A Personal History of Bread Part 2. The Artisanal Bread Revolution
During the early seventies, Vermont’s small population swelled with young college educated people seeking a new way of life. Forsaking the bustle of cities and the uniformity of the suburbs, we packed up our VW buses and converted vans and headed north. Vermont was a welcoming place where young couples took up residence in ramshackle cabins and drafty farmhouses. While I put my energies into establishing my teaching career, many people embraced the rural lifestyle wholeheartedly. They planted huge gardens, raised chickens and pigs, chopped and piled cordwood, and read Diet for a Small Planet.
I had friends who ground their own wheat berries to make loaves of whole grain bread so heavy they functioned as ballast in the back of their vehicles during snowstorms. The bread never rose above the tops of the loaf pans and was as dense and coarse as a hay bale. It stayed with you, though. Once you got it down, there was plenty of time for its myriad nutrients to be absorbed into the body, as its high fiber content made its laborious journey through one's digestive tract.
The kids of these friends never worried about smushed sandwiches. A half a dozen apples rolling around in their lunch box were no match for the stout slices of whole wheat bread cemented together with homemade peanut butter that constituted their noonday meal. Fortunately for these kids, not all mothers had read Diet for a Small Planet. Some kids still ate Jif on white bread and enterprising boys or girls might effect a sandwich trade if a homemade oatmeal cookie or two were thrown in to sweeten the deal.
Eventually, most of the Back to the Land moms went back to work, trading their overalls for tailored trousers and silk blouses. The wheat berry grinders were relegated to high shelves or sacrificed at yard sales. People no longer had time to labor over homemade bread, but by then most people's consciousness was raised well above the white bread of my childhood. Demand for good, nutritious bread had to be met and small, local bakers proliferated. The Artisanal Bread Revolution had begun.
The bread produced by these artisans was as varied as the bakers themselves. Some built brick ovens in their backyards, turning out crusty loaves of sourdough that were both tender and toothsome. Others took their cue from the French, producing chewy baguettes that rarely made it home from the shop with both ends intact. Still other bakers perfected the hearty, whole-wheat and multi-grain loaves they'd first made for their families in their own kitchens. Soon, our co-op shelves were loaded with daily offerings in various shapes and combinations of grains.
Like their white bread counterpart, these breads are not without drawbacks. Without preservatives, they require refrigeration and careful storage. Their thick, uneven slices jam toasters and produce oddly sized sandwiches. Often there are holes buried deep in the loaf, openings from which mustard dribbles and hummus escapes. And then there is the price. Great bread comes at a great price. For the cost of one of these august loaves, our mothers could have bought enough white bread to provide sandwiches for an entire platoon of hungry soldiers.
Nonetheless, the bread aficionado's difficulty is not in the dearth of bread from which to choose, but in the plethora of delicious alternatives: Round Boule, olive topped focaccia, broad, flat Ciabatta, baguettes, rustic rolls, Farmhouse white. Yeast breads and sourdough, buckwheat, rye, whole grain, millet. A dizzying array of gorgeous loaves, each one snuggled comfortably in its brown paper bag and stamped with its own artsy label. These loaves are rich in nutrients, yes, but also in flavor and texture. So much more nourishing than your average white bread, these handmade loaves are virtual life support systems, bread that sustains the body and lifts the spirit. The staff of life made manifest.
Yet, in spite of its myriad attributes, artisan bread is currently suffering a crisis of consumer confidence; its fall from favor rooted in the very soul of the wheat itself. Gluten.