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.
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
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).