The current crisis has prompted a rush on baking ingredients. It shows the daily loaf retains its ancient, essential role – providing sustenance, social bonding and satisfaction
After the early and unedifying bog-roll panic, the real shortage of the pandemic became clear: flour. Dried yeast, inevitably, was the next casualty. Price gougers on eBay were quick off the mark; by the middle of last week, a 1.5kg bag of plain flour (usually about £1.50) was going for £19. A pot of yeast (normally 98p) was almost a tenner. As supermarket shelves emptied, corner shops came into their own. They had stocked these store-cupboard essentials all along – who knew?
The problem is partly operational. About 96% of flour from large millers is produced in bulk for bakers and food manufacturing, and that demand has stayed relatively stable. Demand from home bakers may have doubled, but since it was only 4% of the total, it is not the flour that is lacking so much as the ability to package smaller units in greater numbers. Across the country, most mills are running at full capacity, 24 hours a day. They are producing 4m bags a week, whereas previously they were producing 2m – yet it is still not enough.
Smaller mills – catering to artisanal and microbakeries, as well as offering online orders to domestic bakers – ran out of flour. John Lister, the managing director of Shipton Mill in Gloucestershire, was having a rare day off on Easter Sunday and described the firm’s conundrum. “There is only one speed, and that’s pretty slow. If you tried to speed it up, the flour would become like gravel.” Whereas an industrial mill produces 20 tonnes an hour, Shipton deals in kilos. “In a week, we would normally get about 400 microbakeries, as well as home bakers, placing an order online. We had a hilarious situation where we woke up one morning three weeks ago and found 10,000 orders on our website. At first we were laughing, then we were crying. We had to close down the online shop, but we couldn’t work out how to stop orders coming through. It was like a dyke with a hole in it.”
It may turn out that it is easiest to tackle the problem by supplying shops with larger-than-usual sizes for domestic use, although whether anyone’s enthusiasm for sourdough holds up when faced with a 16kg sack of flour is … wait, what am I saying? People would love that. They would rehome pets just to make space for it.
Bread-making has become our port in the storm. With the world turbulent, unpredictable and, above all else, outside our control, baking loaves has become not only an act of self-sufficiency, but also one of agency: you are creating a place where the old rules still work. But there is so much more to it. Nigella Lawson, the ur-baker of the modern era, who evangelised these skills at the end of the last century, when carbs and slow cooking had fallen out of fashion, understands the impulse. “One of the ways to interrupt anxiety is to let other senses take over,” she says. “Touching things, smelling something, listening. Baking really has so much of that, because when you’re kneading dough, or you’re stirring a bowl, you are really immersed in the world of the senses. And that’s really very important, because otherwise you’re trapped in your mind, and that isn’t right now a very comfortable place.”
Baking gives your day a structure, and fills the bizarre acreage of time that some of us have with manageable yet important waypoints: perhaps you have to wait four hours for your sourdough to prove, but at least those four hours have a beginning and an end. The thing to fight in a lockdown is drift, the sense (as my brother said the other day) that there is no longer any AM or PM, just coffee time and wine time.
Sign up for Word of Mouth: the best of Guardian Food every week
Allied to this is the immense sense of achievement, greater that the simple loaf in front of you. Lawson quoted the marvellous 70s cookery writer Margaret Costa, who was born during the first world war: “It makes the baker see herself in an almost biblical light, as a valiant woman, whose children shall rise up and call her blessed.”
Ah yes, those pesky kids. When you have four walls and even half that number of children, any activity that isn’t just mess, waste or nihilism (CBeebies) takes on a magical quality. You can make biscuits, but that is an hour at most and a ton of sugar. Baking bread can kill the entire afternoon.
Lawson says this is more than a practical pursuit, however: “We all have a nostalgia for the childhood we didn’t have, and you’re creating that idealised space, as well as occupying your kids and trying to keep back the panic you may feel.” It is also – newsflash, social media show-offs – not very difficult. “When I wanted to do [her cookbook How to Be a] Domestic Goddess, everyone said to me: ‘But no one bakes any more.’ I think, for a lot of us who grew up cooking, we thought baking was something arcane and difficult. It’s actually much easier. It’s so much less frenetic. There tend to be fewer things going on than when you’re cooking a meal and have this proliferation of pans.”
I was working up a theory about The Great British Bake Off being very closely allied to the Keep Calm and Carry On nostalgia aesthetic, so that, in a national crisis, baking becomes this quasi-patriotic act. Lawson quickly scotches all that. “I think it’s the opposite. All bread bakers feel united. People are baking bread in many different languages.” This is why I admire Lawson.
The place of bread in culture may have changed over the course of history, but it has never lost its resonance, as the food historian Polly Russell says. “The Assize of Bread and Ale in 1266 was one of the first food-supply regulations, basically adjusting the price of bread according to the price of wheat. It was to prevent people – bakers and millers – from profiteering, and it was socially crucial, because a labourer would be spending about half of their weekly income on bread. When prices go up, tensions go up very quickly as well.”
While there is no modern corollary in food, there is an obvious one in fossil fuels, with political parties vying to peg the wholesale price of gas to the retail price. Pre-industrialisation, bread was society’s fuel and, as such, the driver of civil disorder: the French Revolution and the English bread riots of the 1790s are indistinguishable in provenance, even though their separate outcomes have given them very different profiles. The punishment for fraudulent bakers, who shortchanged their customers by swapping in sawdust or whatnot, was to be dragged by a horse, with the offending loaf tied round their neck – a testimony to the deadly seriousness of the baking business.
Long after we discovered other, more earth-shattering, fuels, the centrality of the loaf to the nation’s wellbeing persisted. Russell continues: “Quite recently, in the second world war and afterwards, there was the national loaf, which was a rationing manoeuvre.” The loaf, introduced in 1942 and abolished in 1956, had a higher level of wheat extraction, so it contained more bran and grain – this not only stretched out wheat supplies, but meant the loaf was more nutritious, if denser, she says. This drab, wholemeal, stolid loaf became the symbol of this drab, wholemeal, stolid life. “It became associated with people feeling depressed,” says Russell.
For seven or eight centuries, white bread was associated with the rich and brown bread with the poor. This flipped in the 60s with the advent of mass production and the Chorleywood process, a method of bulk fermentation that speeds everything up, producing delicious squishy white processed bread that plays havoc with your guts. Thenceforth, white bread was cheap, brown bread less so. In this crisis, we have gone back to first principles – many people prefer the white brea they have made themselves. It is a great leveller.
Some of this is idealised: for one, I don’t find making bread as easy as all that. Homemade bread can be very solid, especially sourdough (Russell’s tip: make sure your starter culture is lively enough by dropping a spoonful of it into water before you start; it should float). Also, my children don’t rise up and call me blessed. They rise up and call me boomer. Yet the loaf has such an important place in our psyche: through it we can trace our society back to its first markets, its earlier moral contracts; making it, we can imagine ourselves back in control, providing for our families, passing on our knowledge; experimenting with it, we can briefly fancy ourselves chemists. It is a still point in a turning world. And you can eat it.