizzas and pasta, pastries and pancakes. The following guide to flours may help to explain the different qualities of flours you can use.

A GUIDE TO FLOURS AND SEEDS

WHEAT FLOUR Wheat is the grain most commonly used for baking bread. It makes the lightest, best-risen loaves because it contains a substance called gluten that stretches and traps air bubbles during fermentation. Other grains have less gluten, and make dense loaves with a taste more marked than the bland bread made with plain white flour. Wheat is milled to produce wholemeal flour or white flour.

WHITE FLOUR White flour is produced by sieving wholemeal flour. The percentage of white flour this yields is called the extraction rate. White flour sold in high street shops has an extraction rate of about 72 per cent; that is, 28 per cent of fibre and bran has been removed. Commercial white flour is made on roller mills. The bran and wheat germ are sifted out and this 'offal' usually goes for animal feed, so farmers certainly recognise its tremendous nutritional value. The flour is then treated with a bleach to whiten it. Some nutrients are lost in this process, but the Government requires two B vitamins (thiamine and nicotinic acid) and some iron to be returned.

STRONG WHITE FLOUR Made from hard wheat, this takes up more water and is best for bread you want to keep for more than a day.

UNBLEACHED WHITE FLOUR This comes from the stoneground millers and consists of up to 80 per cent extraction, which means that about 20 per cent of the bran and wheatgerm has been removed. Unbleached white flour has some traces of finely crushed wheatgerm in it, which adds to the flavour but will cause it to go off after about two months. It has a pleasing, creamy colour. Loaves made with it will resemble bread eaten on holiday in Spain, Italy and the Balkans, and the French pain de campagne. If you can't buy it, you can make it yourself by sieving wholemeal flour, to remove about one-fifth of the coarser material.

SOFT WHITE FLOUR Made from soft wheat, this has a low protein content, which makes it ideal for making biscuits. Soft flour takes up less water and, apparently because of this, stales quickly. French baguettes are made with it and have a biscuity crust, but soon grow stale.

SELF-RAISING FLOUR This is soft white flour, to which baking powder has been added (it is mostly used for cakes, but also makes a quick Irish soda bread). Unfortunately, you have no way of telling how old the flour is. As the efficiency of baking powder declines with time, it is better to use plain flour and add your own baking powder.

WHOLEMEAL FLOUR Also known as 100 per cent wholewheat flour. This is made from the whole wheat grain, including the outside skin - the bran, as well as the wheatgerm, the wheat berry's own tiny 'seed'. It has more flavour and contains more nutrients than white flour, particularly all the B vitamins, vitamin E, magnesium, potassium and iron.

Wholemeal flour does not rise as well as white, since the bran content makes it heavy and moist. The problem with wholemeal is that it makes a heavy loaf. However, a little vitamin C powder (ascorbic acid) added to the dough gives it a lift. Wholemeal flour can be bought stoneground or ground by steel-roller mills.

STONEGROUND This flour is the best-flavoured wholemeal, and is produced by crushing together the bran, wheatgerm and endosperm (which makes the bulk of the flour). Use as soon as possible, and do not keep for more than two months. After that, the oil in the wheatgerm starts to turn rancid. Store in a cool place and buy small amounts regularly.

STEEL-ROLLER MILLED The elements of the grain are separated and the bran and wheatgerm are sieved away. The wheatgerm is flattened, not broken, and heat-treated so that it will not go rancid. The process destroys some vitamins.

WHEATMEAL Wheatmeal is a misleading term because it is not what it sounds like - ie, whole meal (whole wheat) flour. Wheatmeal is really another name for brown flour - that is, white flour with a small quantity of finely milled bran returned to it.

GRAHAM FLOUR An American wholemeal flour that is coarsely milled and contains larger bran fragments. It is named after Dr Sylvester Graham, a food reformer who was campaigning for wholemeal flour a century ago.

GRANARY FLOUR A proprietary brand that includes some bran, some malt flakes and cracked wheat. It makes nutty, well-flavoured bread and has sufficient gluten to make an attractive, well-risen loaf.

RYE FLOUR This greyish brown flour - also known as meal - has a rich, slightly sweet flavour. It is usually combined with wheat flour to make solid breads characteristic of Middle and Eastern Europe. Rye contains less gluten than wheat so it makes a dense, moist loaf. The more rye flour added, the stickier the bread. A loaf made entirely with rye, such as pumpernickel, will have a pudding-like texture. A mixture of half rye and half unbleached white flour gives a good bread which slices thinly.

BARLEY FLOUR A small quantity, combined with wheat flour, gives a slightly sweet and nutty flavour with a cake-like quality. Warm the dry flour before making the dough. Barley flour on its own has a low gluten content, and the loaf won't rise.

OATMEAL The de-husked grain is milled into a variety of textures: coarse, medium and fine. Real Scottish porridge is made with oatmeal rather than rolled oats. Use oatmeal in parkins, scones and oatcakes. An ounce or two of oatmeal adds texture to a bread dough.

CORNMEAL OR MAIZE FLOUR Cornmeal is made from the roughly milled grain of maize (dried corn on the cob), not to be confused with cornflour, which is used as a thickening agent. Cornmeal comes in various textures and can be added to dough to make it crunchy. Buy it from healthfood shops or as matzo meal from Jewish delicatessens. It is the basis of many breads from the American South, such as spoonbread - so called because it is so soft you can eat it with a spoon. The Balkan bread, mamaliga, is made with yellow cornmeal.

BUCKWHEAT FLOUR This earthy-flavoured flour - also known as ground buckwheat or kasha - is used in eastern Europe to make yeast-risen blinis: small, dark grey pancakes that are the perfect accompaniment to caviar, salmon and soured cream.

POPPY SEED Spicy, oily, nutty seeds from flowers and grasses have been added to breads from earliest times to add interest, flavour and texture. Purple or white poppy seeds are among the most enduring. Crunchy and smoky, they are sprinkled over a glaze to give a professional finish to Jewish and Middle European breads.

SESAME SEED An oily, white seed that toasts in the heat of the oven and gives an aromatic and chewy finish to the crust.

CARAWAY SEED A pungent seed that adds piquancy and bite to Polish breads, particularly sourdough. Said to kill unwanted bacteria.

CUMIN SEED Adds a mysterious scent and flavour reminiscent of the Middle East.

CELERY SEED Sprinkle on savoury breads to give a spicy, slightly hot and bitter flavour.

SUNFLOWER SEED A rich, ripe, crunchy and oily seed that can be added sparingly to a dough, especially a fruit bread. Can be sprinkled on top of the bread for a rough finish.

CRACKED WHEAT AND KIBBLED WHEAT Sprinkle the loaf with the rough-crushed grain to get a hard, nutty, crisp shell to the loaf.

CIABATTA

Everyone would like to know how to make ciabatta. It takes a bit of practice - though essentially, making ciabatta suits lazy people as it requires little effort and long periods of inactivity, time during which the dough slowly develops a rich, intense flavour.

The British high street ciabatta, oozing with oil, soft of crumb and supple of crust, is actually a modern invention. In Italy it is never made with olive oil. So although the technique is the same, I will give the authentic Italian, hardcrust version first, adapted from the newly published Il Fornaio Baking Book by Franco Galli (Chronicle Books/Hi marketing pounds 12.95). You can easily adapt the recipe using the Anglo-American variations given at the end.

Ciabatta differs from regular bread in three essential ways. First, the dough is made with a starter dough (in Italian, biga) prepared 24 hours before. Second, you use more liquid than for regular bread and the dough is so sticky it cannot be kneaded. And third, the dough must be handled very delicately in the later stages.

Day one:

Make the starter (or biga)

100g/4oz strong white flour (organic for flavour)

85ml/3floz water

1 packet activated yeast

Mix together in a bowl, cover with clingfilm, and leave to ferment in fridge for 24 hours.

Day two:

Allow up to five hours from start to finish

1kg/2lb strong white flour

700ml/24fl oz water

1 level tablespoon salt

First rising: In a mixing bowl blend the starter dough with the flour, water and salt. With a metal spoon stir till dough is elastic. When it gets too stiff to turn, move the bowl around the spoon. You can use an electric blender on a slow speed for 30 seconds to get it started. Cover with oiled clingfilm, and leave for one and a half hours till doubled in size.

Second rising: Turn the dough into an oiled, 8in-square, deep-sided tin. Cover with oiled clingfilm, and leave to rise for one and a half hours till doubled in size.

Third rising: The critical stage. Take two sheets of baking paper, cut into rectangles 15in by 4in, and sprinkle with flour. Turn out the runny dough with well-floured hands and cut into two rectangles. Flatten on to the sheets of baking paper. Then lift up the long edge of each strip of dough, and fold lengthwise along the top, so that the top one-third sits on the bottom two-thirds. Sprinkle with flour, to prevent sticking, and lightly cover with a floured cloth. Leave to rise for 45 minutes.

Final stage: Slide a large metal tray into the middle of your oven and preheat to 425F/220C/ Gas 7. Prepare two 'peels' or bases to support the delicate dough when you transport it to the oven. I use two pieces of stiff cardboard, cut to 15in by 4in. Place two more sheets of floured baking paper (cut to the same size) on the peels. Gently invert the two dough shapes on to their new bases. Leave uncovered for 15 minutes to recover. To bake: spray the dough with water, using a plant-spray, and spray the inside of the oven. The moisture prevents the dough from forming a skin too soon. Supporting each ciabatta with the cardboard peel, slide on to the heated oven tray. Spray three or four more times in the first 10 minutes while the bread continues to rise. Bake for 40-45 minutes. The crust will be crisp when done and the loaf should make a hollow sound when you tap the bottom. Leave to cool on a wire rack. These loaves freeze superbly, if you don't want to eat them at once.

Instead of two large ciabatta loaves, you can make four smaller ones, cutting the dough into four instead of two, using four sheets of baking paper, four peels, and probably two oven trays. Reduce baking time to 25-30 minutes.

Variations: 1. For a soft instead of a crusty finish, add a tablespoon or two of extra virgin olive oil to the dough. 2. For a soft, sweet crumb, replace some of the water with milk (about 5 tablespoons). 3. For a sweet golden crust, add a teaspoon of malt extract.

PISSALADIERE

This juicy, sweet onion tart is a speciality of the south of France, the flavour sharpened with salty anchovies and earthy black olives. Cooking the onions very, very gently requires patience. This is a pastry base, but you can use the same filling on a pizza base.

Serves 4

For the pastry:

170g/6oz flour

85g/3oz butter (or half-and-half butter and lard)

pinch of salt

110ml/4fl oz olive oil

450g/1lb tomatoes

1 can anchovy fillets in oil

1 dozen black olives

For the filling:

1kg/2lb large mild onions (Spanish)

Cut the fat into small pieces, and in a bowl rub into the flour with your fingertips, adding the salt. Add 1-2 tablespoons of cold water, as little as possible to make a firm mass. Wrap in clingfilm and chill in the fridge for 1 hour at least. Gently fry the onions in a heavy pan or non- stick frying pan for 30 minutes or more till delicate, pale and soft. Season with salt and pepper.

Roll out the pastry to the size of a convenient square or round baking tin, 9-10in across, fill with the onions and chopped tomatoes. Decorate in a criss-cross lattice with the drained anchovy fillets and stoned black olives. Drizzle with more olive oil and bake in a very hot preheated oven, 425F/220C/Gas 7, for 10 minutes. Lower the heat to 350F/ 180C/Gas 4, and cook for another 20 minutes, or until done.

MAMALIGA

This cornmeal 'cake' is the national dish of Romania, eaten by country people as their staple food. It is known as 'bread of gold', descriptive of its sunny yellow colour. You can either eat it from the pan, spooned like porridge on to your plate as a starchy accompaniment to savoury dishes, soups and stews; or pour it into an oiled mould to set as a slab, or on to an oiled sheet of foil, patted flat to a thickness of 1/2 in and left to cool. You can then use slices for grilling or frying, or cut into cubes and bake with a cheese or tomato sauce, like Italian gnocchi.

Serves 4 to 6

225g/8oz cornmeal

1 litre/1 3/4 pints water

2 teaspoons salt

Boil water and salt in a large saucepan. Add the cornmeal a handful at a time, letting it trickle through your fingers. Stir all the time as you add it, using a long-handled wooden spoon, because the mixture may spit. Continue adding the cornmeal slowly, or it will go lumpy.

When the mixture is smooth and thick, cover the pan, lower the heat and continue cooking gently for 30 minutes. Serve the mamaliga straight from the pan as an alternative to potatoes or rice, or turn it out on to a wooden board and spread it flat with a palette knife dipped in boiling water, leave to cool and use as described above.

BLINIS

Blinis are small yeasted pancakes made with buckwheat flour, sooty in colour with an earthy flavour and grainy texture. They are the perfect counterpoint to the oiliness of smoked salmon, caviar, or red salmon roe. They are also delicious with sour cream and chopped gherkins.

Serves 4 to 6

225g/8oz buckwheat flour

(or half-and-half buckwheat and plain white flour)

1/2 packet activated yeast

3 eggs separated

about 425ml/ 3/4 pint milk, slightly warmed

pinch of salt

Mix the yeast with half the flour and half the milk, add the 3 yolks, beaten, and leave for half an hour to ferment. Beat in the remaining milk and flour, and leave for half an hour more.

Before cooking, whisk the whites to a froth, and fold them into the batter mixture.

Grease a pan (non-stick is best) and fry the blinis, ladling in a dollop of mixture to produce a pancake about 4in wide. It will rise to 1/2 in in height. Serve very hot.

POPPY SEED ROLL

Polish classic cake served with morning coffee or at teatime, or even as a dessert to finish a meal. You can enrich it with chopped nuts or dried fruit, or both.

Serves 8

450g/1lb plain flour

285g/10oz poppy seeds

425ml/ 3/4 pint milk

1 packet activated yeast

2 eggs

110g/4oz butter

6 tablespoons honey

2 tablespoons candied peel, chopped

1 teaspoon cinnamon

pinch of salt

Sift the flour yeast and salt into a large, warmed, mixing bowl. Make a well in the centre and pour in half the milk, warmed to the temperature of your hand. Work in the flour and knead to make a smooth dough. Cover the bowl with a lightly floured cloth and put it in a warm place for 1 1/2 -2 hours, until the dough doubles in size. Rinse the poppy seeds with hot water and drain well through muslin. Finely grind the seeds in a blender, or a mortar.

In a saucepan, heat the milk, add the honey and bring gently to the boil. Add the ground poppy seeds and vanilla essence and cook, stirring frequently, until the mixture thickens. Stir in the candied peel, cinnamon and melted butter. Remove from the heat and leave to cool.

Knock down the dough and work in the eggs, beating well. Turn it out and knead on a floured board. Then roll out the dough into a rectangle until it is just over 1/4 in thick. Moisten the edges and spread the filling thickly over the rectangle almost to the edges.

Roll it up, place on a lightly greased baking tray, cover with a cloth and leave to rise in a warm place for a further 1 1/2-2 hours. Brush the top of the poppy seed roll with the melted butter and bake in a preheated oven, 375F/190C/Gas 5, for 35-45 minutes.

OATMEAL PANCAKES

In the Midlands these oatmeal breakfast pancakes were everyday eating at the beginning of the 19th century. Because oatmeal is glutinous when cooked, the finished pancakes are pliable, like wet shammy-leathers. They can be stored wrapped in a damp cloth. In Yorkshire it is usual to toast them before serving piping hot.

Makes about 8

110g/4oz fine oatmeal

110g/4oz medium oatmeal

1/2 packet activated yeast

290ml/ 1/2 pint warm water

sunflower oil for frying pancakes

Mix the yeast with the fine oatmeal and the water. Leave to rise for 30 minutes in a warm place. Stir in 55g/2oz of the medium oatmeal.

Heat a heavy frying-pan or non-stick pan until moderately hot. Wipe with a little sunflower oil on a piece of kitchen paper. Sprinkle on a teaspoon of the remaining oatmeal and pour in a ladleful of batter. Spread this out quickly with a spatula, as thinly as possible, until it is approximately 6 inches in diameter.

When the top is dry, sprinkle with a little more of the oatmeal and turn it over to cook on the other side. When this too is dry, put the oat cake on a rack to cool, and repeat the process until the batter is finished. If the batter gets too thick at the bottom, add a little more water.

PITTA BREAD

Flat pitta breads make the most perfect sandwiches, split to open up the pocket and stuffed full with crispy salad. In the Middle East it is the everyday form of bread, often eaten dipped in a spice mixture called zahter. Traditionally this condiment is sold in the street, wrapped in cones of paper. It is not difficult to make pitta bread at home.

Makes 8 pitta breads

450g/1lb plain white flour

1 packet activated yeast

1/2 teaspoon salt

290ml/ 1/2 pint warm water

1 tablespoon olive oil

Mix the flour, yeast, salt, oil and water with a wooden spoon in a bowl. Knead for 10 minutes. Smooth a little more oil over the outside of the dough and leave it to rise in a warm place for 2 hours, well covered. Knock the dough down, cut it into 8 pieces and work each piece into

a ball. Cover again and leave to prove for half an hour.

Preheat the oven to 230C/450F/Gas 8. Knead each ball of dough and roll on a floured board into eight ovals. Put them on greased and floured baking sheets and let them prove for a further 30 minutes, covered with a cloth.

Brush with cold water and bake on greased sheets for 10 minutes, removing while still pale. Wrap in a cloth to keep them soft. Eat when cool or reheat later. -

Guide and recipes taken from 'Round the World in Recipes' by Michael Bateman (HeadWay/Hodder & Stoughton pounds 6.99). Available from good bookshops, or write to Round the World in Recipes, Independent Reader Services, PO Box 60, Wetherby LS23 7HJ, enclosing a cheque or postal order for pounds 7.99 (incl. pounds 1 p&p).

(Photographs omitted)

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