Many food campaigns are born out of disappointment, anger or a sense of injustice. Along with the campaign for free range hen and pig rearing, real ale and sustainable fishing, the movement to bring high standards back to the mainstream baking industry also has its own white knight.
The Real Bread Campaign was established by Andrew Whitley of Bread Matters and Sustain, the alliance for better food and farming, in November 2008. Funded partly by the Big Lottery Fund Local Food scheme and Sheepdrove Trust, as well as Sustain, it sought to raise awareness of the poor quality of industrial and supermarket bread, its low nutritional content and its erosion of jobs, training and education within the baking profession.
Look at the very small print on the back of the average white sliced loaf on the supermarket shelf and you may find yourself astonished that it reads like a chemistry book: dextrose, emulsifier, E472e (mono and diacetyle tartaric acid estirs of mono and diglycerides of fatty acids), agent E300 (absorbic acid), calcium propionate and wheat protein are just some of the unwanted extras.
Real bread should only contain flour (preferably organic, wholegrain and stone ground), fresh water, sea salt and yeast (preferably fresh).
In order to raise awareness of the health issues pertaining to industrially produced bread, which now accounts for 95% of all the bread consumed in Britain, and to celebrate the slowly fermented, handmade loaves that are made by artisans in small communities, where the food chain is short and seasonal, the Real Bread campaign has succeeded in bringing together the great and the good of the baking firmament.
“I originally came along as a volunteer,” Chris Young, the campaign’s Manager told me when I went to see him at the Campaign’s headquarters in the offices of Sustain, north London. ”I was lucky enough to have been offered the job on a permanent basis in July 2009. We now have a membership of 680 people and a following of ten times that size on Twitter.
My work varies from updating “The Real Bread Finder” (the only online directory dedicated to listing the producers and sellers of Real Bread), getting Real Bread making taught in more schools, selling our book “Knead to Know”, campaigning, helping to put Real Bread on the Menu of more schools, care homes and hospitals, raising awareness and encouraging research.
There is currently not enough funding for me to able to travel around the UK meeting bakers, but that is certainly something I hope to do more of in the future.”
By following Chris on Twitter @RealBread I have a daily, if not hourly, update of his work and interactions. All Tweets are accompanied by the hashtag #RealBread, and they bring together bakers, would be bakers, students, housewives, cooks, parents, teachers, millers, food writers and other food campaigners.
It is a global community hub, with tips and recipes swapped, invitations to talks and forums, new workshops announced, courses booked and photographs of golden, crusty loaves shared across the cyberspace kitchen table.
“I am constantly amazed at the sharing and giving community which exists within Real Bread. The campaign has real strength because everyone believes in it. Bread touches every single part of everyone’s life: in Britain 99% of us buy bread every week and 74% of us eat it every day.
Supermarkets have devalued the loaf and skewed our perception of it so that we perceive it to be a cheap commodity. It is a Known Value Item, so supermarkets keep its price low so that customers will deem that particular shop to be better value.
In fact, by buying a proper, well-made artisanal loaf you are only going to be paying a small amount more, but for that you are not only going to eat something that is far better for you, more flavorsome and will last longer, but will also help provide new jobs.”
Members are given a wide array of discounts and incentives, among them a free quarterly magazine, discounted baking courses, books, events and bakery equipment.
The latest edition of True Loaf magazine contains an interesting article about what makes a brick oven different from a conventional oven, an article about wheat grower David Rose in Nottinghamshire, how to manage the intricate and intimate relationship with a sourdough ferment, a Welsh weekend “baketogether”, news, views, debate and events, all written by passionate volunteers.
There is no doubt that with rents forever spiraling, the costs of raw ingredients and fuel rising inexorably and profit margins tightening in equal proportion, many artisanal bakeries are finding it very difficult to survive. Chris is upbeat about the future, however, believing that recessionary pressures are creating different and ingenious business paradigms.
“You will find that the idea of community supported bakeries is now growing and becoming as popular in Britain as it has been in America. Resources can be purchased and paid for by groups of people, coming together to produce good bread that provides jobs for apprentices and bakers.
The Slow Food concept of consumers being “co-producers” is being used in cases where people pay up-front for a certain quantity of loaves over time, so that community bakeries have the up-front cash flow they need to purchase goods.
I think that in the future we will be seeing more artisanal bakeries setting up in pubs and in farm shops: these are natural and organic expansions for businesses that are, at the moment, serving second rate breads.”
From The Handmade Bakery in Yorkshire to the E5 Bakehouse in East London and The Loaf in Derbyshire, I learn of enterprising ways in which passionate people come together to create cafes, community hubs, baking and cookery workshops and even supper clubs.
Jane Mason of Virtuous Bread is training a heavenly host of “bread angels” for whom baking is a catalyst for positive social and personal change. The Town Mill Bakery in Lyme Regis brings everyday people round communal wooden lunch tables to share a crust and a coffee, while watching bakers at work.
The Thoughtful Bread Company of Bath uses locally grown fruit, vegetables and herbs in its creations and The Baker Boys at Winchester market give their left over bread to a local homeless shelter. Laura Hart’s Bakery in Bristol regularly provides opportunities for local people to come and work alongside her and her team to see how bread, cakes and pastries are made for the shop.
The Hobbs House Bakery has been employing whole generations of Gloucestershire families in its bakeries and shops, providing new apprenticeship opportunities every year. It is all these unique initiatives that underpin this quiet revolution: ordinary people, doing extraordinary things to put real bread at the heart of the meal, to lift our eyes out of the shopping trolley.
The working party committee behind the Real Bread campaign meets every quarter and consists of no less than 32 of the industry’s leading professionals, as well as experts from CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale), farming, food festivals, the Soil Association and Landshare.
They are consistently calling for clarification on labelling so that consumers know exactly what it is they are buying. They have just launched “The Real Bread Loaf Mark” which is a sign that promotes all loaves made under the Real Bread banner.
November 2011 saw the campaign heading into its fourth year. As membership increases and news of its activities spreads across the world, there is no doubt that what were once considered marginal voices are now mainstream, commercial ideas.
Artisanal bakeries and classes are springing up everywhere, and although the difficult economic times means they are having to work extremely long hours just to survive, their network of influence spreads.
Just this week Andrew Whitley was awarded the special judges prize at the BBC Food and Farming Awards, and Jane Mason was presented a Community Award by Red Magazine. Real Bread is not just on our table, it’s also at the forefront of news.