A Century Of Mediocre British Bread

When people return to Britain from the continent they are always amazed by how wonderful the bakeries are in Europe.  How come they get a freshly baked baguette or a light and flavoursome ciabatta with a crisp crust and we get a piece of industrial foam wrapped in plastic?  Britain has been exposed to a decline in bread quality for the past century thanks to industrialisation and government interference…

Industrialisation of bread manufacture began to take root at the end of the 19th Century.  By the early 20th Century industrial processes incorporated bleaching and bromating to whiten and sterilize flour, banned in UK since 1997 but still legal in USA despite being linked to cancer and diabetes.

But it was the First World War that led to a real decline in the quality of British bread as flour imports began to dry up.  The government investigated many substitutes for wheat and in 1916 the Wheat Commission restricted bakeries to using a flour made from high  extraction wholewheat flour padded out with barley, rye, soya and potato starch. The new dark War Bread was unpopular but people put up with it.

Then in 1917 the government passed the Bread Order which banned the sale of newly baked bread as it was believed stale bread would encourage people to eat less of it!

In 1930 pre-sliced bread is introduced in the UK, already popular in USA with 80% of bread sold being sliced by 1933.  But despite becoming popular slicing was banned in 1939 as metal was required for the war and it was not until 1950 that the restriction was lifted.

So another world war another bout of flour shortages (by the Second World War 70% of flour was imported).  This time the government hit people with The National Loaf, a nationally uniform bread made from wholemeal flour and the usual starchy padding along with added calcium and vitamins to counter malnutrition.  The bread was so unpleasant it was known as “Hitler’s secret weapon”.  White bread was not available again until 1950 and the National Loaf was finally abolished in 1956.  No one missed it.

Things continued to decline…  In 1961 scientists at the Chorleywood Flour Milling and Bakery Research Association develop a new process for making bread which reduced its cost, made it softer and extended its life.  By adding hard fats, emulsifiers and enzymes along with extra yeast and mixing at high speed under alternating high pressure and vacuum they could prepare a dough quickly from low protein British wheat.  It was intended to help smaller bakeries compete with large industrial bakeries but had the opposite effect.  By the 21st Century over 80% of British bread is made by the Chorleywood process.  An artisan sourdough bread can take 3 days to prepare, a loaf made with the Chorleywood process can be made, cooled, sliced and packaged and out the door in 3 hours.

In the 1980s we saw the rise of bake-off technology.  Basically, part-baking bread in a factory and allowing it to be finished from frozen in a store enables industrial bread to be fobbed off as freshly-baked on the premises.  In the 1990s the Milton Keynes process gave us a part-baked bread that didn’t even need to be frozen prior to being finished.

In 1999 price wars between supermarkets led to the price of an own-label loaf hit a low of 7p.  David Smith, chief executive of the National Association of Master Bakers, statement “There is absolutely no way at that price you are even covering the ingredients used in a loaf of bread. The supermarkets are using large industrial bakers to produce this flour and water rubbish at a low price” pretty much sums up how much the supermarkets cared about the quality of their product.

By the early 2000s fad diets like the Atkins Diet and a rise in people claiming they were gluten intolerant may have seemed to be the final nail in the coffin for British bread.  Bread consumption had been on a steady decline since the start of the 1900s just as the quality of bread had been on a steady decline.  But from the 1970s more awareness of healthy food, quality bread and a rise in artisan bakeries began to reverse the trend.  Small bakeries like the Kuma-San Bakehouse baking slow fermented bread from natural ingredients give you something that is healthy, easily digested and tastes delicious.