I’ve just been to my local food superstore (OK, it’s Sainsbury’s) to have a look at the bakery section, and I’ve come away with a sourdough loaf for £1.50. Two things strike me about this. First, the bread itself. It’s quite crusty, not overly so, and you get a few crackles of crust on the bread board when you slice it. Now I may well be peculiar in this, but the first thing I do when I slice a loaf is to smell it. You can always tell good sourdough from the smell. And this loaf has very little odour at all – certainly not the tang you get from the lactobacillus culture used to make naturally leavened bread.
Then there’s the structure, the crumb. This is a generalisation, but most sourdoughs will have a well-formed structure, owing to the length of time it ferments, which allows the gluten to develop properly. A lot depends on the flour you’re using, but still, the size and regularity of the holes in the crumb can tell you a lot about the bread. This one, again, was not what I’d expect, being very close-textured and soft. Not dense – far from it – but with the sort of light cotton-wool texture that you’d find in any standard factory-produced loaf. As for the flavour – yes, I most certainly could taste the difference.
I don’t, of course, know how they make this bread, or what goes into it (the label is silent as to ingredients, beyond the gloriously unspecific “Inc Flour Treatment Agent”). It may be that they use a mixture of sourdough culture and baker’s yeast to quicken the process. Nothing necessarily wrong with that – I have plenty of traditional French recipes that use this hybrid approach. I suspect, too, that there’s some high-speed mixing involved to develop the gluten quickly. Nothing necessarily wrong with using a mixer, either – I use one myself, though mine is a very different piece of equipment from that which you’ll find a plant bakeries. I also wonder to what extent it’s made in the shop (beyond the final baking) and to what extent the dough is made centrally and shipped across the country first. But whatever the answers, the resulting loaf is a long way from what I and other so-called artisan bakers are making.
The second thing that struck me was the price: £1.50 for a 400g loaf. It sounds fairly cheap, certainly compared with what you’d pay at most farmers’ markets in London. Let alone Borough Market. As I wrote in The Independent on Sunday recently, trying to determine the price of bread is not unlike asking the length of a piece of string. It all depends: on what goes in, in terms of ingredients, on the process involved and, crucially, on the length of time it takes from mixing to baking.
Given the growing interest in hand-made foods, slow food, artisan food, “real” local food – the labels are almost as varied as the products themselves – it’s hardly surprising that the big food retailers want a slice of the action. So Sainsbury’s does the above-mentioned sourdough at 37½p/100g. Tesco, it seems, has a 1kg sourdough pave at £2.20 (ie, 22p/100g). I haven’t tried this, so shall refrain from comment. Waitrose does sourdough pain au levain at £1.42 for 400g (35½p/100g); I haven’t tried this either. I note, however, that the latter retailer is at least open enough to specify the ingredients it uses: “wheat flour, wheat sourdough, water, salt, wheat gluten, yeast, emulsifier mono- and diacetyl tartaric acid esters of mono- and diglycerides of fatty acids, flour treatment agent ascorbic acid”. In other words, it’s factory-made bread that’s been designed with extended shelf-life in mind.
Needless to say, the ethos of the big supermarkets is almost diametrically opposed to what small producers are trying to do. Now I’m certainly not trying to suggest that supermarkets are evil, the embodiment of all that’s wrong with our anomic, post-industrial, me-first society. Perish the thought. But it’s ever so pleasing to know that, for the moment at least the Hill Bakery is able to undercut both Sainsbury’s and Waitrose, with a vastly superior product. And not a diglyceride in sight.