Well bread

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For someone who likes his food on the, uh, fiery side, Yurp is a bit of a culinary desert for me. Oh, I too occasionally have a craving for bland food, you know, like bland asparagus with bland sauce on top, but more often than not, well, not only do I end up asking the horrified waiter for the Tabasco bottle, I turn myself into a bit of a spectacle by the sheer torrent I end up sprinkling.

But one of the things I do appreciate about European food is the bread-and-pastry selection. Enormous selection of varieties, from light and fluffy to dark, sour meal-in-itself kinds of thick bread. Local traditional breads that pertain to a small group of cross-border villages, breads of national pride.

The thing about good bread, though, is that it is basically just good lab chemistry, more so than most other kinds of culinary activities. Which means, of course, that it needs to be exactly precise—-little variations can apparently result in radically different products, as bread goes. That means that trying to do it at home without a specially controlled environment (e.g. a breadmaker) tends to require some amount of skill and effort of a variety that those of us who are happy workers at, oh, a wok or a roasting pan do not always have.

But it is ideal for mass production, because once you have your controlled lab environment built, one need apparently only get the right proportion of ingredients, tweak the right knobs, and get the same result day after day after day.

What this means is that the lady around the corner from my home, running a small independent business, from whom I am getting my occasional morning croissant? Is not baking them herself.

Or maybe she is, in a small industrial oven (although I have never smelled much baking going on), and getting the dough mass production already pre-prepared on baking trays, to make sure of immediate freshness.

This is more or less the state of European bread-making, at least in Western Europe. Tim Hortons-like chain “bakeries” dot the landscape, neighbourhood bakers find it difficult to compete with the economies of scale and capitulate to selling centrally-manufactured bread under their own packaging and occasionally, one or two “real” traditional baker survives.

Oh, the quality on the whole is still quite good. Like I said, bread-making is chemistry, set the parameters and the ingredients correctly, and later, voila. And if there’s one aspect of hi-tech that Europe is good at, well, it’s just-in-time customized mass-production—-so you can get quite a good variety of breads, even, to some extent, popular local types.

But: that’s it. The “natural” evolution of new bread types, the bread whose slight variation you can ONLY GET from the So-and-so family, well, that’s quickly running down. Now any new bread varieties will come from focus-tested from the marketing departments of baking chains. A sort of poly-monoculture (monopoly-culture?).

So if you value bread in the manner of a local specialty, and you wish for independent bakers to be able to both preserve local tradition and experiment without suffering from the detrimental effects of economies of scale, the only answer is a subsidy for independent bakers. One way or another.

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This page contains a single entry by Mandos published on April 14, 2013 10:53 AM.

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