In defence of bread

You may have come across Michael Pollan’s book In Defence of Food, a wry and fascinating critique of the dangers of the ideology of nutritionism where we hapless and relentless seekers of good health (or is it really immortality?) spend our lives sacrificing taste and joy for recommended daily allowances of vitamins and minerals; where we obsess over nutritional labels about additives and adulterants, contaminants, calories and levels of omega-3s, about sweeteners and salt and, yes, that most satanic of forbidden substances: carbohydrates.

Since reading Pollan’s book some months back (he’s also the author of The Ominvore’s Dilemma, a brilliant guide to healthy eating), I’ve started to chill (excuse the string of bad cliches), stop feeding my (nutritional) obsessions and start appreciating food. There’s an argument to be made that the main reason the French have such low levels of heart disease is because they actually enjoy their meals, savouring the pleasures of smell, taste and good company (drinking red wine is a part of this process).

I realised how far I had come the other day when dropped off my latest purchase: Healthy Bread in 5 Minutes a Day by Jeff Hertzberg and Zoe Francis.

The book presents a whole new universe of artisan breads; simple, wholesome and delicious. Their “master recipe” works perfectly every time and, thanks to a few neat tricks, every loaf I’ve attempted has risen to the occasion, and then some.

So carbs are finally back on the menu at the Cohen residence and it’s been an epiphany. There’s something deeply satisfying about baking bread. Unlike cooking, baking bread is, in my view, an authentic process of creation, of nurturing, a soft and mindful experience that starkly contrasts with the rest of our lives (I am assuming there are no Buddhist monks reading this).

The wonder of the book is that it allows one to frolic freely with bread, but within the “artisan” framework of stone-ground, unrefined flours that actually enhance the taste. So the nutrient richness of the wholegrains is a sort of free pass, effectively masked by the heavenliness of the freshly-baked product.

OK, I can see the queues of people standing before me screaming “fuck off,” you say, “we’re gluten intolerant”. My take on this is that you’re very likely blaming the wrong culprit. It’s not wheat/gluten that your body can’t stand, it’s the crap they put into the industrially-made bread on the supermarket shelves: the yeast accelerators, the bromide (a carcinogen), the additives and the preservatives. No wonder your body freaks out. Try making your own bread.

Tonight’s bread was made with sweet potato, organic rice protein, olive oil and flaxseed. Tomorrow’s loaf is a grain extravaganza: rye, brown bread, wholewheat and quinoa …

If you’ve ever tried to make a “health” bread rich in wholegrains, seeds, nuts etc, I bet your big disappointment was that, invariably, they turned out heavy, brick-like, resulting in silent grimaces and exhausted jaw muscles at the dinner table. Great breads should always be light and airy, and Healthy Bread in 5 Minutes a Day makes this possible no matter how dense your ingredients. I’m tempted to tell you the trick, but in a world where copyrights are stolen every day and intellectual property abused and ignored, I think the honourable thing to do is to point you to their website:

The other big trick in the book is this: you can make extraordinary nutritious and delicious breads without any kneading. I kid you not.

So bread is now, officially, off my hit-list, and I am feeling — and spreading — the joy.