consumerism events food

Real Bread Week, and why it matters

This week is real bread maker week, organised by the Real Bread Campaign. It’s a week to celebrate local bakers and traditional millers, and to encourage people to bake their own bread. There are workshops and open days, recipes, and all the things one comes to expect from an awareness week like this one. So why mention it here – after all, isn’t every week ‘something week’?

I’m a big fan of proper bread, and I like what the Real Bread Campaign do. But the reason I’m writing about it today is that what happened to bread over the last 50 years is both an interesting story, and a good case study in the mixed blessings of industrialisation.

Food in Britain has gone through some dramatic changes in the last century, and some of the biggest changes were a result of the Second World War. We weren’t growing enough of our own food at the start of the war, and one of Germany’s strategies was to cut off imports. I’ve written about the Home Front before, and how the Ministry of Food responded. Food production became centrally planned, with rationing carried over well after the war, and price controls on certain foods to try and encourage production and keep prices down.

Among the victims of this process was traditional cheese. To streamline supplies and use milk efficiently, the government banned all varieties except ‘government cheddar‘ in 1945. The ban lasted for nine years, and at the end of it the number of cheese manufacturers had gone from 3,500 to a mere 100. It still hasn’t recovered.

Bread was also under tight restrictions. Bakers were considered important enough to be exempt from military duties during the war, but their products were restricted – no more white bread, just the ‘national loaf’. It was a brown loaf, to reduce our dependency on white flour imported from America, and this was the underlying problem. Britain grew a lot of wheat, but it was low protein varieties – good for biscuits or pastry, but not for bread. To reduce our dependency on imports and lower the price of bread for ordinary people, what the nation needed was a way to make bread out of British wheat.

The government set up the British Baking Industries Research Association, and by 1961 they had cracked it. The result was the Chorleywood Bread Process. You could use lower protein British wheat, but it wasn’t easy. You needed various additives such as emulsifiers and oxidisers, along with more salt, more yeast and more fat. You needed whiteners to stop it looking grey. Since it wouldn’t rise in the same way as traditional dough, high speed industrial mixers were used to create air bubbles.

CBP bread was also less nutritious, less digestible, and lacking in flavour. But it was fast and cheap to produce, and lasted for a week without going hard. It helped our wheat farmers, opened up new possibilities for industrial baking, and suited the new supermarkets. People wanted cheaper bread and processed foods were exciting at the time. There was a novelty factor to this new and softer bread. We made the switch and never looked back.

We all know what CBP bread looks and tastes like. It’s the soft, flannelly bread sold pre-sliced in plastic bags. It is stacked high in the aisles of every supermarket and cornershop in the land. It’s very cheap, reaching its cheapest in 1999 when a supermarket price war brought the cost of Tesco’s basic white loaf down to a tiny 7p.

Today, 80% of Britain’s bread is made using the Chorleywood Bread Process, and almost all of it comes from just two major corporations. Associated British Foods owns Kingsmill, Sunblest, Burgen and Allinson (ABF also owns Twinings, Patak’s and the clothing retailer Primark). The other big player is Premier Foods, which owns Hovis and Mother’s Pride, along with Lyon’s, Mr Kipling and dozens of other brands. It also provides own-brand supermarket bread.

Writing in 2003 in her book Not on the Label, Felicity Lawrence observed that 80% of our bread was made in just 11 factories. A further 17% was baked in-store in supermarkets. Just 2% came from artisan bakers. There were 3,500 independent bakeries operating in Britain, while France had 35,000.

I hope the balance is swinging back the other way a little now. It’s certainly easier to find better bread in the shops and there is a renewed interest in artisan foods of all kinds. Breadmakers have made it easy for the clumsiest of home bakers to produce a great loaf at home. British wheat varieties have improved considerably since the 1950s, and people are more concerned about additives and fat and salt content. Perhaps it’s time we reclaimed bread from the scientists and the corporations.

CBP bread is the classic industrial compromise – valuing price over nutrition and convenience over flavour. It destroys jobs in high-street bakeries and creates jobs in factories. It takes power from family businesses and hands it to corporations. It replaces craft and tradition with chemistry and machinery. Is the compromise worth it? I suppose it was in 1961. I don’t think it is now, and I wish the Real Bread Campaign the best of luck. Support the campaign by seeking out a real bread maker this week – visit a local bakery, or bake your own at home.

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