Something is going on with bread. I first realised it when a friend told me about getting a bus – a bus! – to pick up a loaf on a Saturday from her favourite bakery. And she lives right next to a Tesco. Then it was confirmed to me when, on offering to make a friend a sandwich, he practically recoiled in horror as I produced a Kingsmill white sliced loaf from my kitchen cupboard. I had been bread-shamed. (Admittedly, I tend not to buy that sort of stuff but I had been feeling too lazy to go further afield than my local corner shop.)
These days, people are passionate about bread. But not just any type of bread. They desire artisan-made sourdoughs and ryes; ones filled with pumpkin seeds or walnuts; loaves with exotic foreign names. They will happily seek out new flours and flavours, spurred on by the current trend for choosing hand-crafted, good quality, local produce. They will travel to farmer's markets and backstreet bakeries in search of the finest loaf.
"There's definitely been a massive rise in interest in bread," says David Wright, owner of Cake Shop Bakery in Woodbridge, Suffolk, which was previously run by his father and grandfather before him. "People are loads more discerning and demanding in the best possible way, which is really refreshing. They want to know what's in it, and ask all sorts of questions. Is it sourdough or semi-sourdough? Is it yeasted? Customers have a knowledge of breadmaking in a way that they just didn't have a few years ago."
Next week marks National Bread Week, now in its 12th year, which aims to celebrate the role of bread in our daily diets and to promote its nutritional benefits.
Richard Bertinet, who trained as a baker in Brittany, France, from the age of 14 and runs the Bertinet Kitchen in Bath, insists the British attitude to bread has changed over the years. "There are so many more bakeries opening over here these days. When I first arrived in London in the late 1980s I would say I was a baker and people would ask me which bank I was working at. They couldn't understand what a baker did. Now if you say you're a baker people will ask you about sourdough, focaccia, all the different types. It's very exciting, there's a change in mood. The bread revolution started a few years ago and now it's gone ballistic."
So why the renewed interest? Like so many things, it is partly down to the economy. Decent bakers might be charging up to £4 for a loaf but customers buy them as a treat, in place of going out to eat at a restaurant. Rather than forking out for brunch, you can wander down to a market, have a look around, select a loaf and take it home to eat. It is a much more pleasurable way to spend a Saturday than nipping down to the supermarket for a Warburtons. Plus, of course, the taste is incomparable.
At the E5 Bakehouse in Hackney, east London, people come from all over to pick out one of the many artisan breads on offer. There's the bestselling Hackney Wild (a classic pain de campagne), Borodinsky (a Russian rye), Raisin and Walnut bread or Route 66 (66 per cent rye), among others.
Started three-and-a-half years ago by Ben Mackinnon, it now sells about 500 loaves a day (going up to 800 on a Saturday). The Bakehouse also has a café out front, so customers will come in for a flat white before selecting their loaf.
At £3.50 the Hackney Wild is not exactly cheap but everyone seems happy to pay for a quality product.
"I suppose it is fashionable," says Mackinnon. "And there's a reason that it's fashionable and that's because it makes sense. When you buy bread from us you're saying this is what I believe in: something that's good quality, well produced, made using the best ingredients by people who care about what they're doing. People want to support that."
The Bakehouse also offers up some interesting specials. One of its resident bakers loves to get experimental and has produced new flavours such as wild garlic bread, seaweed bread and cornflake brioche in recent weeks. This fondness for jazzy, unorthodox breads is all part of the renewed interest.
And it's not just seeking out the perfect loaf that has got a number of people excited; they're also keen to master the art of baking at home. Television shows such as The Great British Bake Off and The Fabulous Baker Brothers have fuelled our desire to learn about bread-making and hundreds of books about how to create the perfect loaf have been released in recent years.
"When my dad was my age, my grandad bought him a book that was basically the only baking book that came out that year," recalls Wright. "Now there are tons. The amount of attention bread-making gets these days is phenomenal."
This has also led to a resurgence in popularity of bread-making classes. At the E5 Bakehouse, their twice- weekly classes, in which you can learn how to make the Hackney Wild, bagels, ciabatta and a rye in just one day, are booked up until August. Mackinnon says he also gets a number of enquiries from people asking how to become bakers.
"We're getting emails all the time from lawyers, marketing people, taxi drivers – people from every walk of life – wanting to get involved at the Bakehouse. I think it's because it's a sort of humble profession but it's rewarding because you have the method and the end result. And it's such a positive thing knowing that people are eating a quality product that you believe in."
Richard Bertinet's focaccia with rock salt and rosemary
500g strong bread flour
320g water / 320ml – weighing is more accurate
50g good quality extra virgin olive oil
10g yeast (fresh if possible)
20g coarse semolina
Rock salt and rosemary to top
Rub the yeast into the flour using your fingertips (or mix if using dried yeast). Add the remaining ingredients and the water. Work the dough with one hand (or use the rounded end of your scraper) for 2-3 minutes until the dough starts to form.
Lightly flour the work surface, place the dough on the flour and form the dough into a ball by folding each edge in turn into the centre. Keep mixing until the dough comes cleanly away from the work surface and is not sticky. (Olive oil dough will be softer than white dough because of the oil and liquid content.)
Place the dough back into a mixing bowl and cover with a tea towel. Rest for at least 20 minutes in a warm, draught-free place. While the dough is resting, prepare your additional ingredients for variations.
Brush a non-stick tray with olive oil. Place the dough on the tray and using your fingertips gently, spread it out to cover the tray. Drizzle with olive oil. Leave to rest for 20-30 minutes. Again, press gently with your fingertips, and then sprinkle with rock salt and rosemary. Rest for a further 15-20 minutes. Bake until golden brown and then brush with more olive oil.
'Dough: Simple Contemporary Bread' by Richard Bertinet (Kyle Books, £16.99)