Our daily bread...with a difference

Bread, in one form or another, has been one of the staples of life throughout the world through the ages, from the primitive flatbreads baked on stones over an open fire to today's sophisticated varieties.

Our daily bread...with a difference

Bread, in one form or another, has been one of the staples of life throughout the world through the ages, from the primitive flatbreads baked on stones over an open fire to today's sophisticated varieties. Indeed so much is it integral to survival that the word has come to mean food and, in Britain, money. The word ‘lord' derives from the Old English hlaford, while the ‘lady' was hlaefdigge, meaning ‘kneader of the dough' or second in importance in the household, while the now obsolete German for ‘employer' was Brotherr, or ‘bread master'.

French Queen Marie Antoinette was infamous - when told that there was no bread for the masses, she is quoted as saying "let them eat cake”. In fact, she was somewhat mistranslated, because apparently what she actually suggested the peasantry eat was "brioche”. Now a type of yeast bun readily available from French boulangeries, but Elizabeth David suggests that in the 18th century it was similar to slightly enriched bread.

We've gone from times when bread was either "white” or "brown” to an extraordinary range available in supermarkets, which sometimes leaves me totally confused! The other more recent development is a return to "artisan” bakers, and a proliferation of specialty breads – some of which are also available from supermarkets with their own bakery, although bear in mind that the mixes for these breads are uniform throughout the country. Of course, as the world shrinks, we're seeing varieties that were once limited to a country or region, and often the artisan bakers are immigrants who bring with them their own regional specialties.

One warning, though…the flour readily available here will never produce a "real” French baguette, because it just isn't the same! Some bakers do import small quantities of European flours and their goods are likely to be closer to what we've tasted and enjoyed overseas.

If you really want something different, seek out either one of the smaller bakery chains or independent local bakers. One advantage is that, generally speaking, artisan bread does not contain preservatives or additives.

Here's a rough guide to the different breads we can buy.

Bagel, a yeasted white dough bread roll, shaped a bit like a donut with a hole; poached in water before baking to achieve a tough, chewy crust.

Brioche, as mentioned, is a light dough with egg and butter which gives a cake-like texture, often sweetened to a greater or lesser degree. Often on the French breakfast table, either as a plaited ‘loaf' or tapered and looking a little like straight croissants.

Ciabatta, in Italian meaning ‘old slipper/shoe', takes its name from its flattish oval shape, with a slight waist – not unlike a slipper sole. It has holes in the crumb and a distinctive, slightly sour taste. It is made from very wet dough, which allows bubbles to form in the loaf, the taste coming from olive oil and malt and perhaps the use of a sourdough starter. But apparently it's not Italian, having originated in Britain some 20-30 years ago!

Croissants, along with baguette, are the firm French favourite but hard to find a really authentic one – again because of the availability of the right flour and the use of fats other than the essential butter! Its shape is like a crescent moon; light, fluffy layers and very, very moreish (not for those with high cholesterol!).

Flatbread covers a range of leavened and unleavened breads from Asia and the Middle East like Chapattis and naan bread from India. Naan is yeasted, traditionally baked in the tandoori oven and tear-shaped. Pitta, originally from the Greece, Turkey, Arabia areas, and available in different sizes can be split to make pockets, which make them good for food on the run or they, too, can be torn up and used to scoop food. Tortillas from Mexico come in to the same general description as do the increasingly popular "wraps”. In Asia and the Middle East, flatbreads are often used as plates or "spoons” for scooping food. Flatbread comes in a range of sizes – and increasingly varieties like garlic pita – but needs to be eaten as fresh as possible and preferably hot.

Focaccia is a thick, light Italian bread, dimpled on top and sprinkled with olive oil and sometimes salt crystals. A bit like a thick pizza base. Can be eaten as is or is delicious toasted and drizzled with olive oil or for toasted open sandwiches. Also good as the base for a fast, home made pizza.

French bread/French sticks are not terms used by the French who seem to have perfected the art of bread making. Baguettes are the crisp crusted, golden, medium-sized sticks, baked free on the tray which leaves them with a bulge in the middle. Baked in roll pans, they are correctly referred to as longuets. The very long, very thin ones are ficelle, which students of French will know is the word for ‘string'.

Larger, hand-shaped round or cylindrical French loaves are usually known as pain de campagne or pain de ménage.

British author Glynn Christian, in his book ‘real flavours' says

"It has long been said French stick breads get their delicious taste from the use of low-gluten soft flour. That is part of it. Far more important is they are proved very much longer than UK or American breads, something you can check by the number of large holes in each loaf…; if baguettes or longuets don't have those holes they are ordinary bread with an attack of pretension.”

Italian breads are dense and floury white loaves with strong, thick crusts. Great to slice, because they don't contain oil, they dry out rather than go stale and then make wonderful toast, the basis for great Italian treats like crostini and bruscetta.

Panini have become the ‘in' thing for lunchtime filled and often toasted sandwiches. They're really quite ordinary but look amazing in the display when filled with colourful foods – sadly by the time you get them at the table, they and their contents have been well squashed in the toasting process! Unfortunately here, they often contain lettuce (instead of it being served on the side) and nobody really likes hot, limp lettuce, do they?

Puglia is a white, crusty Italian bread made with durum flour in an old dough base.

Sourdough, as the name suggests, means that the breads have been leavened by the addition to the dough of some old, soured dough or "mother” or "starter”. You'll get bakers who claim their "mother” is very old and it may well be, with some new dough being added to the original, and sourdough breads can develop a unique character because of this. Lots of different types and flavours, like rosemary and olive, walnut and raisin, potato, kumara etc. (all from the range at Auckland's Wild Wheat bakery).

Sourdough is particularly famous at San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf, where they serve their delicious clam chowder in a sourdough bread bowl, slicing off a "lid”, scooping out the dough and putting the hot chowder in before topping it with the lid.

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