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A taste of the upper crust
It’s Sourdough September, the month when the Real Bread Campaign goes on a mission to prove that not all breads are created equal. Michelle Darmody visits some of the country’s top bakeries
Low-carb diets are on the rise and bread can often be dismissed as unhealthy. But not all breads are created equal.
Almost every culture throughout the world makes bread in some form or another. The word companion means ‘with bread’. In its purest form bread is flour, salt, water and a prover, such as yeast. They are brought together, allowed to rise and then baked in an oven. This simple amalgamation of ingredients, and time, give us one of the founding foods of humanity.
So why has bread suddenly got such a bad reputation? Much of it is down to the modern manufacturing process where fast acting provers are used to rise the dough.
Rather than bread dough rising and fermenting over many hours, a loaf is started, risen and baked within forty minutes. Like many of the food production methods that developed in the last century, convenience and price are the driving factors rather than health or nutrition. When dough is allowed time to ferment it adds to the nutritional value of the wheat, or whichever grains used, and makes the resulting bread more digestible.
The fermentation also helps to break down the gluten. Gluten gives bread its light, airy texture but as Sarah Richards, from Seagull bakery in Tramore describes, “gluten is similar to the substance inside a golf ball, solid and rubbery. It needs time to soften and become more malleable and digestible”. In her bakery she ensures this happens by slowly making bread using a sourdough starter.
A starter is made by mixing flour and water together and then leaving them to attract wildly occurring yeasts in the air. Yeasts alight on the mixture and then multiply and bubble up. A portion of the starter is mixed with the bread’s other ingredients but the remainder is kept and ‘fed’ with more flour and water to be used in future batches. Sourdough bread is produced by allowing the dough to ferment using this starter. The resulting loaf has a mildly sour taste, has a very specific texture and it tends to keep very well for quite a few days.
To find out more about sourdough baking I joined Shane and Charlotte from Scéal Bakery in Dublin. On a crisp bright autumn morning I visited their one room bakery in an Enterprise Centre in Smithfield. Shane was pouring a mountain of flour onto the scales as I arrived, he uses a mixture of flours in his dough which increases the nutritional value of the bread, water was added then salt and finally Shane added his starter.
Scéal Bakery are a small operation, baking a few hundred loafs a week, but they have a very loyal following. Their breads and pastries are all handcrafted and taste delicious. The business was started in a very modern way relying on Instagram and pre-orders of bread on-line to get them off the ground.
They do not have a “bricks and mortar” premises yet, each weekend they sell their loaves from their stall in The Fumbally Market, they are quickly snapped up.
Shane showed me the basics and allowed me to measure and prepare my own loaf. It is a beautifully tactile process, the dough is soft and warm and unless handled correctly can be very sticky. I experienced a huge sense of satisfaction when I created my own, smooth ball of dough. I then left it to stand in a warm place with a tea towel covering the bowl.
The basic nature of the ingredients begin even at this stage to change. The starches in the flour are breaking down and the bacteria lactobacillus begins to produce lactic acid.
In the 1800s we began losing nutrients in flour, the husk was often discarded and brown flour was increasingly replaced with white. This along with more mechanised production and the fast rise have made modern white bread hard for many people to digest and not as nutritious for us. Real Bread Ireland was set up as a support network for those who are baking and selling bread made in more traditional, sustainable and nourishing ways.
They are calling this month Sourdough September. Throughout the month many of their nationwide members, who you can find listed on their website, will be giving away sourdough starters and recipes, so that you can make try to make your own loaf at home. It does take a bit of skill and spare time but is very rewarding. Many of the Real Bread Ireland members host bread making classes which will teach you the basics and get you started.
When I check back on my bread dough it has doubled in size. My wheat and yeast are now large and swelling in the bowl, feeding on the sugars and warmth. I shape it into a neat ball. The warm, smooth circles of Shane’s dough expand and grow alongside my smaller loaf. We place them into lightly floured basket to rise again.
Bread moulds have been discovered alongside the pyramids in Egypt. Excavations show the ruins of huge baking ovens which were part of giant bakeries, set up to feed the workers who steadily built the pyramids. The size of the moulds indicates that the bread must have been leavened or allowed to rise. Egyptians mainly used barley and emmer-wheat flour in their baking which have less gluten than modern flours. Their bread would have been incredibly heavy and dense by our standards, yet they did use the sourdough technique of gathering wild yeasts from the air.
Seagull Bakery’s open style kitchen allows you to see the magic happen, Sarah tells me that her customers return again and again for the freshly baked loaves and she recounts many of those people telling her that they find her bread easier to digest than any they had previously eaten. With its unique texture and taste the demand for sourdough bread made with care is growing. In Limerick Sunflower Bakery sell their popular loaves in the Milk Market and in Kilkenny the wonderful Arán bakery and café has recently opened. There are queues outside their door at seven am each morning. As with most things that take time and human hands to make sourdough bread does cost more than a sliced pan but you also get more benefits, more taste and for me more satisfaction.