Well, here's a new one. Today sees the launch of the first ever National Bread Making Week. A cynic might assume the flour companies are getting desperate, but that's not so. They sell all the flour they want to the baking "industry"; you only have to consider the massive national sales of bread, cakes and biscuits.
And there is the answer: the tenacious hold that Sliced White Loaf has in British homes. The Sliced White Loaf that is, after all, cheap, convenient and adored by children.
Does it matter that the SWL is tasteless pap, given its role as an edible tray for a savoury spread or a jam; or as airy sandwich-boards to hold BLT and other fillings in place; or toasted, providing a surface structure without substance? Indeed, Anton Edelman, head chef at the Savoy, no less, swears by SWL as the base for hors d'oeuvres with Sunday drinks; he cuts out circles with a tumbler, brushes them with melted butter, crisps them up briefly in a very hot oven, and then tops them with smoked salmon, caviare, and other delights.
The fact is, there is life beyond white sliced. Bread can be tasty in its own right, and that is why National Bread Making Week has been brought about. It is inspired by a small but passionate group of modern craft bakers who are committed to the cause of the delectable fresh loaf. To this end they have volunteered to put on a week of demonstrations and workshops.
It was bread enthusiast, demonstrator and writer, Ursula Ferrigno, who first had the idea. Teaching professional chefs, she was at first surprised, then excited by the response from students at her classes. "Making your own bread is one of the most therapeutic of activities," she urges. "When you get your hands on some dough, you relieve the stress of everyday life."
She gets the week rolling at midday today in London with Italian Breads in west London. Then, throughout the week, there are events in Edinburgh, Ryton Organic Gardens near Coventry, Melmerby in Cumbria, Southend in Essex, Abingdon and Witney in Oxfordshire, and in London at Butler's Wharf Chef School, Le Cordon Bleu Cookery School, and Leith's School of Food and Wine. There are also visits to bakeries and mills. (All details are at the end of this piece).
We've entered the spirit of the Week, too. See our pounds 1,500 competition overleaf to win an outdoor Fournos wood-fired baking oven, which Paul Merry, one of a new breed of craft bakers, will demonstrate this week.
The move away from mechanised bread in favour of carefully baked alternatives using better quality flours started with Elizabeth David's scholarly study Bread and Yeast Cookery in 1977. The Paris baker, Lionel Poilane, successfully wooed us with his round pain de campagne, the size and shape of scatter cushions, waxy in texture, mature in flavour. Then we found our own voice with soft, crusty ciabatta, and now every supermarket carries a half-decent range of speciality breads, with flavours sweet and savoury.
Bread making continues to improve. Chef Pierre Koffmann (whose restaurant, La Tante Claire, has three Michelin stars) was the first to invest in bread ovens and employ his own baker. He couldn't buy bread worthy of his cooking.
Now every restaurant chef with aspirations will offer home-made bread: Pied-a-Terre's Tim Aikens offers six kinds, flavoured with olives, red pepper puree, and so on. As a measure of the skill involved, many of the new bakers on the block will have had experience in top restaurant kitchens. The newest is baker Stuart Powell at Sir Terence Conran's Bluebird complex in Chelsea. Powell has notched up an impressive CV as a patissier working alongside Marco Pierre White as well as chefs from Claridges to The Canteen, and Paris House (Woburn Abbey) to the Savoy. It was Marco who instilled in him the Bread Ethic. "He told me that bread is the most important part of the meal as it's the first thing you're offered. If the bread's no good, then what's everything else going to be like?"
National Bread Making Week is an admirable initiative, but surely it's unrealistic to imagine anyone can get Britain baking. Can the home cook even buy the right ingredients for making good bread? Powell showed me around his bakery section where he stores 15 bins of different bread flours (English, Italian, French, granary, rye and so on) from which he produces a range of 60 breads, including English bloomers and cottage, tin and farmhouse loaves; French baguettes, pains de campagne, brioches and pains au chocolat; Italian ciabatta; Russian sourdoughs; and New World breads flavoured with spinach, peppercorns, chilli, cumin and even seaweed.
You need the best flour, says Stuart Powell. But he believes that home cooks have been badly misled. They've been persuaded to go down the quick, easy road. Baking bread is easy, he insists, but it shouldn't be too quick. Hence you have easy-bake, quick-acting powdered yeasts, which promise a finished loaf within two hours. Given the dull nature of many supermarket strong white bread flours, you end up with an inflated loaf tasting of nothing.
Home bakers are also encouraged to use warm water, and leave dough to rise in a warm place to speed up the action. But it is slow rising which develops the flavour and texture. In fact, it is the action of the yeast working itself out slowly (autolysis, self-destruction) which contributes much to the flavour (as it does in wine-making).
It will help if you buy the best flour, says Stuart. Organic, unbleached, strong baking flour preferably. Or look out for Italian bread flour, known as "00" (double zero). And use fresh bakers' yeast if you can (every supermarket should be able to find some for you; if not change your supermarket).
You can still make the best of average ingredients, he says, if you make a starter dough first. In the trade they call it a ferment (described opposite). You make up a small amount of dough and leave it to rise in a bowl in the fridge for 24 hours, covered with clingfilm. This is the dough which Powell adds to each fresh bread mix.
In professional kitchens, part of each batch of dough is held back every day to provide the starter dough for the next day. Having tried this method when I got home, and using only average supermarket flour, I must say I was impressed by the massive improvement in texture and flavour.
Making bread is an unhurried occupation, says Powell, requiring only a few concentrated moments of attention at widespread intervals. As a rule, don't hurry the rising process, don't use quick yeast (fresh or dried is slower), don't use warm water, don't put dough in warm places. But do get your oven as hot as you can.
To make the ciabatta (opposite), which has a very loose dough, he recommends heating the oven tray and, just before you put the dough in the oven, dusting the tray with fine maize flour. Carefully remove the hot tray to the hob top and, using oven gloves, roll the ciabatta loaves on to it.
In the bakery, Stuart has a steam injection device on his super-modern, four-deck Tom Chandley compactor oven. Steam helps bread swell in the first stage of baking. You can produce steam at home by laying a roasting pan at the bottom of the oven and pouring in a mugful of cold water at the same time as you put in the dough. After 10 minutes, open the oven door briefly to clear moisture.
Opposite we give Stuart's ciabatta recipe and another for a tin loaf with twice the flavour of most of those you can buy. He developed this tin loaf recipe specifically for us at his home, using an ordinary domestic gas oven.
We also include a recipe from Linda Collister's classic Bread Book (Conran Octopus pounds 19.99) - a homely one for soft Scottish baps. Unless they happen to be lucky enough to have a good bakery near them, Collister says, people who want tastier bread have to make their own. She personally doesn't consider most supermarket bread worth eating. And she notes that French bread, formerly held up as an example to the world, has been deteriorating as they, too, move to factory baking. This dark cloud has a silver lining for Linda, since the French translation of her bread making book has now gone to eight editions.
! Stuart Powell is in action this week as part of National Bread Making Week. On Wednesday 5 November, he is running a workshop with Ursula Ferrigno and baker John Foster at the Flour Advisory Bureau's headquarters, 21 Arlington Place, London Wl. Telephone 0171 493 2521.
On Saturday 8 November in Wraysbury, Middlesex, bakery teacher Paul Merry from Leavens Above (in Melmerby) will demonstrate how to use the Fournos outdoor oven. For details, call 01784 481188.
A full list of all the events taking place during National Bread Making Week is available from Bread for Life on 0171 493 2521, or the Flour Advisory Bureau, see telephone number above.
STUART POWELL'S TRADITIONAL WHITE TIN
For starter dough (or ferment):
180g/6oz strong white bread flour
6g/14oz fresh yeast
120ml/4fl oz cold tap water
pinch of salt
Dissolve yeast in water, add flour and salt. Form into a smooth ball and place into an oiled container. Allow to rest for 24 hours in cool place, or fridge.
To make the bread:
625g/1lb 8oz strong white bread flour
10g/13oz yeast dissolved in 375ml/13fl oz water
Pre-heat oven to 450F/220C/Gas 7 and place a roasting tray inside the bottom of the oven.
Add the flour and salt to yeast mixture. Mix together and knead into a fairly soft ball for two to three minutes, incorporating the starter dough with a metal spoon. Place in a lightly oiled container and rest for 30 minutes at room temperature.
After 30 minutes are up, carefully tip dough on to table and gently fold into a square, place back in container and rest for a further 45 minutes. Divide into two equal pieces, shape into two balls, cover with clingfilm and rest for 10 minutes. Grease two loaf tins. Shape bread gently into each tin and prove (leave aside to rise) for about 40 to 50 minutes or until dough has reached the top of the tin.
Carefully flour the top of the tins and place into the oven. Pour some water into the tray to make steam. After 20 minutes remove the tray and cook for a further 25 minutes without steam.
STUART POWELL'S CIABATTA
For starter dough (or ferment):
250g/9oz "00" flour (Italian Zero Zero)
6g/14oz fresh yeast dissolved in 160ml/5fl oz water
Combine yeast mixture with flour and mould into a ball. Place into a greased bowl, cover with clingfilm and rest for at least 24 hours in a cool place.
To make the bread:
6g/14oz fresh yeast
370g/13oz "00" flour
100ml/3fl oz milk
100ml/3fl oz olive oil
100ml/3fl oz water
Preheat oven to 450F/220C/Gas 7 and place a roasting tray in the bottom. Place the starter dough from the day before in a round-bottomed bowl with the fresh yeast. In a separate bowl, place milk, olive oil and water to a combined temperature of 25C to 30C (75F to 85F). Combine these two ingredients together to a milky consistency, add remaining ingredients and mix to a smooth dough. Place into a lightly greased container and cover with clingfilm.
After one hour carefully tip dough on to a lightly floured table and flip the edges into the centre. Place back into the bowl for a further hour.
Tip dough on to a lightly floured table and divide into four equal pieces. Stretch each piece to the shape you want, dredging it in a tray of "00" flour, place on a baking sheet and prove for about 30 to 40 minutes. When the bread has doubled in size, invert it carefully on to a preheated baking sheet, place some water into the roasting tray and bake for 20 minutes with steam, then remove the tray and continue to cook for a further 10 minutes.
680g/1lb 8oz white bread flour
15g/12oz sea salt
15g/12oz fresh yeast
1 teaspoon sugar
430ml/15fl oz milk and water mixed, lukewarm
60g/2oz lard, diced
extra flour for dusting
vegetable oil for greasing bowl
extra milk for glazing
2 baking trays, lightly greased
Put the flour and salt in a large mixing bowl. Crumble the fresh yeast into a small bowl. Cream it to a smooth paste with the sugar and two tablespoons of the measured lukewarm milk and water.
Rub the lard into the flour using your fingertips until the mixture resembles fine crumbs. Make a well in the centre of the flour. Pour the yeast mixture and remaining milk and water into the well and mix to make a very soft dough. If necessary, add a little more liquid. The dough should not stick to your fingers or the sides of the bowl. Turn out the dough on to a lightly floured work surface and knead for 10 minutes, or until it looks and feels smooth and silky. Put the dough back in the washed and lightly greased bowl. Cover with a damp tea towel and leave to rise until doubled in size, about one hour in a lukewarm kitchen, or one and a half hours at cool to normal room temperature, or overnight in a cold larder or fridge.
Knock back the risen dough, by turning on to table, and gently folding into a square. Then on a lightly floured work surface, knead for a few seconds. Divide into 12 equal-sized portions. Pat or roll each portion of dough to an 11.25 x 7.5cm (412 x 3in) oval about 3cm (112in) thick. Place well apart on the baking trays. Lightly brush the baps with the milk, then sift over a fine layer of flour. Leave to rise at cool to normal room temperature until doubled in size, about 30 minutes, taking care not to let the baps over-rise. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 425F/220C/Gas 7.
Sift over a thick layer of flour, then press your thumb into the centre of each bap. Bake immediately for 15 minutes until golden and cooked underneath. Transfer to wire rack, cover with a dry tea towel and cool for a few minutes before eating.