Few things match the joy of a pillowy, oven-warm loaf. Stylist’s Julia Maile butters a slice and pays homage to one of life’s simple pleasures.
Normal social niceties go out the window when there’s one slice of sourdough left in the Ottolenghi bread basket. While we’d happily give away our last Malteser or go halves on a chocolate brownie, when it comes to brioche, it’s every woman for herself. We’d even fight our granny for it, down to the very last crumb.
Few foods provoke such a passionate response in women as the humble loaf. We’ll forgo dessert in favour of pain de campagne and debate the virtues of pumpkin seeds over poppy in our sourdough. We hunt out new varieties of flour, trawling artisan bakeries and local farmers’ markets to discover the perfect spelt or the finest bagels.
So what is it about this basic foodstuff that’s long had us so enthralled? Made simply with four basic ingredients – water, flour, salt and yeast – good quality, handmade bread is one of life’s simple pleasures.
One of the key attractions is the smell; freshly baked bread is undoubtedly one of the most delicious aromas on earth (and according to estate agents will increase the sale price of your property by a cool £1,000). But it goes beyond just making our stomachs rumble. A study published in The British Journal Of Social Psychology concludes the smell of bread baking is not just subjectively pleasant, it also triggers more positive, helpful, kinder, and more altruistic behaviour. Put simply, we’re nicer people when we’re around the smell of baking bread. So if you wish to be surrounded by charming people, start wearing Serge Lutens Jeux de Peau fragrance, which is laced with notes of bread fresh from the bakery.
Another reason we’re so consumed with bread is the sense of drama it evokes. Tearing into a fresh loaf or roll is theatrical; the firm outer crust is broken open to reveal the soft, pillowy texture inside. “We’re obsessed with bread because it’s sexy; it’s soft, satisfying, beautiful, interesting, unpredictable and it smells good,” says Bridget Hugo, founder of Brixton’s sourdough and artisan bakery Bread Bread. “Dough itself is like flesh; sometimes firm, warm and dusted, sometimes cold and damp. It’s alive; it can grow, it can collapse.” And don’t forget the most important thing of all; the taste. Whether it’s eaten alone, or with salted butter, cheese or olive oil, nothing beats the delicious flavour of a freshly baked loaf.
Bread thoroughly deserves to be the object of our affections as it has literally changed the way we live. As one of the oldest prepared foods, our connection to it goes back at least 10,000 years to when our Neolithic ancestors placed lumps of dough on hot stones. It’s credited with enabling humans to move on from their nomadic hunter and forager lifestyles and use grain to become farmers, leading to the formation of towns and giving rise to more sophisticated societies. In Egypt, where bread baking dates back at least 6,000 years, it’s synonymous with life itself. The Egyptian word for bread (aish) shares the same root as life (aisha). Fast forward a few centuries and bread in all its infinite varieties has become a staple food in a vast majority of diets around the world; from chickpea roti in Malaysia and corn tortillas in Mexico to dark rye pumpernickel in Germany and soft wheat baguettes in France.
Closer to home, bread conjures up nostalgic memories of childhood; cheap sliced white sandwiches that stuck to the roof of your mouth, the carb-on-carb delight of a chip butty in a giant bap on a blustery beach or the baguette from the boulangerie devoured en-route to Brittany before you’ve even reached the gite. A straw poll of northerners in the Stylist office revealed childhoods where bread and butter was served with every meal from breakfast to tea. The emotional response we feel now as adults is borne of these experiences. “It’s not the bread itself that you’re attached to, it’s what the bread represents and your associations with it,” says leading UK psychologist Dr David Holmes. “You associate it with childhood; the idea that the smell of bread pervaded homes, which conjures up safe and warm, emotionally positive feelings.” Happy memories of packed lunches, school trips and shared picnics in the park mean bread even holds a special place in our psyche.
Then a few years ago, everything changed. Along came Dr Atkins and more recently Dr Dukan and the rise of the carb-free diet. Suddenly our beloved bread was demonised and we developed a love/hate relationship with the bread basket. Yet numerous scientific studies show that eliminating certain food groups can actually have a counteractive effect; as soon as something is forbidden, we crave it even more. Cue a ciabatta binge topped off with pangs of guilt – an emotion felt significantly more intensely by women than men. Which is all rather unfair as our biological make up means we may actually crave bread more. “Our bodies have natural reward mechanisms for high calorie intake, which is usually in the form of carbohydrates,” says Dr Holmes. If you get a craving for a gruyère roll in the lead up to your menstrual cycle, it’s your body’s way of building up the serotonin levels to help fight negative mood swings associated with PMS.
Bread makes a comeback
Lately, thanks to a rise in artisan bakers, the tide has turned once again. Bread is having a renaissance, with brioche and rye firmly back on the menu. “In 2005 it was really hard to get a good piece of bread. It was like coffee 15 years ago, a staple product that had been destroyed in the Fifties by industrial manufacturing processes,” says Emma King, one of the founders of Gail’s Artisan Bakery in London. “Now, there’s been a huge increase in the number of artisan bakers and we’re seeing more and more customers visiting us daily to buy handmade loaves. They’re looking to avoid the nasties found in mainstream bread.”
Choose the right loaf and you’ll reap the benefits. “Look for whole grains such as wholemeal, granary, wheat germ and linseed,” says specialist dietician Sioned Quirke. “Packed full of fibre, B vitamins, folic acid, protein, anti-oxidants and essential fatty acids, they contain up to 75% more nutrients than refined white bread.” Not only does the added fibre keep us fuller for longer and prevent 4pm sweet cravings, it also helps ward off disease. “The risks of heart disease, stroke and type two diabetes are 30% lower in people who regularly eat whole grains, plus it reduces the risk of developing some cancers.” Good for the body and the soul. No wonder we’re fighting over that last slice of toast.