Baking in the UK…..John Downes.
I could easily sum up my experience baking in the UK. When I returned, I found it easier to buy excellent bread in Ballarat, a regional town, than in the whole of the UK (that i`d seen or tasted), including London. Im referring to excellent bread, this was an organic white sourdough made by “Redbeard”, and named a casalinga, after the loaf I pioneered in Melbourne in the 1980`s. Today it’s a common loaf in Melbourne really, with some really excellent versions of the style.
As far as “the rest” goes, that is, regular breads, In my opinion, Australian breads are superior to their UK counterparts. This particularly included “smalls” buns/foccacia/Turkish/rolls and so on. I often made the point in the UK that British (inc Irish/Scottish) baking seemed to have survived better in the “colonies” than in the mother country. But also, i`m convinced that Australian flours are much better.
Im very critical of modern mainstream bread, but I was really bowled over at just how bad it can be, as I saw in the UK. Just walking through the Adelaide produce market last week I saw breads everywhere which were not often available outside ethnic enclaves in the UK. It brought home how “multicultural” can also mean integration, and how Australians have embraced new bread styles, very rapidly. When I tried to introduce a Turkish bread to the farmshop where I was employed supposedly to improve the breads, (and this is called the “poshest” farmshop in the UK), there were howls of dissension. The customers loved it, but within 3 weeks it was off the shelves because the owners just couldn’t cope with the concept…?...which is very telling about the mindset. I must add that the French bakers I had to work with also couldn’t cope with it…well it wasn’t French was it, and we all know the French make the best bread in the world….beggars belief really, and I say again it continually underscored the cultural and professional freedom we enjoy in Australia. It was like a parody. The French bakers couldn’t copy it because they were only able to reproduce what they had learnt by rote in their tradeschools, and something as challenging (hello) as a Turkish bread left them manually crippled. The same happened when I made a 100% rye sourdough, a Schwartzbrot. They looked at me as though I was a sorcerer because they were incapable of making such a bread…well it was German wasn’t it, and they were French and never the twain shall meet…unless one is in Australia where these suffocating boundaries have just dissolved. Of course not all French bakers are like this.
But on a very regular level, the buns and slices which we can buy even in a Petrol station are not as evident in the UK….and these Chelsea buns/custard tarts etc are actually British! You wont find a Chelsea bun within coo-ee of Chelsea…weird…although I did eventually find a good Chelsea bun. (not in Chelsea). English culinary culture has been wiped by the Industrial revolution followed by two world wars and the horrors of the 50`s during which all baked goods were reduced to caricatures of their real selves, in the crassest way imagineable. Its supermarket culture in the UK, and the cruel commercial caricatures of sourdough in Tesco were really an eye opener. One has to find a specialty “gourmet” type premises to even get a glimpse of better English bread and dough stuffs, and even then it is rarely memorable bread.
The attractive loaves from classy Ottolenghi in London, designed by Dan Lepard are an exception. Even at a glance they are authentic and artistic.
Another facet of the artisan baking I saw which really surprised me, was the lack of consistency. On some days the sourdough from a big organic bakery in the south went from good to bad…from a good white crusty loaf to a really amateur effort. Another left the loaves in a retarder –prover overnight and they had water stains on them from unskilled mass proving, and consequent vinyl crusts. It was the same in London where I was taken to see the bread of a really fashionable English artisan, and I thought my host was kidding…he wasn’t….again it was really amateurish…over fermented, poor shape greyish hard crust, cuts where they weren’t needed and had made the loaf flow, and baked in too low an oven. Another fashionable bakery/café was selling and serving a “sourdough” which was good, but it was a yeast hybrid. You`d never get away with that with wine or cheese for example, which shows how poorly we rate, assess or are knowledgeable about bread.
The custard tarts, a most English institution were glazed with apricot jam in our farmshop…of course by a French pastry chef. They were saccharine and I found them inedible and I really like custard tarts.
Which demonstrates the basis of the British baking cringe. They have been convinced by French culinary culture, which is as good at self promotion as producing authentic products.
The first thing I said when I took up the position was “Where are the English breads”…I was met by a vacant stare. The French have convinced the English that their breads are naturally superior , and that England has no baking culture. So I set about to recreate an English(Scottish actually) sandwich bread, as the sandwich is also an English institution…but a bit cringed over by the English…well publically and by the arbiters of good taste (!) anyway. Actually, the English Sandwich can be a worthy and distinctive item of culinary culture.
I used a quarter sponge system as was traditionally used in England Scotland and Ireland. I used to make this loaf in Melbourne in 1979 at Feedwell foundry, and it is really delicious, the pinnacle of white (and wholemeal) sandwich bread. A stiff dough is prepared the night before with strong flour and a tiny amount of fresh yeast. I could even get real old fashioned organic yeast there but it came from Germany. After 16 hours this is then broken down to a sponge with medium hard flour and barley malt. The sponge really goes off and in 2hours is made into a dough with rather soft flour. After 30mins rest, the dough is divided, scaled, pre shaped and then tinned. 1hour in the tins is plenty, and the loaf springs athletically in the oven, forming the traditional high top, so parodied today, with a dark brown dome. The hugely noticeable qualityof this traditional loaf is its irresistible malty/wheaten/nutty aroma, fine texture and delicate edibility, all created by the 20hr fermentation which creates acidity, proper hydration and digestibility….usually hallmarks of a sourdough, but the same result is achieved by using (proper) yeast skilfully and acknowledging: “Time is the master”.
NOW I was a threat to the French bakers who looked on jealously and struggled with this technique, while begrudgingly acknowledging the beauty of this bread. Worst of all it made the best baguette you have ever seen/tasted and this was the guillotine for me really..the French guys hated that, but little did they know it was exactly the same fermentation technique imported to France from Vienna to make the first baguette…which aren’t French at all, but originally Viennese.
This was also traditional British bread and it was earning some praise..but it seemed nowhere else was it made in the UK, well not since WW2, and I was a colonial bringing the goods back home. It was an honour, but short lived unfortunately.
Sometimes, Bakery professionals can display the very worst in territoriality, be really resistant to innovation and “doggy” about their own skills. Really disappointing stuff as a creative dialogue is necessary for bakers because we make a basic foodstuff, it’s a big responsibility, but few have realised it.
Our aim needs to be the common good, which sounds like a historical socialist joke these days, but its why so many people (customers) are getting sick from gluten allergies today for example, because so many bakers unskilfully add inordinate amounts of it to their breads and couldn’t care less about its pathological consequences… and nobody talks about it.
I must acknowledge the expertise of Australian baker Ken Hercott in helping me perfect this bread. Ken came to the UK to help in my brief. He is a master baker and his fine shaping skills and understanding of the baking process were the finishing touch.
Apart from all of this, the underground or alternative bread and baking arena is where one does find good and getting better bread in the UK. But most impressive is the work of people like John Letts and Shipton mills, Cann mills, Gilchesters and others in making available actual traditional wheats , which have vastly superior baking quality and particularly flavour than purpose bred modern wheats…and one only knows this by using them.
I finished my stay by judging the “Brockwell bake” an event developed in London by wheat and bread polymath Andy Forbes and held on Earth fair day in Brockwell park, which allows amateur and professional bakers to strut their stuff outside the confines of the official bread show, and that was a lot of fun, especially because we had a keg of “perry”, pear cider laid on, which Ken and I are far too fond of and which made for a very relaxed day!! The winning loaf, a sourdough by a local lad was really very good, well fermented and controlled with good flavour and baked skilfully…at home..
I have been googling your name for awhile to see what you were up to back in the UK, looks like your home already.
I also wonder about American bread, we don't have local neighborhood bakeries and we had a bread awakening sometime back, still with someone of your knowledge and experience, I wonder what you would think of our breads? I don't know if English bread tradition was handed down to us as we had a revolution and later we had immigrants from other parts of Europe coming here to share there bread skills. Still I think we mirror what we see from French and Italian bread, there is very little rye culture here I am afraid to say...
Interesting essay and I hope to see what your next venture will be??
Cheers and the best always to you,
Thanks for giving that insight into the Brit bread scene, which sounds pretty dire overall - but with some glints of hope. It does seem that there is a real movement underway with bread and artisan produce generally, which I see as part of a general revolt at a grass roots level against mass-produced foods and industrial utilitarianism. There is a long way to go, but I am optimistic that real and lasting change for the better has started. Vive la revolucion!
I would also like to thank you for the ABC radio interview you gave last year. I enjoyed it immensely, and thought the content worth preserving for folk who missed the broadcast, so embedded an MP3 recording in one of my blog posts: Sourdough Rising - The Home Artisan Bread Baking Revolution. I'm pleased to report that there continue to be regular hits on that page.
There's so much in your post to digest. I look forward to poring over it in the next few days.
Hey thanks Ross, very kind of you. Glad to see you are manning the barricades with great bread. Viva la revolution eh.
Hey Jeremy, would love to tour and do a piece on US breads...maybe i will soon. funny because the first good bread I ever saw was in Boston, Baldwin Hill (Hy Lerner) were making beautiful Desem bread from a woodfired oven which was in stark contrast to the horrible sour breads of San francisco (this was 1978). Then I discovered the ubiquitous cake breads..even the wholemeal loaded with sugar etc. I hear great things of Sanoma/Chad but a customer of mine visited and wasnt impressed..its the holey grail approach...good to dip/talk about/think about, but disastrous to put a topping on...you end up wearing it lol...I think Richard Boudin in the Berkshires has a similar approach with the really wet dough and very very strong flours....beautiful bread nonetheless.
So where do you buy bread...if you do...there are neighbourhood bakeries like Sullivan St??...is it all supermarket (mainstream) or HF/wholefood store for the rest?
Thanks very much John for this most interesting post, I thoroughly enjoyed reading it, and will no doubt read it again. An honestly written insight into the mindset and culture in the UK food world. Also, I used to live in Adelaide and the Central Market was my favourite place to shop, we used to make a weekly 50km round trip just to enjoy the vast array of goods from around the world available. So now living in Brisbane, with no Central Market, I have decided to make my own sourdough from scratch, and am just at the beginning of my sourdough journey. Thanks again
I don't buy bread locally, as I bake it all at home...the state of bread here is a strange thing...long winded subject.
I have bought Sullivan Street baked bread, Amy's and the best I have seen was Pain d' Augverne, owned by some guys from the former Yugoslavia, they started in Massachusetts and have a place here...yet all these bakeries are wholesale, save for the small retail business they have within the bakeries....
It's the price of owning a business and being able to compete here that makes it a difficult dream or task, your better off in some small village in France, or maybe not, the world is changing!
I also tried Acme bread in California, but was surrounded by so much bread at SFBI that it was an after thought to really go out to the other bakeries in SFran. And I was only there for a week.
Lately I have been using drier levains, around 65% and just went back to a 125% hydrated dough for today's bake before I head off to Ecuador!
Will chat and hope you come this way, we could use your experience, shake things up!!!