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Loaf me do: How bread became better

Bread making has changed more dramatically over the last few decades than most of us realise

brunch Updated: Sep 10, 2016 22:17 IST
Price bread according to its actual cost and  tell us whether it is real bread or chemically enhanced cheap stuff
Price bread according to its actual cost and tell us whether it is real bread or chemically enhanced cheap stuff(Getty Images)

Sanjay Hegde, the noted lawyer and commentator on national affairs (you’ve probably seen him on TV), tweeted to me some months ago about bread. Why was it, he asked, that the pav of Bombay was always so much better than similar pav breads in the north of India?

It is a good question. And I have no real answer, just suspicions. I wrote last year about bread and specifically, the pav. We have no ancient baking tradition in India and no history of ovens.

So bread came to India from abroad, using two different routes. The first was through Goa. The Portuguese, who conquered the region, missed their own bread. But they found no ovens, no maida and no yeast. So what were they to do?

An ingenious Portuguese baker created the Goan version of the Portuguese pao. (That, by the way, is where our name ‘pav’ comes from.) Instead of maida, he used aata or whole wheat flour. Instead of yeast, he added a few drops of toddy to help the fermentation process. And because proper ovens were hard to come by, he used a simple, improvised oven with a hot surface. When the dough was fermented and ready, he shaped it into a roll (or a rectangle) and put it on the surface. It usually took between five to fifteen minutes and the pao was cooked. (Ananda Solomon, who has studied the cuisine of Goa, compares it to cooking a pizza.)

As time went on, the Portuguese went beyond the basic pao and began to bake a variety of breads in normal ovens. And even today, the many breads of Goa still correspond quite closely to the Portuguese originals.

There was a second route that bread took on its journey to India. There was no maida tradition in ancient India. All the evidence suggests that refined flour (required for more elaborate breads and pastries) came to India from the Middle East as did the oven. Even today, a surprisingly large proportion of bakeries in much of India are owned by Muslims.

The Muslim bakeries of North India eventually took to making versions of the Goan pav after it spread to Bombay and became an integral part of that city’s street food. (Think of pav-keema!) And somewhere along the way, the two traditions fused. For instance, I suspect that most pavs baked in Bombay come from Muslim-owned bakeries and the current generation of bakers has no idea of the Portuguese origins of the bread.

But do they still make it the traditional Goan way?

I wonder.

Bread making has changed more dramatically over the last few decades than most of us even realise.

For instance if, like me, you grew up on the basic white bread that Britannia baked and sold all over India, you probably thought that this was how bread was meant to be. Later, when you noticed that some bakers were selling ‘whole wheat bread’, you thought that this was just a healthy variant. And with the recent mushrooming of smaller bakeries selling dozens of varieties of bread (sourdough, baguette, rye bread, pumpernickel, etc.), you believed that these were merely exotic variants of the normal bread you grew up on.

Well, think again. Because, we didn’t grow up on ‘normal’ bread.

It’s a little hard to explain because bread making is a minefield. It is an intensely complicated subject with a variety of opinions about flour, yeast, oven temperature etc. Nor is it easy to bake good bread. Go to any of the high-priced bakeries in our metropolitan cities and you will discover that while any fool can bake a cake, rare is the man who can bake first-rate bread.

And most of our ideas about bread are mistaken anyway. Take the baguette, that long, thin bread that symbolises French baking in the popular imagination. The caricature French man is a guy in a Breton striped tee-shirt and a beret, with a string of onions around his neck who rides a bicycle, holding a baguette in one hand while whistling Charles Aznavour tunes.

Except that the baguette is a relatively recent innovation. It was born in Paris in the 1920s and took several decades to penetrate the countryside – it did not become popular in some regions till as late as the 1970s. Moreover, a baguette is not the sort of bread that households keep for eating every day. A classic baguette retains its flavour for only about half a day. You can’t really eat it if you wait more than 24 hours after it is baked.

There are as many misconceptions about white bread. In the West, nobody with any interest in gastronomy – or any foodie, for that matter – will eat the sort of industrial white bread that we were brought up on in India.

And that’s not because people frown on mass production. It is because packaged bread is not made the same way as real bread – or at the very least, it is not made the same way as bread has been baked through the ages.

In 1961, the British Baking Industries Research Association, based in Chorleywood developed a new way of making bread. This method, now known as the Chorleywood Bread Process (CBP), allowed bakers to use lower-protein wheat (cheaper) and an assortment of chemicals.

In the old days, bread was made with just wheat, water, yeast and salt. (In an artisanal bakery, it still is – hence the emphasis on the skill of the baker.) This sounds simple but in reality, it is a time-consuming and expensive process.

A A technician tests the quality of flour at the British Baking Association’s research station at Chorleywood. The loaf that came out of the industrial oven in the Chorleywood bread process in the 1960s lasted much longer than bread baked the artisanal way (Getty Images)

With Chorleywood, the dough was made ready for baking quickly and the loaf that came out of the industrial oven lasted much longer than bread baked the artisanal way. It was also half the cost of the traditional method.

There was just one problem. Chorleywood produced bread with none of the complex tastes associated with real bread because these came from a long (several hours) fermentation of the dough. Worse, the texture was soft and squishy. So, if you ate a slice of bread, made the CBP way, it stuck to the roof of your mouth, like plasticine.

No matter. Chorleywood rapidly spread throughout the Commonwealth and today, something like 80 per cent of all bread sold in the UK is made that way. In the US, another industrial process that led to the creation of the Wonderloaf (and the phrase “the greatest thing since sliced bread”) was already in use. And newer processes that also use chemicals to speed up the fermentation have since evolved.

Many people object to Chorleywood because of the synthetic enzymes and chemicals it uses (remember the

recent fuss over potassium bromate?). But I don’t really have a problem with that.

My concern is more fundamental. Now that you can easily prepare your dough with chemicals, Indian bakers no longer bother to bake real bread. Most, or nearly all, use synthetic additives with such names as Bread Improver or Dough Conditioner. I am willing to bet (though I have no proof) that the North Indian pav that Sanjay Hegde complains about is just rubbish Chorleywood-style chemically-enhanced bread shaped to look like a real pav.

Because most people don’t realise that industrial bread is different from real bread, the big bread companies benefit from public ignorance. Full marks then, to Britannia, who, when I asked if they used a Chorleywood-type process, answered quickly, clearly and candidly.

“While Britannia does not refer to its bread-making process as “Chorleywood Bread Process”, on broad terms, the process followed for making breads at Britannia is similar to CBP, ‘’ the company said.

That’s why Britannia bread lasts for five days and is relatively inexpensive. Britannia is not alone. My suspicion is that 90 to 95% of all bread sold in the organised sector in India is made using CBP-type methods. And now, a large proportion of the bread in the unorganised sector is also Chorleywood-style or made with chemicals.

Does it matter? If you don’t like real bread, then probably not. But, if like Sanjay Hegde, you notice that your pav is tasting wrong, then yes, it does.

My ire is not directed against the Britannia/Modern Bakery kind of company which does not pretend to make artisanal bread. It’s the smaller bakeries which pretend to be artisanal but still make chemical bread that annoy me. So do those hotels that charge lots of money for cheaply made industrial bread at their fancy bakeries.

Make bread any way you want. But price it according to its actual cost. And tell us whether it is real bread or chemically enhanced cheap stuff.

I think we have a right to be informed of what we are actually buying.

From HT Brunch, August 7, 2016

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