Happiness is a warm loaf: Bread isn't just good for the body - it also nourishes the soul

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Close your eyes. Imagine if you will, the aroma of freshly made bread wafting up your nostrils – it's entirely pleasing, isn't it? Yeasty, warming, fragrant as a mother's love. If that sounds a little Proustian, that's because the act of baking – as any baker, amateur or otherwise will tell you – is much more than the sum of its parts, offering an emotional hit every bit as, if not more, nourishing than the nutritional benefits of flour, water, salt and yeast.

Canadian-born bread evangelist and social entrepreneur Jane Mason, founder of a project called Virtuous Bread (www.virtuousbread.com) has made the emotional rewards of bread-making her cri de coeur: "I believe that there isn't enough virtue in society, that we are increasingly disconnected from each other, ourselves and the land. The answer to happiness lies in our relationships. And baking and the sharing of bread fosters good, caring relationships," she says, floury hands gesticulating, when I swoop into her kitchen in Barnes, south-west London.

Mason runs a modest home-baking business, selling her bread to Pimlico Fresh, a delicatessen in Pimlico, the Real Cheese shop in Barnes, the Bibendum café in Chelsea, and to a few of her neighbours. But most of her energies are devoted to getting others baking, and in a variety of settings, including schools, prisons, hospices, and shelters. To this end, she stages workshops on a voluntary basis: "It's about picking up a life skill, learning to be more self-sufficient, boosting your self-esteem, doing something that's calming and therapeutic and creative, sharing, and eating in a less costly and more nutritious fashion," she says.

Mason believes there's no-one who's life could not be improved by baking. "The children felt the experience was creative, like doing a piece of art, and it made them want to bake at home," says Helen Colbert, deputy head of East Sheen Primary School, west London, after Mason's first session with a group of 10 and 11 year olds there. A group of Blackberry-addicted City execs learned how to knead in silence – "a lot of these people haven't experienced silence in years," says Mason – and offenders who staff The Clink, a restaurant in High Down prison, in Surrey, got to grips with rye and wheat loaves during one of her workshops. Yeast was off-limits – you can ferment booze with it – but she got round that using sourdough, a natural leaven. "The cooks were curious and keen," she says.

Still, getting the message out has not been plain sailing – Mason has yet to interest any of the shelters, care homes or hospices she's approached. "At the moment, it's hard to get traction. But I intend that Virtuous Bread spends 20 per cent of its time doing voluntary work. I have three charitable goals – to teach baking, raise awareness about the importance of eating good bread, and link bread with virtue in the heads of participants," she says.

No baker, however well-intentioned, can live on virtue alone (Mason earns around £80 a week from selling her own bread), and so the project also runs as a social enterprise. Although she has received a £5,000 grant from UnLtd, a charity that supports social entrepreneurs, hoped-for coffer-filling activities include baking with executive teams and private groups, and the poetic-sounding 'bread angels', which involves a home-baking course and social franchise, that she is shortly to pilot.

"The idea is to get people to bake at home, to buy flour made from a stone miller, and to encourage them to deliver locally, within a distance that can be covered by bicycle or on foot. That way, not only do they keep their carbon footprint down, but they also build links in their local community," she says. Participants learn about techniques and ingredients, but she also provides advice on the logistical and administrative aspects of running a business, as well as marketing expertise.

Graduates will then teach the home bakers' course themselves (alongside running their new business) thus creating a network of "Angels" and making fresh, wholesome, additive-free bread available to local communities.

According to a report published by market research company Mintel, 28 per cent of us are being turned on to the pleasure of baking bread from scratch, using raw ingredients at least once a week. Even that arbiter of societal and cultural trends, Trend Bible, says that the financial restraints imposed by the recession have meant that the kitchen has increasingly become the epicentre of our leisure activities.

The rise in culinary television shows such as The Great British Bake Off also tells us something of the "moment" bread is having. "I've been running bread-making course for ten years, and I'm now booked up for the coming year," says Tom Herbert, of Hobbs House Bakery in the Cotswolds, whose BBC4 programme In Search of the Perfect Loaf was watched by more than a million viewers. "I've not been in a situation before where I've had such a waiting list and the challenge for me has been how to tap into that. As a result, I've come up with the idea of filming aspects of my bread-making course, and they're available for download on our website (www.hobbshousebakery.co. uk ). I've only being doing it for a month, and I've sold more than 100 already."

Meanwhile over in the US, François and Jeff Hertzberg's book, Five Minute Bread (published by Mitchell Beazley in the UK), has proved an instant hit. "There is even a group of food bloggers who have committed to baking their way through our book. Many have determined not to buy a single loaf of bread for a year. Some are motivated by the quality of the bread, for others it is about cost savings and some just enjoy the process. We've even met a woman who told us she is baking bread with her father, long distance. They pick a recipe from the book, bake it and then call one another about their results. What was so moving about her story was that she and her father had been estranged and baking the bread together gave them a way to reconnect."

Artisan baker Dan Lepard, author of The Handmade Loaf, however, questions the notion of baking making a comeback: "Really, it never went away, and many of us were quietly baking loaves and feeding ourselves under the radar. What has changed is that the media has finally noticed the passion of home bakers, primarily through their visibility on the internet. For the past five years, I've been inundated with requests from production companies attempting to create reality television-based formats around baking and what you're seeing now is the result."

Leicester-based Rosie Clark, a single mother with two teenage girls, works as a part-time practice nurse and learnt to bake with Jane Mason. Bread, she says, has revolutionised her life. "I underestimated the emotional hit that involvement in her project would give me. I know it sounds a bit cheesy but it has been the catalyst for a deeper bond with my children. A fundamental need for a mother is to provide food for her children: participating in making good quality bread with great ingredients really helps to satisfy that need, and the feeling you get when your kids have eaten well is fantastic.

"I'm even embarking on becoming a bread angel shortly and making bread has given me confidence emotionally," she says.

"As a singleton it is often hard to walk into social situations. But when I mention my involvement with Virtuous Bread then the conversation takes off. It's amazing, but everyone has got an opinion or a story. It is cross-cultural and cuts across social barriers. Only the other day I was chatted up by a handsome Italian who wanted me to come and taste his mother's bread. Beats internet dating by far," she says.

Back in Mason's kitchen, I'm feeling pretty virtuous myself: I'm elbow-deep in dough, girl-bonding – I discover we attended the same university in Montreal – and helping to make sourdough rye loaves. Between bouts of weighing and lightly kneading (or as she calls it, "stretching and folding") and waiting for the dough to rise, she tells me about her childhood. "My mother is German, and when she first moved to Canada after the war, she cried every day because the bread was so disgusting. She baked her own bread and I grew up pretty much exclusively on sourdough and rye bread. I baked, too, as a child, and it just turned into an obsession," she says.

It was one that ran parallel to a high-powered job as a strategic consultant in London, until about a year ago, when, exhausted after a contract with "the most dysfunctional management team I've ever worked with in my life," she decided that she was tired of changing the world at the macro level: "I thought maybe I'd like to change the world at the level of the individual for a while."

That afternoon I go home with four warm loaves nestled in the bottom of a cloth bag. They taste divine, but will I be able to make my own? And will I enjoy the experience – or endure it? I set about baking a sourdough rye bread, following one of Mason's recipes to a T. It is a long, stop-start process and it is weirdly satisfying. Twenty-four hours later, munching on the results, I'm faintly incredulous: the bread tastes genuinely yummy and pleasingly nutty. And it's my first effort with sourdough, the holy grail of dough dabblers. Visions of bread-inspired bonhomie start dancing in my head.

Large house loaf

Nervous novice? Baking bread is easier than you might think. This no-fuss recipe, courtesy of Tom Herbert (www.hobbshousebakery.co.uk), is simple and foolproof.

Ingredients

560g strong white flour (organic, and locally grown and milled is best)
10g sea salt
5g of dried yeast (or 10g of fresh yeast if you can get it)
300ml warm water
20ml rape seed oil

Method

Weigh the flour and salt into a big bowl. Measure the water and oil into a jug. With a fork, stir the yeast into the water. Empty the jug into the bowl and stir all the ingredients together.

Knead the dough for 20 minutes. Once you have a smooth and elastic dough nestle it back into the bowl and cover and leave it in a warm place to grow to twice its size or for 1 hour (whichever is first).

By hand, shape your dough so it fits evenly into a well-oiled large loaf tin. Dust the top of your loaf with a bit of flour and then cover the tin and leave it in a warm place to double in size or for 1 hour (whichever is first).

Meanwhile, crank up your oven as high as she goes (240C/gas mark 9). Slash the top of your loaf and put it into the hot oven.

Check it after 10 minutes and turn the oven down a notch (210C/gas 7).Take it out when its baked all over (about 30 minutes).

Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    Recruitment Genius: Membership Sales Advisor - OTE £20,000 Uncapped

    £15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing fitness cha...

    Guru Careers: Marketing Manager / Marketing Communications Manager

    £35-40k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Marketing Communicati...

    Guru Careers: Membership Administrator

    £23K: Guru Careers: We're seeking an experienced Membership Administrator, to ...

    Guru Careers: Dining Room Head Chef

    £32K: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Dining Room Head Chef to work for one of ...

    Day In a Page

    Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

    The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

    How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
    Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

    Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

    'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

    How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

    Art attack

    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
    Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

    Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

    Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
    Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

    'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

    Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
    10 best wedding gift ideas

    It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

    Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
    Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

    Paul Scholes column

    With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
    Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

    Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

    Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
    Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

    Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

    The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
    Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
    Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

    Fifa corruption arrests

    All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
    Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

    The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

    In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

    Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
    Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

    How Stephen Mangan got his range

    Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor