“I have a real problem with foodie culture,” Harry said to me. “I see people who are just scraping by, and it really offends me that good food is associated with celebrity chefs, posh bread, coffee table books and designer kitchens, not with survival.” Harry volunteers with refugees. They exist on the margins, behind doors […]

“I have a real problem with foodie culture,” Harry said to me. “I see people who are just scraping by, and it really offends me that good food is associated with celebrity chefs, posh bread, coffee table books and designer kitchens, not with survival.”

Harry volunteers with refugees. They exist on the margins, behind doors that look normal to the naked eye, but are actually portals into a parallel city, where there is no work, no opportunity, no going out. No life to speak of. They’re waiting, and they wait for years. But it was his passing comment about posh bread that stuck a blunt, buttery knife into my heart. I’ve often called myself a bread snob. I’ve been to parties where the conversation is straight out of an old Two Ronnies sketch. “Dwahling, I simply couldn’t survive without proper bread!” “Oh, I know, my wife’s focaccia is to die for!” Suddenly I wondered, how could I be so callous as to claim that bread had to be interesting, rather than just sustaining?

A week later, ten people are arranged behind trestle tables, learning to make bread. We’re at the Victoria Community Centre on Stafford Road, between Park Hill and Norfolk Park, where Kim Swan, an irrepressible evangelist for real bread, is our guide. A baker, Kim says, is always trying to make the perfect loaf, but dreads actually attaining their goal for fear of never being able to repeat it. The more you think about bread, the more amazing it is. Basically it’s a mixture of flour and water, only distinguished from wallpaper paste by an artful combination of time and heat. All the rest – the flavours, the shapes, the styles of kneading – are personal preferences and superstitions, but there is something ancient and alchemistic about transforming a sticky mess into a glorious life force with which your family can survive, commune, trade and celebrate.

‘Plastic bread’ is a result of trying to shorten preparation time and massively extend shelf life, and machine processing of flour has also been blamed for the seemingly unstoppable growth of gluten intolerance (coming soon to an intestine near you). By contrast, ‘artisan breads’ are crusty, tasty, and look like stones that have been shaped as they’ve tumbled down the twin rivers of middle-class picnics and champagne socialism into their mighty confluence – the farmer’s market. But the idea of good bread as a luxury and plastic bread as a dietary staple is pretty daft when you think about it. Real bread is much more nourishing, and for that reason alone we need to make it available to everyone.

Making real bread is easy in principle and infinitely variable in results. Everyone’s experience of making it is different and when you meet a fellow breadmaker it becomes a talking point as essential as the weather or the telly. Plastic bread is impossible to make unless you happen to be a big factory, and so it’s very hard to talk about. What real bread does that plastic bread doesn’t is this: it shapes our world, our lives, our rhythms, our relationships. Sheffield may not have a real bakery on every street, but I’m sure I’m not alone in carrying a mental map of where the decent bread is to be had, whether it’s a reassuringly expensive fougasse from Seven Hills on Sharrow Vale Road or a huge, wonderful and amazingly cheap flatbread from Ozmen on London Road. Let’s be honest, most of us are usually structuring our days around where the next chunk of bread is coming from. And just as a perfect stottie can lift the mood and banish the clouds, so a flaccid tube that calls itself a baguette but turns out to be papier mâché can bring our hopes for the day crashing down like broken plates.

Which brings me back to the people living in half-way houses without a half-decent income. Real bread isn’t something to gaze at through the TV or the window of a shop that you know you can’t even afford to acknowledge exists. We may have the technology to survive without it, but what kind of a life would it be? We’d all be refugees.

Victoria Centre
Real Bread Campaign

Photo by Rudy Bustamante

Andrew Wood.