Bread is fundamental, the most basic food in many cultures, hallowed in some (if a piece of bread falls to the floor in Morocco, it’s retrieved and kissed). It’s cheap to make, filling and is used as either plate or container for other foods – think of flatbreads, sandwiches and wraps. Access to it is almost a right. Its scarcity contributed to the French revolution and its removal – in Syria, the Assad regime has deliberately bombed bakeries – is a weapon of war.
In the UK, jam sandwiches have provided sustenance for the working class. It was so hot in coal mines, for example, that most food would spoil, but jam sandwiches survived. My grandfather used to take tinned corned beef sandwiches and jam sandwiches – known as ‘a piece’ in Northern Ireland and Scotland – to work because they were cheap and comforting.
Bread is also the first thing I remember eating, along with boiled eggs mashed in a cup. I was surprised, though, that after lockdown began the project so many turned to was sourdough, but perhaps it’s because it’s just that – a project. It requires time and commitment. Social media was abuzz with questions and advice about it and websites ran online classes to ‘troubleshoot’ sourdough problems.
I love sourdough – the tang, the texture, the fact that it’s made only with flour, water, air and time – and nobody can eat a slice of industrially produced bread and say they have anything in common. Sourdough has flavour, industrial bread tastes like eating something with a hole in it. Where there should be flavour there’s nothing, although sometimes that’s what you want. I still make tomato sandwiches with cheap sliced white, butter and bland tomatoes, because it tastes of school packed lunches. You don’t love particular meals because they’re ‘good’ examples of their type, but because they were part of your life.
I’m a failed sourdough baker. The sourdough starter – which you use to make each loaf – is a living thing and you keep it alive by feeding it. It’s like a food pet. I’ve been to wonderful classes with inspiring teachers who almost managed to make me a sourdough baker but, like many people, I have a full-time job, children and ageing parents. Tending to another living thing was more than I could manage. I just kept forgetting.
During the time I tried to make sourdough, I started to think other breads were inferior. I grew up eating Irish soda bread (the wholemeal version is simply called ‘brown bread’ in the Republic of Ireland and ‘wheaten’ in Northern Ireland) and it’s the easiest bread you can make. You don’t use yeast – bicarbonate of soda is the raising agent – and you don’t knead it. The brown version can be quite sweet, and the texture is totally different to anything made with yeast. It’s crumbly, almost cake-like. But it’s not inferior to sourdough, it’s just different.
After lockdown began, I wasn’t baking sourdough, I was mostly trying to make simple meals special. I started to bake bread – mainly yeasted – that would be an afternoon treat or make a salad into something more. There’s a world of breads that aren’t sourdough. They’re not entirely effortless – although there are plenty, like the courgette one here, that only require you to mix the ingredients and get the resulting dough into the oven – but they need less attention.
I’d never thought of ‘summer breads’ before, but there are so many that are right for the warmer months, especially because of the produce that’s around; tomatoes, spring onions, courgettes, corn, peppers, basil, cherries and gooseberries can all be incorporated into breads.
Don’t feel bad if your sourdough experiments didn’t go well. Transferring a warm loaf to a cooling rack is a thrill, no matter how the bread’s been made.