As the child of a German mother, I grew up with German food. Not pretzels and Currywurst–which is essentially street food–but liverwurst and salami, jam and Nutella and Pflaumenmuss (plum butter), cheeses, Bratkartoffel (fried potatoes), Milchreis (rice pudding), Hanuta, Milka, and Kinder eggs, and of course, lots of bread. Germans eat bread with toppings for both breakfast and dinner; in fact, the German word for dinner, Abendbrot, means evening bread. (The hot meal of the day is lunch.)
As a result, I became aware at a young age that German bread and American bread were very different. In Germany, you could find a bakery with an unbelievable range of breads, rolls, and cakes every two blocks. The bread was crusty or chewy and whole wheat and rye breads were common. Picking up a loaf on your way home from work or getting your Sonntagsbrötchen (Sunday rolls) and a pastry fresh on Sunday mornings was completely normal. American bread, by contrast, was soft, limp, and white, made tolerable only by toasting, and something you picked up from the supermarket during your weekly shop because it wouldn’t grow stale for ages.
Throughout my teenage years and twenties, one of the first things I would do whenever I visited Germany was buy a loaf of Schwarzbrot, a generic term for a crusty brown bread made of some mixture of wheat and rye flours. Schwarzbrot is beyond ordinary in Germany, but seemingly impossible to replicate in any other country.
Of course, you can get good bread in the US–from independent bakeries and from higher-end grocery stores like Whole Foods. But the standard loaf of bread is still a plastic bag of sliced white, while in Germany the cheap and ordinary supermarket bread has about the same taste and crumb as America’s artisan breads.
I found the situation much the same when I immigrated to the UK: soft, white bread everywhere with not a chewy crust in sight, and everything else confined to a few “artisan” bakeries. This surprised me, as most European countries I had spent time in also had a culture of buying fresh bread from bakeries, though perhaps not to the same extent as Germany.
So when I was recruited to a new student sustainability think tank, Six Degrees Edinburgh, this January and assigned to a project related to local flour production and bread baking, I was excited for the opportunity to learn more about how Britain’s bread culture came about, and the people who are trying to revitalise it. The client was Scotland the Bread, a community benefit organisation dedicated to improving the quality and sustainability of Scotland’s wheat and flour. As home baking exploded in popularity during the pandemic, StB struggled with the cost (in pounds and carbon) of small-scale delivery to individual home bakers who wanted their flour. Our team at Six Degrees Edinburgh agreed to research and analyse alternative delivery options to expand access to the flour without increasing the environmental impact and ideally, the cost of delivery.
Most of the UK’s wheat is grown by conventional, non-organic methods and about 80% of its bread is produced using what is called the Chorleywood bread process. This process skips traditional slow fermentation, cutting down on the amount of time required to make a loaf. The use of white flour and the Chorleywood bread process also cuts down on the nutrition and flavour of the bread.
Of course, Germany also has mass-produced breads. Its bread culture faced major challenges throughout the second half of the 20th century, as fewer younger people were attracted to baking as a profession. The more recent, growing trend in Western countries favouring local, organic foods and independent businesses has pushed back against this decline. In spite of the challenges posed by a mass-produced food industry, Germany has retained wide availability of nutritious and diverse breads because of its pre-existing food culture, in which bread is central and bread quality matters.
It is this type of culture that Scotland the Bread and initiatives like the Real Bread Campaign seek to build in the UK as well.
It starts with better grain. I had previously assumed that all wheat is the same. In fact, there are many wheat varieties, some of which grow better or worse under certain conditions or in certain parts of the world. Scotland the Bread’s first goal was to develop a wheat “landrace,” a mixture of wheat varieties typical of and shaped by the land it is grown on in Fife. They write of their wheat:
“We have to thank Andy Forbes of Brockwell Bake Association in London for scouring gene banks round the world for tiny samples (typically 10 grams or less) of ‘accessions’ bearing the name of Rouge d’Ecosse. He also identified Golden Drop and Hunter’s as plausible ‘Scottish’ heritage grains.
A total of 13 small packets of wheat seed across the three varieties were germinated under controlled conditions (‘vernalised’) by Mike Ambrose at the John Innes Centre in Norwich and the resultant seedlings brought up to Scotland in March 2013 for growing out on four farms in the Borders, East Lothian, Perthshire and Aberdeenshire. Each year the grain was harvested and re-sown, with the majority being grown at Mungoswells in East Lothian.”
As the wheat is resown year after year, the balance of populations making up the landrace adjusts over time through natural selection to the local soil and weather conditions. The grain and the flour milled from it are unique. The wheat also has much higher levels of micronutrients than conventional varieties. This fantastic piece of practical bioarchaeology completely won me over – tracing Scottish food heritage, reviving extinct plant varieties, and making bread tastier all at the same time.
In addition to better grain, Scotland the Bread makes better flour by using an innovative cyclone mill (perhaps not surprisingly, of German design) that produces wholemeal flour with the nutrition of whole grains, but the finely-ground texture of white flour. (It can even be used in cakes! I for one would love to try a wholemeal cake.) The mill has an inherently limited throughput, preventing this flour production method from ever being scaled up for mass industrial use. But it is small and inexpensive enough to fit into an integrated, sustainable local food supply chain: wheat grown organically on regional farms, grain milled fresh on site or transported to community bakeries for milling there, and flour baked into bread daily. This vision may seem idealistic now, but economic transformations of this kind are necessary not only for wheat, but for many, many other things we consume. We need pioneers like Scotland the Bread and Six Degrees Edinburgh to start imagining and building alternative ways of doing things if we want the Earth and humanity to have a future.
It’s a good moment to build a bread culture in Scotland. The popularity of home baking rose steeply during the pandemic, and more people are getting interested in flour quality, making their own sourdough, and local economies. A number of excellent bakeries have popped up in Edinburgh in recent years–my favourite among them being The Company Bakery, whose sourdough rivals anything I could get in Germany. Hopefully these new trends will grow and bread fans like myself will have both tastier breads and better flours for our own homemade loaves readily available soon.