How bread used to taste before supermarkets got involved

23rd January 2018

The traditional bakery is making a comeback. We paid a visit to BreadBread bakery in Brixton to find out how they make bread the old fashioned way.

The birth of BreadBread bakery was an accident. When Bridget Hugo and her business partner Giuseppe Mascoli started Franco Manca 10 years ago, they aimed only to make great Neapolitan pizzas rather than loaves of bread.

But it’s clear from meeting Bridget that her passion for bread was difficult to contain. “After Franco Manca closed for the evening, I would stay in the restaurant and use the wood-fired ovens to bake loaves of bread for our small side cafe in Brixton Market.”

People responded positively to the bread and Bridget quickly established a proper bakery down the road. The ethos however stayed the same – huge wood-fired ovens were installed and BreadBread bakery began to build up a formidable reputation for traditional, European-style loaves, selling direct to restuarants, cafes and now of course Farmdrop.

“I often say you can’t get a self-respecting avocado on toast in London without our sourdough underneath it” says Andreas Bajohra, the Managing Director, who runs the day-to-day operations. He’s joking but it’s only when you taste the bread for yourself that you realise his hubris might be justified.  

Since it was founded in 2008, BreadBread have been on a mission to bring better bread to the masses. Or ‘heal the mouth of the injured consumer’ as they put it. It’s an admirable cause. The gummy white loaves you find in the supermarkets are as far removed as you can get from the traditional bakeries that used to feed us.

Bakeries like BreadBread’s used to produce around 83% of Britain’s bread but the advent of the supermarkets in the 1950s changed all that. ‘There was a victory of modernism over bread at a certain point’ says Bridget ‘and that has reeked quite a lot of damage to the food industry in general, not just to bread’.

Bread is now a very big business. Roughly 11 million loaves are sold everyday in the UK and 80% of those are factory baked – only 3% of loaves are made by craft bakers, according to the Federation of Bakers. The dominance of factory loaves owes much to their incredibly short baking time – a process that would usually take 60 hours is crammed into just three in huge bread factories.

However, when you look at the ingredients in the factory loaf it’s pretty clear that they are not the same product as what BreadBread sell. A standard white supermarket loaf, for example, contains around ten ingredients, compared to a traditional sourdough loaf which has no more than four – water, salt, flour and a sourdough starter (the living yeast that gets the bread to rise).

Bridget Hugo in the BreadBread Bakery.

Spending the day in the bakery it became evident just how much pride the bakers take in what they do. Most have come from mass producing bread factories where they felt like a small cog in a machine. This is not surprising. Factory bread has been successful partly because they substitute human touch and experience for processing aids and large machinery. And the quality of our bread has undoubtedly suffered – Britain has not only the cheapest bread but also some of the lowest levels of bread consumption in Europe.

At BreadBread by contrast, each baker will get involved in every stage of the baking – some even sell it themselves at farmer’s markets, taking the feedback from customers straight-back into the bakery to keep on top of their game.

You definitely get the impression that BreadBread are clearly putting some old school craft and skill back into bread baking. It is, after all, an ancient profession and they are really dedicated to replicating those tried and tested techniques albeit with a modern twist. ‘People haven’t been doing things for 2,000 years for nothing’ says Bridget abruptly.

The renaissance of real bread – spearheaded by companies like BreadBread – is comparable in some ways to the explosion of popularity in small batch breweries. And like craft beer, it’s being driven in part by a growing number of discernible consumers who want to taste a product that honours those finely crafted techniques and traditional flavour combinations.

We left BreadBread with our bags full of fresh loaves – beautiful Pagnotta, Cafoni, Panuozzi – and celebrating how real bread, previously the culinary highlight of a European holiday, is now becoming a staple here too.

Fancy biting your way through 2,000 years of baking history? Then you can try all of BreadBread’s loaves on Farmdrop.

Say no to sourfaux? Here’s 5 reasons why you’ll never find real sourdough at the supermarket.

Did you know you can bring a stale loaf of bread back to life? Bridget shares her secrets for getting the most out of your loaf.

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