Although it may often be overlooked, bread is one of the most interesting parts of our diet. And let me tell you, it is certainly the oldest.
We have been eating bread ever since we began to cultivate plants and that is a very, very long time ago… something 30,000 years to be exact. Bread, in all its forms, also transcends culture. There isn’t a single civilisation on this planet that has ever lived that hasn’t eaten bread in some form or another.
So next time you are on a carb kick and are craving a piece of toast like nobody’s business, you can sleep well at night knowing that we were kinda born to eat bread, so stick that in your pipe and grab yourself a bagel.
Standard bread is made from five simple ingredients; flour, sugar, salt, water and yeast. No really, that’s it.
The yeast, which is the part that makes the bread rise, is a microscopic fungus which grows when you feed it sugar and produces gas. Yum. To active the yeast, you add it to tepid water which is mixed with the sugar. You then add this to the seasoned flour. The baker will then bring this into a dough using his hands. It is then kneaded to stretch out the gluten to make that wonderful texture we know and love.
Once the baker is happy with the texture of the dough, he will shape it and leave it to prove somewhere warm. This allows the yeast to activate and puff up to make the bread double in size. This usually takes an hour or two. The bread is then kneaded again to remove all the air pockets before being proved once more and being chucked in a hot oven to bake and fill the room with that celestial scent.
But do not let the simplicity of the ingredient list lead you into a false sense of security. Bread making is an art, and anyone who has ever watched Bake Off or an episode of Chefs’ Table over on Netflix will know that making that perfect loaf is no walk in the park.
Things like how much sugar, the temperature of the water, the age of the yeast, cooking time, proofing time, background humidity (or dryness), oven temperature, oven time, even the temperature of your sodding hands can ruin a loaf. Bread making, to put it bluntly, is mental, which is why it is something that some people, and generations before them, have dedicated their lives to it.
Manchester has gone a bit Sourdough mad recently, which I will go on to talk about in just a second, but if you want to taste simple leavened bread done proper, The Bread Factory makes an absolutely stunning Boule de Meule– which is a simple white cob and is everything it should be and more. Their Tiger Bread is cracking too.
Trove is probably my best all-rounder in the city for bread hands down. They make all sorts of different kinds of bread which you can buy at loads of different places across the city. Alternatively, you can pop into their Levenshulme brunch-spot for one of their things-on-toast breakfasts and a real taste sensation.
In recent years, it seems that everyone has forgotten that regular bread even exits. Sourdough is an absolute buzzword in the food industry right now, and anyone who is anyone is making sourdough. But just in case you are ordering your poached eggs on toast without any knowledge of what the term actually means, I am going to give you the low down.
If you cast your eyes up a couple paragraphs you will find the bit all about the yeast. Most bread is made with just baker’s yeast, but sourdough uses a combination of yeast and lactobacilli acid which gives a mildly sour taste which is not present in most other breads.
Sourdough uses bacteria and fungus to help make the bread rise, and the inclusion of a bacteria technically makes this process a fermentation. A sourdough starter must be made to kick things off. This is sort of the ‘mother’ of the bread, as once made, it keeps growing and growing and can live for years and years. Some sourdough starters can be anything up to 25 years old and beyond.
The starter needs water and sugar which is metabolized by the yeast and the bacteria which subsequently creates carbon dioxide as a by-product which makes the bread rise.
Because of the rate the bacteria and yeast consumes the sugar, this results in quite large pockets of gas in the bread. Therefore, sourdough has characteristic big holes in the centre of the bread (a bit like a Swiss cheese) and a hard, crispy, chewy top. How’s that for a bit of science? That’s enough for me I need a nap now.
Here in Manchester, there are a few big names for sourdough and I really cannot choose between them because their bread is all utterly fantastic.
Pollen is home to the world-famous oat-porridge sourdough loaf which is lovely and sweet. This is a welcome contrast against the slightly sour tang of the bread itself. On another note, their croissants are probably the best I’ve ever tasted, and I include the ones I have eaten in Paris and Vienna in that statement so you know I’m serious.
Also in Ancoats is Campiano Bakery which is home to a lovely loaf called the Northern Rose which uses a blend of local flours which I always think is a nice touch. Their Salford 5 Seed is topped with rye chops, linseed, poppy, pumpkin, sesame and sunflower seeds which gives a fantastic texture.
I also came across something I had never seen before over at Albert Schloss a few weeks back. They have a German vibe, and so are big into their enriched doughs at their onsite Bake Haus.
They have lovely buttery Pretzels which are worth a trip on their own, but the thing that took my interest was the Sourdough Brioche Buns which they serve with their Wurst. This is a delectable combination of tangy sourdough and brioche which has added eggs, butter and milk to make it creamy and sweet. This was a gorgeous, unique combination I had never come across before- and it is safe to say I was thoroughly impressed.
When I say that bread transcends culture, I do not mean that it is exactly the same in every part of the globe. In much of the world, mainly Asia, the Middle East and the Americas, much of the bread is flat. This is sometimes called unleavened bread as it is lacking in a raising agent like yeast.
A quick Wikipedia scan can show us that there are roughly 120 known different kinds of flatbread, so move over sourdough, I reckon it is safe to say these yeast-free breads are the most eaten in the world. It seems as long as there is flour, water and something hot to cook it on/in- we are going to call it bread.
Due to the fact that there are so many, I am just going to pick out a few of my favourites and tell you a little about them.
As I’m sure you are aware, the cultures of the Middle East eat lots of flatbread, with it’s simplest forms using just flour and yoghurt (or water, or milk) which is cooked on a hot plate for under a minute.
These are then used for mopping up a sauce, or to form the base of something delicious like a Kebab. Head down to Electrik for an incredible flat bread experience from Yadda Yadda.
Pita also comes from this part of the world, and this bread does have a little yeast in it to make that characteristic puff which creates a pocket of air which is usually hotter than the flames of hell.
My best pita in the city is from Jasmine down in Chorlton, which has to be Manchester’s greatest hidden gem. If you don’t believe me just head down for some freshly baked pita and a side of their Baba Ganoush.
If there is one country that is king (or queen!) of the flatbread, it would have to be India. They have so many different kinds I could probably write an entire guide on them…which I think I just might.
To save content for that, I’ll just give a little shout-out to Asha’s for their fantastic Tandoor baked Naan Breads– honestly, it is yeast-free bread at its very best and perfect for mopping up a curry.
Of course, I’m only skimming the surface of the bread world here, and have only just started to prod the wide range of fantastic (and different) products available in the city.
It may be a point to re-visit bread at some point in the future, looking at tortillas, bagels, baguettes, milk roll, ciabatta and all of the hundreds more that you can think of in your head right now.