Bread-making became an intrinsic part of life in rural Ireland right up until the 50’s,and early 60’s and was typically personified by the farmer taking his grain to the local miller, who supplied the baker or local households and from the bread was made. Baking bread became prevalent in every home from Soda Bread to traditional brown loaves, many of us remember growing up in a household where real bread was once made.
But by the middle of the 60’s, the writing was on the wall for locally produced and milled grains with the rise in popularity of ready made yeast which was used in the large scale commercial baking that became prevalent where bread could be churned out in under 4 hours, from raw grain to batched loaf the natural fermentation process cut to just hours in the pursuit of soft bread with a longer shelf life. However in order to produce an acceptable loaf in such a short time a wide arsenal of additives is necessary, among them extra gluten, fat, yeast and reducing agents to help accentuate the softness, soya flour to add softness, emulsifiers and preservatives to extend shelf life and make larger softer loaves. Bread is now among the most chemically treated products we eat today.
Mass production problem
The giant bread-making businesses plant a weighty carbon footprint on the earth, with their networks of industrial plants, depots and long-distance haulage; compare this, suggests Joanna Blythman in her book What to eat, with a local bakery supplying its local area, often using flour milled produced in a local mill. To our shame, we have now exported this industrial process all over the world. Large commercial bakeries transformed the production process but fundamentally changed the quality of the bread and almost bread by definition. Bread was once made using only 3 ingredients flour, water and salt. Today you will find up to 36 ingredients in a shelf bought loaf. Organic ancient grains are only slowly being produced in Ireland once more and we look forward to working with these grains moving forward.
We need to consider the impact on our health of bread being produced in this way? As an epidemic of diabetes and obesity sweeps the west, gluten sensitivity also appears to be on the rise. There are no reliable statistics for gluten sensititivity in Ireland but we know there are roughly 47,000 people diagnosed in Ireland with Coeliac disease and about 1 in 5 people in Ireland are reguargly shopping for Gluten free products based on bord bia research.
Is it significant that factory-made bread has extra gluten added, and the western diet today is awash with gluten-containing wheat?
Hardly surprisingly, there’s a growing number of people who believe that considers all grains toxic to human physiology, responsible for a whole raft of conditions from from coeliac disease to diabetes, cancer, dementia and more.
But like many others I find it hard to believe that the most important food in all our recorded history dating back over 14,000 years, so highly revered, widely eaten, could have been quietly poisoning us all the time. Is it not rather the staggering amounts of unfermented gluten people are now consuming, unmodified by the long fermentation process of traditional bread making, that are responsible?
In the long slow fermentation that produces sourdough bread, important nutrients such as iron, zinc and magnesium, antioxidants, folic acid and other B vitamins become easier for our bodies to absorb. Diabetics should note that sourdough produces a lower surge in blood sugar than any other bread. In the sourdough process, moreover, gluten is broken down and rendered virtually harmless. In one small Italian study, published in the journal Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology, in January 2011, coeliac patients fed sourdough bread for 60 days had no clinical complaints, and their biopsies showed no changes in the intestinal lining.
How do you know if it’s real sourdough?
If you’re not making your own sourdough, it can be hard to know if you’re getting the real deal. Some bread labelled sourdough just has a sour flavour added but is leavened with fast-rising yeast. Others don’t include a fermentation time on the package. “If you’re buying it from a store, you’re buying blind,” Cluskey says. “When you say sourdough—because there’s actually no legal definition whatsoever—we’re open to interpretation. It’s not necessarily wrong, its just never been clearly defined and as a result it is not very transparent.”
Cluskey advises his gluten sensitive clients to read labels more closely and if there isn’t a label just ask, avoid products where possible with baker’s yeast, and call the bread producer directly to ask how the bread is leavened and for how long and whether or not yeast has been added to speed up the process. Naturally leavened bread is the way to go.