For the good of our health, we need to amend a little piece of scripture.
Instead of “And give us this day our daily bread”, we need to get a bit more specific.
We need to implore: “And give us this day our daily bread, but please make sure the flour has no “improvers”, and make sure it’s made by hand rather than by a machine, and with a long slow fermentation so that the good lactic acid bacteria can develop, and make sure it isn’t that gunky, gloopy stuff that real bakers call ‘water standing upright’. Amen”.
We neglect the quality of our staff of life at our peril. Travel to countries that would be regarded as the poor cousins of international cuisine – I’m thinking of Germany, here – and just look at the attention paid to sourcing good bread.
Germans may be hooked on the heavy discount chains for a large element of their food shopping, but when it comes to their daily bread, they patronise the country’s excellent specialist, bespoke bakeries.
We used to have local bakeries like the Germans, until thirty years ago when the supermarkets started a bread price war to build their market share, and the bakeries were wiped out over the following twelve months. Industrially produced bread has become the norm in Ireland, a system that the great English baker Andrew Whitley believes “produces bread that more and more people cannot and should not eat”.
But now, the bakeries are coming back, and we should rejoice, for nothing is so pivotal to the good of our health as being able to get our hands on pure, unadulterated, healthful bread.
The renaissance was begun by Declan Ryan of Cork’s Arbutus Bakery, whose masterly sourdough loaves are amongst the great shining stars of modern Irish food. But others have been signing up to the bread crusade in recent times: Pascal Gillard and Sinead McGuire in Jinny’s Bakery in Leitrim; Soul Bakery of Nangor in Dublin; the Village Bakery in Terenure; Oldtown Hill Bakery in Kilkenny; Kerr’s Kitchen in Meath; The California Market Bakery in Newry; Blazing Salads Bakery in Dublin. All of these fine bakeries create the breads we need not just for epicurean pleasure, but also for the good of our health.
And to get a sense of the zestful passion of this new generation of bakers, you need only head down Pearse Street in Dublin to the corner of Grand Canal Quay, where Owen Doorly’s three-month-old bakery, Il Valentino, is already doing brisk business.
Mr Doorly spent 15 years in Italy working in the coffee business. Whilst there, he absorbed the pivotal role of bread – and bakeries – in Italian eating.
“In 25BC there were 329 artisan bakeries in Rome alone!”, he says. “In Italy, top quality food has to be the norm, and part of a daily routine. I’m not talking about fancy restaurants with squared plates and double-storey servings of 25 ingredients. I’m talking about simple food, healthy, alive, full of the nutrients we need, great food that isn’t a luxury”.
Making high-quality bread the very staple and backbone of our eating, rather than a luxury product with a high price tag, is Mr Doorly’s ambition.
“Bread isn’t a luxury, it shouldn’t be a luxury, it should be for everyday”, he says, But the state of our own daily bread has become so contaminated with artificial ingredients that Doorly had to go right back to square one in order to get the unadulterated flour he wanted to work with in order to make an unadulterated bread.
“The problem was ingredients”, he says, which has meant importing Italian-milled flour, and creating an Austrian-designed water purification system in order to restore to Dublin water the energy and purity needed for high-quality bread making.
“We turned Grand Canal water supply into Evain!” he jokes.
The result is a bakery – sited underground from the shop and the bright café on the first floor – that offers breads with a directness and focus of taste, and a complexity of texture and crust, that make you feel very good indeed.
Unlike muscular, powerfully-flavoured sourdoughs and weighty seed breads, these Italian breads are canvases that frame the ingredients you put in or on them, whether that is a dressing of olive oil, or a slather of butter on breakfast toast, or a panorma of tastes lavished on some crostini or bruschetta. The simple ham sandwich is transformed when placed between two slices of their country bread. They are a powerfully healthful halo made from flour, water, salt and fresh yeast, the simple staples of all bread, ennobled by talented Italian bakers.
Like all the best breads, Mr Doorly’s creations inspire not just admiration for their skilful execution, they also inspire respect for the very business of breadmaking itself. “The material simplicity of bread as food is constantly suggestive of its involvement in friendship, hope and transformation”, says Andrew Whitley. But that material simplicity is also of crucial involvement in our day to day health. The new bakers are at last offering us the true staff of life.