Saturday, 11 June 2011

Memories of things past

At just before 1pm this afternoon, as I was strolling back home from the market, bags over one shoulder and in both hands, a noise stopped me in my tracks.

Looking up, military helicopters flew low in formation overhead.

Ah yes – the Queen’s official birthday: Trooping the Colour and a flypast. I love the flypasts. They go right over our tiny garden, only moments from Buck House.

But while any tight formation flying is impressive – and the Red Arrows never cease to amaze – that’s not what I love seeing most.

Bags now on the floor, iPhone out, I waited. And then you hear it. Not like any of the other planes, but a different sound; less a roar, more a hum.

And coming into sight are the real stars: a Lancaster bomber, flanked by a Hurricane and a Spitfire.

They last flew in anger years before I was born. And yet it seems that I know that sound: that humming as the props whir makes my spine tingles.

It is, I think, a sort of inherited, collective memory.

And if anything about modern warfare could be called romantic, then those planes and the young men who flew them have something of that about them.

In our national memory, ‘The Few’ are still in those tin crates, flying by the seat of their pants; defying odds and performing heroics with an apparent lack of care.

Of course, patriotism, nationalism, the weight of history – and in the case of Britain’s history, the sense of having been on the side of the angels for once – can sometimes obscure a rather salient point: bravery is not the sole preserve of any one side in a conflict.

Brave young men died on both sides in WWII, as in any other war. That, of course, is its tragedy.

Today’s flypast was also a reminder that, yet again, we’re up to our necks in warfaring, still snared in the mess that is Afghanistan and now getting ourselves embroiled in Libya.

At least Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair waited a bit before going to war: on the basis of David Cameron’s excuses for this latest adventure, next stop Syria?

It’s amazing how prime ministers seem to be able to find the money for bombs.

But as I was musing on that idea of inherited memory, it struck me that another collective or inherited memory seems to have been lost.

This week, we learned that Chorleywood bread is 50 years old. The process that meant that factory bread could be churned out by the plastic-shrouded ton is something, according to Gordon Polson, of the British Federation of Bakers, that we “should be very proud of.”

“It is a process we invented … UK bread is around the cheapest in the world.”

Here we go again. The great cheapness-over-quality argument.

But there’s more to it than that, as Andrew Whitley explains in a somewhat disturbing article, What have they done to the grain?.

So why do we keep eating this stuff? It doesn’t seem that we really enjoy it.

According to the BBC article mentioned above, “almost a third of the bread bought in Britain – 680,000 tonnes a year – is thrown away.”

A wholemeal loaf in my local Percy Ingle is £1.57. But like sliced factory bread, it’s produced the Chorleywood way. Indeed, a Percy Ingle white loaf stay soft for days – which you instinctively know just ain’t right.

Brief research shows that a Waitrose own-brand 800g sliced wholemeal loaf is 69p. The majority of factory loaves are around the £1.30-£1.40 mark.

Yet if you factor in that stat on thrown-away bread, then the prices are, in effect, rather higher.

In which case, why don’t we pay a little more for something better in the first place, and then not waste it?

The factory stuff tastes of little and the texture is so dismal that it sticks to the roof of your mouth in a mush.

And I don’t buy that business about it making the best toast or the best sandwiches either.

Now at this point I need to ’fess up to my own laziness over bread. I eat little of the stuff and frequently give in to just picking up a factory loaf – because bread is one of those things that you have to ‘have in’. Like many others, they’re rarely used up: they’re mostly a desperation food.

It seems that we have come to use bread simply as the casing or surface for other things – sandwich fillings or a fried egg, for instance. We don’t expect it to actually be worth eating itself.

Yet any time on the Continent would tell you something quite different.

And so I decided to invest a bit more for a loaf of artisan bread this morning and picked up a six-day sour from one of the stalls for the first time. It was just under £3.

It is not, however, going to last long and certainly not going to go to waste, because it tastes wonderful. It has great texture, a good crust and a lovely, nutty flavour. You want to eat it.

The time has come to root out an email from George that includes an easy recipe for a spelt loaf that doesn’t need much proving. I’m going to try to stop being lazy and make bread in the middle of the week.

Once you have good bread, you can use it differently: to dip in good olive oil and Balsamico, for instance. As an alternative accompaniment to a main course, instead of potatoes – and think of the time that can save!

Indeed, I’m going to go and tear some off in a minute and scoop up some more ripe and runny Saint-Marcellin cheese.

But what fascinates me is how we seem to have lost the memory of just how good bread can be.

The Chorleywood method might have made it cheaper to produce bread on a massive scale, but it also put considerable numbers of real bakers out of business. It saw skills lost and taught us to accept an inferior product that’s crammed with stuff that really has no place in good bread.

A quick look at the ingredients of a typical factory loaf (soft, white, thick sliced Waitrose own brand) reveals that it contains the following:

    Wheat Flour, Water, Yeast, Fermented Wheat Flour, Spirit Vinegar, Rapeseed Oil and Palm Oil, Salt, Soya Flour, Flour Treatment Agent Ascorbic Acid.

Which isn’t bad really, since a ‘Warburtons tasty white’ lists the following ingredients:

    Wheat Flour, Water, Yeast, Vegetable Oil, Salt, Soya Flour, Emulsifiers E471, E481, Preservative Calcium Propionate (added to inhibit mould growth), Flavouring, Flour Treatment Agents Acorbic Acid (Vitamin C), E920.

And neither of those lists, as Mr Whitley explains, includes the ‘additives’ that don’t have to be listed because they’re only used to aid the manufacturing process and thus don’t count as ‘additives’.

Like so much else within our current food and retail cultures, we seem to have been taught to appreciate price over quality; to expect everything to be cheap.

It would be worth remembering why the French had a revolution over bread: because when it’s the real deal, it’s bloody brilliant. And let's face it, Chorleywood isn't about to produce any Proustian moments.


  1. I'm embarrassed reading this as I haven't sent you the recipe for spelt bread yet - simply because I don't have it in detailed writing. I only have a list of ingredients, temperature and baking time. Have to get my act together and write out the whole process.
    I've been baking the bread regularly for several months now and can proudly report that the family calls it "George's lovely bread".

  2. George - I thought I had it already, which should make me embarrassed! But as always, George, you remain one of my main culinary inspirations and guides. For which I can hardly find the words to express my thanks.

  3. I like the new look.
    You make a very good point regarding the use of bread for dipping, tasty quality bread makes oils and vinegars taste even better.

    I have just portioned up a chicken to saute with tomatoes and herbs to be served with linguine. Reading your comment regarding bread and runny Saint-Marcellin means i'll be having bread and cheese to finish off the dinner. (Epoisses and Chaource)

  4. For those with a really good memory try this site

    or this

  5. Thanks, David. And glad you like it.