One of the real joys in life is a well baked loaf of bread. The crust, the taste and the texture are something special. The loaf is not overly laden with yeast or gluten and the crust is crunchy, even if a little burnt. The delicate structure and crumb of the flesh of the loaf is soft, yet never soggy or gooey. It holds its shape and texture, yet dissolves satisfyingly on the tongue to release a warm, nutty, motherly flavour. We are staying near a shop that still sells well baked, artisanal breads. But these breads are getting harder to find, at least in France.
For the longest time, industrial scale bakers have been trying to brainwash us into believing that their product, force raised as it is through over-yeasting, violent kneading by high powered machinery and the addition of high gluten flours, with every additive necessary included to sell you more air and less dough, for a given loaf and full of preservatives to make it last a few more days in the distribution depot before it hits the shelves of the supermarkets, is an adequate alternative to the traditional loaf of bread. In fact, they want you to think that their uniform square loaves, with their insipid crusts and under-baked flesh, which collapse utterly under the weight of a knob of slightly cold butter, are a superior product, because of their consistency. Making bread that is consistently bad is sold to us as a virtue.
Industrial scale bread bakers have concentrated on the cost of manufacture, but the result is a loveless offering, whose real purpose is to permit the industrialist to retain more of the purchase price in earnings and profit, while selling the consumer short by passing off something that is not really bread as if it were just like traditionally baked bread. But it isn’t.
The deception is wearing thin, as more and more people begin to suffer with the effects of gluten toxicity, yeast efflorescence and fermentation in their guts and disruption to their digestive systems, not to mention the sudden bursts of largely nutrition-free, high glycaemic index carbohydrates that play havoc with their blood sugar regulation and stress their endocrine systems. The profits are at the expense of the well-being of the consumer. Industrial bread makers will claim that none of this is proven and that their product is perfectly fine, but how hard have they looked for the evidence? Meanwhile, the circumstantial evidence mounts.
Making bread on an industrial scale takes serious investment. It costs a lot of money to make bread this badly. The equipment and processes are not cheap. You have to sell a lot of loaves to pay for the plant and specially modified ingredients. The claimed return on investment is only possible if they sell a lot of this kind of bread, to a lot of consumers, over a long period of time. I can’t help thinking that the better return on investment would have been to eschew the machinery and factories, along with the elaborate supply chains, and to have spent the same amount of money developing local artisan bakeries instead. That would have taken a little more organisation and unity on behalf of the one man bakeries than was forthcoming, at the time.
The biggest surprise for us as a family, visiting France this time, was how bad the croissants, pain au chocolat, brioche and baguettes were. Insipid, limp, soggy affairs, made joylessly on production lines, in far flung industrial units somewhere on the outskirts of every minor city, frozen for transportation and distribution and thawed out in the store, only to be reheated until they became desiccated explosions of burnt pastry flakes or else so fragile that they collapsed on the plate before eating them. You can find these breakfast breads in nearly every supermarket, all over the world, these days. Shockingly, you can now find them everywhere in France, too.
We were alarmed that the French would even contemplate eating such abominations. Surely they, who developed these traditional pastries and breads, in the first place, would have known better. They would have had valid points of comparison and reference to judge these products against, unlike us ignorant foreigners who were so easily duped. However, we found that every hotel and supermarket, every roadside café and motorway services stop, every sandwich shop, even local restaurants now served these fraudulent, fake copies of the real thing. The maximisation of earnings and the reduction of costs have resulted in impostor imitations being the norm, not the exception, having driven out what was once something to be justly proud, as a nation. What was once a culinary delight has now become drudgery for the taste buds and digestion. We noted, with dismay, how few patisseries and boulangeries we could find in Paris. That wasn’t the case, once upon a time. Baking was local.
Ironically, in the past few months our local area in England has seen the arrival of a few traditional bakery shops that have gone back to hand crafting their offerings. They have proven so popular that you can’t even get inside of them, at lunchtimes and in the mornings. They’ve frequently sold all their stock by mid-morning. But what delights! We’ve seen the return of spelt loaves, rye breads, rustic country loaves and all manner of gorgeous fresh breads and pastries. The taste and texture is just how you remembered it as a kid and the stuff lasts for days, simply because it hasn’t spent the first few days in a warehouse waiting for a lorry to transport it to the shelves. It keeps its shape and flavour, melts in your mouth and tastes delicious. This revival in artisan baked goods has proven to be outstandingly popular, demonstrating that when there is somewhere to express their demand, consumers will still opt for the real thing over the fake.
It makes you think about your art, really. We don’t, as a rule, fall for mass produced reproductions of art works, created joylessly by machine in industrial factories. We don’t care for the dehumanisation of the process of making art and artworks. Artisans are still appreciated for their skill, their individuality and their quirks. We love the quality of what they do, earned as it is through constant practice. I wonder if we will witness the reversal of industrial age replacement of fraudulent fakes for products of genuine quality and individuality. There is evidence for and against.
How does caring about the quality of your work, through the acquisition of skill by constant practice, change your art? For the better, I hope.