I meet Justin while I’m volunteering at an organic farm in Fife, Scotland. He’s here three nights a week to bake organic bread for the farm’s café and shop. By day he works a full-time day job at Marks & Spencer. I ask if I can join him on one of his baking nights. On a Sunday at five p.m. we start mixing and rolling. Justin enthusiastically takes me through every step. I get my hands sticky on every dough. We bake five batches in almost four hours. When we’re done, I know why supermarket bread has such a ridiculously long list of ingredients.
Before Marks & Spencer, Justin worked as a head baker at the Whole Foods Market in Glasgow. He and most other ‘senior’ staff were made redundant because the store wasn’t making enough money. ‘It’s really difficult to get a job in baking. Most of the smaller bakeries closed down because of the supermarkets.’
In 2005, Justin and his wife started their own organic bakery, selling to retailers and occasionally on markets. During the credit crunch, organic was one of the first things that retailers ditched from their shops. Within four months, Justin lost 40% of his clients. When two of his remaining clients canceled on him as well, he could no longer make it through the quiet winter months. He and his wife shut down their business before they’d have to declare themselves bankrupt.
Justin still dreams of his own bakery. But next time he’ll be selling directly to the people eating his bread, not to retailers.
In a previous life, Justin was employed by a supermarket chain’s bakery department. What he tells me doesn’t shock me. Well, OK, it does a little bit. I just find myself baffled at the thinking and the energy that goes into producing the life out of food.
Here it is, the art of supermarket bread:
Supermarket bread often contains soy-flour. Soy-flour takes up more water. More water means more weight. More weight means more money for less loaf. More water also means more mould in the bread more quickly. So in come the anti-moulding agents. Supermarkets are also in a rush to get the bread baked. Time is money and there’s just not enough time to let dough rise properly. So in come enzymes to speeden up the process. Enzymes to speeden up the process make the dough stickier. This means it sticks to the machines that fully automatically process everything. And cleaning takes time. And because time is money, in comes a compound—made from Turkey feathers—to stop the dough sticking to the machines. Allegedly, the enzymes that speeden everything up get destroyed while the bread bakes. So supermarkets don’t have to add them to their list of ingredients.
The list probably goes on for much longer, but this is what I remember.
We wonder why more and more of us are getting ‘wheat intolerant’ and allergic to gluten. Maybe it’s not so much the wheat. Maybe it’s the overprocessing, under-baking and overconsumption of fast-grown, fortified and modified wheat. With all that mutilation of—in essence—a beautiful craft, no wonder our bodies are protesting.
Justin is not likely to bake supermarket bread again.
I write to Justin to ask if I can post his story online. He happily says yes, and he adds a request: ‘Could you add a link to The Real Bread campaign? I’m a big fan of what they’re trying to do.’
With pleasure Justin: Breadmatters.com