Bread – it’s About the Dough

Celebrity chef Michel Roux Jr was on the telly box tonight, and his subject for the day was bread.

Now as some of you know, that used to be my professional field, so I know enough to take issue with the sainted Michel’s points. He was concerned – as often happens when celebrity chefs get exercised about what the rest of us eat – with the fact that the bread that most of us eat isn’t as nice as the bread you can buy in a French boulangerie, or for that matter a British corner shop baker. Commercially-produced bread he said, is wet, plasticky and doesn’t taste the same. He had a thinly-disguised pop at the breadmaking industry and put the Federation of Bakers on the spot.

Of course, everything he says is true, but it’s not fair to blame the supermarkets or the bakers: Supermarkets stock what they think their customers will buy, and to stay in business they have to get that prediction right far more often than they get it wrong. So what the shops buy from the bakers is what the customers want to buy, and what the bakers make is what the shops tell them they want. The quality of the ingredients in a supermarket loaf is dictated by how much the supermarket is prepared to pay for it, which is why the cheapest flour is combined with far too much water (because water is the cheapest ingredient of all).

It isn’t that the customers don’t have a choice – even if you only shop in a supermarket, there’s likely to be a selection of craft bread from the in-store bakery alongside the industrial bread – yet people buy what they’ve always bought, or what’s cheapest. Maybe if people were educated about the difference in taste they’d buy craft bread more, but most people will still buy what’s cheapest and that’s what drives the market.

The programme finished with some people attending a breadmaking course and learning to bake their own bread at home: One student said the experience had changed her life. The bit they edited out was where she added, “I used to have all this free time…”

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