By Rachel Walker
Most trends are progressive. But bread is different. Since the heyday of pre-sliced, uniform, factory-made-bread, baking trends have been travelling back in time rather than forwards.
My interest in bakery trends began three years ago, when I attended a lecture by American chef and sustainable food activist, Dan Barber. He described an emerging movement amongst bakers in the USA. They'd started questioning the wheat monocultures which had dominated for decades – they questioned the wheat's nutritional value and its flavour, and started to investigate what existed before monocultures took over.
They began tracking-down neglected, near-extinct heritage grains. Lots of the bakers discovered that the bread which it produced tasted delicious, and was nutritionally superior to bread made from mass-produced flour. So they started growing wheat in their back gardens and investing in home-millers, and reasserting control over the bread baking process from start to finish.
I watched, with keen interest, as sourdough – the oldest form of leavened bread – exploded onto the London restaurant scene. Its universal success showed a similar questioning, a similar search for something more nutritious with more complex taste than the pappy bread rolls which had filled breadbaskets since the Chorleywood Process was developed in the '60s.
Specialist bakeries, like E5 Bakehouse and St John, led the way, with loaves often changing hands for £5 and upwards. And sourdough-making began to take root as a serious hobby. A market for specialist starters – like Vanessa Kimbell's fresh sourdough starter, taken from a 200 year-old culture in France – emerged, and rumours of die-hard sourdough makers asking friends to 'babysit' their sourdough starter while on holiday, began circulating.
With every month that goes by, the baking trends in Britain mirror those described by Barber more and more. There's a rejection of modernity – forget uniform loaves or more efficient mass-production methods. Instead, baking enthusiasts are reviving specialist grains, Lammas Fayre, and are applying the 'farm to table' movement to grains and bread.
It's easy to see parallels between the coffee movement, and Britain's nascent wheat movement. Flash back a few decades, and a teaspoon of instant granules was the accepted norm for a cup of coffee. Now the level of connoisseurship has catapulted so far in the other direction, cafes not only provide details on coffee bean origins and taste profiles, as well as offering numerous different-style coffees and specialised brewing methods, but many now have on-site roasteries (Caravan, Nude, Ozone), to assert even more control over the process.
The parallels lie with pioneer bakeries like E5 Bakehouse and Silo, who both mill on-site. It's not just commercial enterprises who are forging out a new future for bread. Home cooks are also investigating the benefits of embracing the old-style method of growing and milling grains –Patrick Thornberry, director of BakeryBits Ltd, has seen a steady year-on-year increase in demand for home-use grain mills.
So forget about toast as we know it. If these trends are anything to go by, the toast section of a brunch menu could be as elaborate as the coffee section. Instead of a regular slice of Hovis, the order of the future might be: 'Medieval Peasants Blend Miche, with butter on the side..."
Photo Credits: E5 Bakehouse (http://e5bakehouse.com/)